Why online labs are spreading

Some online labs require little or no equipment, and take up no space on campus

Budget crunches and crowded courses are two reasons online science labs are becoming more popular in higher ed. Some online labs require little or no equipment, and take up no space on campus.

Officials at colleges and universities are seeking ways to move students through the curriculum, but the physical facilities and the number of lab instructors available may not be sufficient, says Robert Desharnais, a professor of biology at California State University, Los Angeles, who helped launch the Biology Labs Online website with Pearson in 2002. “This is especially true in general education,” he adds, “because every student has to take some sort of lab-based life science course. You can see the potential for bottlenecks when budgets get tight.”

Online labs require fewer instructors, and can even be taught by teacher assistants.

The use of technology for remote lab work is most suitable for nonscience majors who need to know about the inquiry and experimentation parts of the scientific process, but not necessarily how to organize a lab or how all the equipment works. That’s because online labs give students more leeway to design their own experiments, whereas in traditional “wet” labs, the experiments are usually predetermined by instructors, Desharnais says. “We’re on a quarter system, and even on a semester system, you have 10 or 15 weeks—you can’t just let students into a lab to start messing around.”

There also is more room to make mistakes—and learn from mistakes—in online labs. “If the students are using fruit flies, and their flies escape or they kill their flies, that’s the end of their experiment,” he says. “In simulations, you can mess up as much as you want.”

For science majors, online labs can be used in conjunction with on-campus courses. And this might lead to more productive class time. “We’re trying to make the flipped lab, where the students actually go out and do the mundane stuff of running the simulations and gathering data on their own, and then they come in and as a group start discussing what their next experiment design will be.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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