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Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. Headshot

Virtual Laboratories -- All Good?

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It seems that there is nothing that cannot be done online anymore. On a personal level, we do everything from paying bills to scheduling entire vacations in a matter of minutes because of online access. Think about it for a moment: What daily online activities do you do today that were not an option 10 years ago? Five years ago? Last year?

Now consider classroom technology and how it is also evolving rapidly. Implementation of technology in the classroom goes beyond Google searches and reading apps. It stretches into every area of learning, including the sciences. Virtual laboratories are popping up in school districts and online learning curriculum across the country and making it easier and less expensive for students to do experiments remotely. Here are some of the benefits of virtual labs:

Flexible access. Perhaps the most often cited benefit of any online learning is that it can be done at the student's convenience and when he or she learns best. The same is true of virtual laboratories if the experiments are on the student's own time. In some cases, a virtual lab may be used during regular class time which narrows this benefit but still allows flexibility for the teacher who is not limited by using resources within a strict timeframe.

Instant feedback. Students can redo experiments on the spot while they are still in a critical thinking mode. All the results are recorded, making communication between teachers and students more efficient too. Experiments no longer have a "one chance" option and students can analyze what went wrong immediately and give it another shot.

Top-notch equipment. Schools and students that use virtual labs have access to cutting-edge technology when it comes to experimentation. Companies that build and maintain virtual labs must compete with each other to stay ahead of technology progression and that raises the quality of options for students. With a virtual lab, students do not have to settle on outdated, yet expensive, equipment because a school cannot afford to replace it consistently.

Lower costs. There is a fee associated with using virtual labs but the capital and maintenance costs are drastically reduced. Instead of one school footing the bill for resources, the cost is split among the clients of the particular virtual lab. This allows school to provide a better learning experience for students at a fraction of the cost.

Higher efficiency, lower costs, better equipment -- is there a downside to virtual labs? I'd say it is too early to really see the effects, positive or negative, of science through virtual experimentation, but a few red flags pop into my own mind. I remember many of my in-class science experiments vividly. The sights, smells and sounds of biology and chemistry reactions at my own hand cemented the lessons into memory. It was real for me because it was right in front of my face and I was the one controlling the outcomes (or so I thought).

I wonder how much of that wonder is lost in a digital format? I can't imagine the next generation of scientists will fall in love with their fields from watching experiments on a computer screen but I could be wrong. Even with the in-person science experimentation I did in school, I had no desire to enter those fields. So perhaps those with a predisposition for the true sciences will not be deterred by virtual experimentation. Perhaps even more students will find a love for those fields because digital lessons allow for more repetition and instant feedback.

Like all classroom technology, virtual labs need to be scrutinized to ensure that behind the flashy capabilities, their true purpose is being met. That will take some time and testing, of course, but I think it is possible with the right combination of in-person and remote lessons.

Do you use a virtual lab in your classroom? What do you think about its potential for learning?