While virtual labs have been around in various forms for many years now, their use has recently been thrown into the spotlight with the COVID pandemic as most colleges and universities took their courses online. For many STEM classes especially, a lab component is required. Traditionally, labs have been seen as a way to engage students in STEM courses while teaching them critical concepts and as such, in the minds of many instructors and students alike, a lab component means hands-on, in-person activities. When COVID required even STEM instructors to create digital versions of their courses, the challenge of replicating the lab experience online came to the forefront.
Today there are a number of virtual lab subscription services (Labster, PraxiLabs, etc.) which come fully equipped with complete simulations, virtual lab equipment, ready-made experiments, and test and quiz banks. However, these full-service labs can be expensive and may, therefore, be out of reach for some institutions. To close the gap, some instructors make use of their own digital lab materials such as recordings of themselves conducting demonstrations and experiments. Unsurprisingly, the majority of virtual lab activities take place within STEM courses.
With virtual labs being such a hot topic, we decided to speak to Professor Sarah Martinez at DigiTex member institution El Paso Community College to learn her perspective on virtual labs.* While it can be challenging to make the transition to a use of virtual labs in the digital classroom, Prof. Martinez has navigated this challenge well and seen the good results in her own teaching. We hope you find her story informative and inspirational!
What courses do you teach?
General Biology 1 and 2, General Microbiology (for majors), Microorganisms and Disease (for non-majors), and Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology (for non-majors)
Does your institution have a license for a virtual lab such as Labster, ALEKS, eScience Labs, etc.? If you answered yes, which virtual lab is used at your institution?
What Learning Management System (LMS) do you use for digital course delivery?
What resources do you use to construct your labs (e.g., instructor-led videos, lab kits, virtual simulations, remote labs, etc.)?
I developed instructor-led videos for several labs that are in the EPCC lab manual. As time went on I supplemented my videos with lowcost or free virtual simulations. When our institution acquired a license for Labster I was instructed to use these simulations for my labs.
What process must your students follow to complete a lab?
In my online courses I use a combination of Labster simulations and lab activities I have developed like responses to papers or identifying plants with the iNaturalist app.
In a hybrid course I will use Labster as an introduction to an actual technique they will experience in our face-to-face lab session. I find this helpful since there are less face-to-face
lab sessions when teaching hybrid courses. For example the students will be introduced to pipetting in Labster and then perform the technique in face-to-face lab.
How do you ensure that your virtual labs are meeting course learning objectives?
I select Labster labs that follow the topic that I am teaching in lecture. Several of my colleagues and I have “played” the simulations that we use for particular courses to ensure they fit our learning objectives.
How do virtual labs help to keep your students engaged in a course?
In a hybrid course I feel that the virtual labs are good tools for introduction of techniques. In a completely online course weekly assignments like virtual labs ensure students are logging on weekly so they stay engaged in the course.
How do you measure your students’ learning through virtual labs to ensure that they continue to progress in the course?
In hybrid courses you can evaluate the skills introduced in virtual labs during the class session. In an online course I build low-risk assessments that have a few questions related to the simulations.
What steps do you take to ensure that virtual labs are accessible to all students?
Ensuring that my students have access to the technology needed to complete virtual labs is the biggest hurdle at the beginning of the semester. I am fortunate that EPCC’s Academic Computing Services received a grant during the pandemic that provides laptops, webcams, and hotspots to our traditional students.
What challenges, if any, do your students face when using virtual labs, and how do you address these challenges?
When teaching early-college high school students they are provided computers or tablets by their schools. iPads are often the worst thing that a school can purchase for a student and many schools purchase them which is particularly frustrating. I direct those students to the campus computer labs and offer a bit more flexibility with due dates.
What advice would you give to an instructor who is taking a lab exercise online for the first time?
I recommend that instructors try their best to complete the virtual labs they are assigning. I also am a huge proponent of collaboration. Partner with colleagues who have taught online courses and share materials.
*NOTE: We recognize that each of our member institutions and its instructors uses its own unique solutions for virtual labs. Although the preceding interview mentions Labster, DigiTex does not endorse any one particular solution for virtual lab activities.