Virtual Labs

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1 Virtual Lab

Ashley Macleod, Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Definitions and background

Virtual labs can be defined as a simulated interaction encompassing the contributions of technology, educational theory and individual human influences (Prieto-Blazquez, Herrera-Joancomarti & Guerrero-Roldán, 2009). Even though collaborative learning enhanced by computer technology dates back to 1984 (Jara et al., 2009), because of the extensive global adaptation of the World Wide Web and advances in network technology, virtual laboratories are becoming more accessible to many students at an unprecedented rate (Tejedor, Martínez & Vidaurre, 2008). They provide environments in which learners can demonstrate a transfer of knowledge from theoretical to practical application (Tatli & Ayas, 2013).

Specific to the scientific community, participants in virtual labs manipulate virtual tools and/or systems to perform experiments on a computer generated program that can be accessed locally or via the internet (Chen, 2010). Virtual labs can offer an environment that imitates the knowledge and experiences a student would gain by participating in a class field trip (Ramasundaram, Grunwald, Mangeot, Comerford & Bliss, 2005). With increasing improvements in technology, virtual labs can change the way students learn and obtain information, providing a well-rounded and complete educational experience (Najjar, 2008).

3 Affordances

Computer generated teaching and learning environments are being accepted as an authentic way to achieve the benefits of hands on learning where traditional, concrete settings may not be accessible (Zumbach, Schmitt, Reimann & Starkloff, 2006). Studies have shown that students participating in classes with virtual labs perform just as effectively as those students acquiring their knowledge in a real laboratory setting (Tatli & Ayas, 2013). In newly developing subject areas, such as web application security, virtual interactive experiences provide a solid foundation which enables enhanced skill development while at the same time retaining student interest in the topic (Li-Chiou & Tao, 2012).

Today’s students are technologically driven and virtual labs can be an arena where the desire to work with computers can fuse with the lessons and skills that used to be taught in a more conventional manner (Stuckey-Mickell & Stuckey-Danner, 2007). This statement is supported by the fact that entire post-secondary institutions now exist solely online because of the demand, acceptance and quality of virtual programs, including labs (Prieto-Blazquez, Herrera-Joancomarti & Guerrero-Roldán, 2009). For leaners who are hesitant to embrace the classroom, virtual labs can aide inexperienced students, as they are less anxious about working independently in virtual labs which helps facilitate non-distracted learning (Dalgarno, Bishop, Adlong, & Bedgood Jr, 2009). Another positive spin off of using virtual labs is that they allow students to develop enriched computer skills which will assist them as they advance their education and eventually enter the workforce (Kerr, Rynearson & Kerr, 2004)

Virtual labs are an excellent alternative for school systems facing budgetary concerns, as they eliminate the need for expensive laboratory equipment and a functioning lab space large enough to accommodate many students (Tüysüz, 2010). They even help alleviate the workload of teachers, as less planning and preparation is required, while eliminating the chaos that can be associated with demonstrating and observing an overcrowded laboratory environment filled with students who have limited knowledge of their surroundings (Tüysüz, 2010). Virtual labs are necessary to run complex simulations of well-known theories which would otherwise be impossible to demonstrate (Singh, 2012). When testing strictly theoretical principles, simulated programs have an advantage because real world results can be inexact, sometimes to the point where it obscures the lesson meant to be delivered, while virtual labs allow theories to be tested under optimal conditions (Ramasundaram, Grunwald, Mangeot, Comerford & Bliss, 2005). They also have the benefit of increased safety, as there is no exposure to potentially harmful substances or apparatus, and decreased amount of time it takes to actually complete the laboratory assignment, as set up and take down of equipment is eliminated (Toth, Ludvico & Morrow, 2012).

4 Constraints

Kerr, Rynearson & Kerr (2004) cite teacher hesitancy to incorporate virtual labs into their teaching practices as being a hindrance to the progression of the methodology. Virtual labs are designed for the masses and specific student needs can go unnoticed more easily in a virtual environment because there is no real proximity to a trained educator (Najjar, 2008). When compared to a lesson which takes place in a traditional laboratory setting, timely feedback to help students master their abilities is lacking in a virtual lab environment (Jara et al., 2009). Often times, students need prior face to face training before they can successfully complete a virtual lab because the real live setting provides learning opportunities not achievable in a virtual world, particularly when it comes to environmental studies (Ramasundaram, Grunwald, Mangeot, Comerford & Bliss, 2005). Toth, Ludvico & Morrow (2012) discovered that students saw live, hands-on labs as having more value than virtual labs, even questioning why one would chose a simulated environment when access to a live, traditional lab is readily available.

In certain cases where highly complex subject matters meet with particularly complicated virtual labs, it is necessary to employ two instructors- one as the subject matter expert and the other as the technology expert (Prieto-Blazquez, Herrera-Joancomarti & Guerrero-Roldán, 2009). Technical difficulties associated with the computer software can hinder student learning experiences, leaving them unable to explore learning concepts because of problems with the programming; a problem that would not be faced in a traditional laboratory setting (Tejedor, Martínez & Vidaurre, 2008).

Skill development is an important component of education and because virtual laboratories operate under ideal settings, students are deprived of the chance to observe experimental error that often occurs in real life experiments and therefore are deprived of the opportunity to use their critical thinking skills to determine the reason that the error occurred (Chen, 2010). To become a truly literate student, one must develop interpersonal skills to successfully navigate social environments that will be encounter throughout life and virtual labs cannot hone these skills as effectively as participation in an authentic laboratory setting (Zumbach, Schmitt, Reimann & Starkloff, 2006).

5 Links

Virtual Labs

McGraw-Hill Biology: Virtual Laboratory Links

GO Labs: Virtual Online Labs

e-lab: Virtual Lab Real Science

Virtual Science Demonstrations and Virtual Science Labs

6 Works Cited

Chen, S. (2010). The view of scientific inquiry conveyed by simulation-based virtual laboratories. Computers & Education, 55(3), 1123-1130.

Dalgarno, B., Bishop, A. G., Adlong, W., & Bedgood Jr, D. R. (2009). Effectiveness of a virtual laboratory as a preparatory resource for distance education chemistry students. Computers & Education, 53(3), 853-865.

Jara, C. A., Candelas, F. A., Torres, F., Dormido, S., Esquembre, F., & Reinoso, O. (2009). Real-time collaboration of virtual laboratories through the Internet. Computers & Education, 52(1), 126-140.

Kerr, M. S., Rynearson, K., & Kerr, M. C. (2004). Innovative educational practice: Using virtual labs in the secondary classroom. The Journal of Educators Online, 1(1), 1-9.

Li-Chiou, C., & Tao, L. (2012). Teaching web security using portable virtual labs. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(4), 39. Najjar, M. (2008). On scaffolding adaptive teaching prompts within virtual labs. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 6(2), 35-54.

Prieto-Blazquez, J., Herrera-Joancomarti, J. & Guerrero-Roldán, A.E. (2009). A virtual laboratory sStructure for developing programming labs. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 4 (2009), 47-52.

Ramasundaram, V., Grunwald, S., Mangeot, A., Comerford, N. B., & Bliss, C. M. (2005). Development of an environmental virtual field laboratory. Computers & Education, 45(1), 21-34.

Singh, G. (2012). Computer simulations of quantum theory of hydrogen atom for natural science education students in a virtual lab. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 40(3), 273-286.

Stuckey-Mickell, T. A., & Stuckey-Danner, B. D. (2007). Virtual labs in the online biology course: Student perceptions of effectiveness and usability. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2), 105-111.

Tatli, Z., & Ayas, A. (2013). Effect of a virtual chemistry laboratory on students' achievement. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 16(1), 159-n/a.

Tejedor, J. A. G., Martínez, G. M., & Vidaurre, C. B. (2008). An online virtual laboratory of electricity. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 6(2), 21-34.

Toth, E.E., Ludvico, L.R., & Morrow, B.L. (2012). Blended inquiry with hands-on and virtual laboratories: The role of perceptual features during knowledge construction. Interactive Learning Environments, 20, 1–17.

Tüysüz, C. (2010). The effect of the virtual laboratory on students' achievement and attitude in chemistry. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences, 2(1), 37-53.

Zumbach, J., Schmitt, S., Reimann, P., & Starkloff, P. (2006). Learning life sciences: Design and development of a virtual molecular biology learning lab. The Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 25(3), 281-300.