Moving your labs and practicals online

Labs and practical sessions enhance learning experience and are indispensable components in many STEM degrees. Not only do they provide the skills required in many STEM workplaces, they ground theoretical knowledge in real world experience and give students a direct experience of the scientific process.

Due to the current global health crisis and the shift to emergency remote teaching, many educators are asking if there are good alternatives to allow us to continue to develop these skills. Of course there is no like-for-like replacement of interacting physically in a lab, but in this article we'll explore ways to harness remote tools to ensure students are still able to develop as many of the required skills as possible from home.

Labs develop a vast range of skills including: experiment design, accurate observation and measurement, following protocol, keeping a lab diary, complying with health & safety, analysis, and team work.

Step 1 - Review learning outcomes

The learning aims for a lab can often seem implicitly obvious, however by explicitly stating these and breaking them down into specific learning outcomes it can be easier to identify which outcomes can still be achieved in a digital format.

  1. Define learning aims - why are you delivering this lab? We've outlined three core aims for labs in our table below but you might have others
  2. Describe learning outcomes - what are your learners expected to be able to do if the learning has been successful?
  3. Describe how you will be able to tell that learners have achieved the outcomes - what will you be able to observe and assess if students have been successful?  

Step 2 - Move your lab online

Based on the aims and learning outcomes you need your students to achieve you can now consider ways to move your lab online:

 Aims Learner Outcomes Translate to online
Demonstration: students observe the facilitator but are not required to do practical work. Students collect real world evidence of a theoretical concept, process, phenomenon or mechanism. They can link their observations to theoretical knowledge. Recorded videos: you can record yourself (or another facilitator) performing the experiment or reuse existing video content. Animations or simulations may also be found online. Ensure to include knowledge checks in the form of quizzes or reports to assess that the outcomes have been met. Disperse questions throughout the demo to test whether students are able to predict what will happen next using their theoretical knowledge.
Measurement and analysis: students focus on collecting data and performing analysis rather than setting up complex apparatus. Students develop ability to make accurate measurements and observations, collect data, select and perform the relevant analysis and write a clear report. Recorded videos, animations and simulations: while student may not be able to perform measurements themselves a recorded or animated demo can still help them understand the process involved. Cleaned or raw data can be provided to students to perform subsequent analysis remotely: plotting data, estimating parameters, statistical analysis, making predictions, error analysis and validating hypotheses. 
Using equipment and materials: students may design the experiment and will set it up from beginning to end. Students combine theoretical knowledge with practical skills. They are able to design an experiment, handle materials and specialist equipment appropriately, practice health & safety.  Some experiments and protocols can be carried out remotely making use of a virtual lab environment where students can make decisions on the correct sequence of steps. These environments can collect learner interaction data which can be used for assessment. Alternatively, there are some lab kits that students can use at home to practice and develop skills. Students can record themselves carrying out experiments and the videos submitted to the instructor for assessment. 

Advantages of digital labs

There is nothing like a physical lab experience to support your learners but in some cases remote labs can bring advantages:

  • Students can learn these skills in their own time and at their own pace, even when you are not present. 
  • You can track activity and assess progress in more detail by using interaction data, allowing you to deliver feedback and plan interventions when needed.
  • Students can repeat experiments as many times as they need.
  • No expensive physical equipment or facilities required.
  • Health & safety concerns are reduced. 

Click here for a brief overview of virtual lab tools available on the market 

Please note that some tools referenced in our guides are not yet supported by ICT. If you have questions about implementation please contact your Faculty EdTech team