Virtual laboratory

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  • “A Virtual Laboratory is a heterogeneous distributed problem solving environment that enables a group of researchers located around the world to work together on a common set of projects.” ( LESTER, retrieved 12:52, 30 June 2006 (MEST))

See also: science simulation, simulation, computer simulation, virtual environment, Probeware, microworlds

Virtual laboratories for research

A virtual laboratory would allow scientists in a number of different physical locations, each with unique expertise, computing resources, and/or data to collaborate efficiently not simply at a meeting but in an ongoing way. Effectively, such a project would extend and pool resources while engendering orderly communication and progress toward shared goals. For example, a group of astronomers and computer scientists at the supercomputing centers in the U.S. are attempting to share experiments and knowledge about the origin of the universe. Shared visualizations of alternative possibilities could conceivably suggest additional or refined alternatives. Virtual laboratories are also envisioned for the design and manufacturing of complex systems such as airplanes and for studying and forecasting weather patterns.

(Internet2 - Whatis, retrieved 11:48, 30 June 2006 (MEST))

Virtual laboratories in education

Virtual laboratories in education can refer to simulation environments that add a environmental and human touch or to interfaces with real laboratory equipment.

For example, in the commercial labster simulation environment “students work through real-life case stories, interact with lab equipment, perform experiments and learn with theory and quiz questions. Thanks to engaging 3D animations, students can explore life science at the molecular level and look inside the machines they are operating.” (Why choose labster, April 26 2019). The environment can integrate with learning management systems such as Moodle or edX, i.e. provide scores for the gradebook and allow some tracking.

A study from Bonde et al (2014) [1] shows that “a gamified laboratory simulation can significantly increase both learning outcomes and motivation levels when compared with, and particularly when combined with, traditional teaching.”. To assess the learning effectiveness of a gamified crime scene simulation compared with traditional teaching a pre-mid-post design was used. In the first lesson, Group A received a traditional lecture including a group excercise, and Group B performed the crime-scene simulation. All students then received a mid-test comprising the same questions. In the second lesson, conditions were switched: group A did the laboratory simulation, and Group B received the lecture. “After the second lesson, all students were administered the test again as a post-test. Students took the test for the fourth time 40 days later as a retention test.”

“Students' scores improved by 1.48 standard deviation (s.d.) units from a mean Z score of −1.37 to 0.11 after the laboratory simulation but only by 0.84 s.d. units from −1.20 to −0.36 after traditional teaching at the mid-test sampling point (Fig. 3). The results demonstrate that using the laboratory simulation led to significantly improved learning outcomes (76% higher score) compared with traditional teaching (t (89) = −4.37, P < 0.0005). Effects of combining the simulation with traditional teaching were assessed with the post-test, and the measured learning outcomes were greater than any one of the methods alone (t (90) = −7.49, P < 0.0005.”

A study carried out by Toth, Morrow and Ludvico (2009) [2] “demonstrated a significant effect of the combined learning experience with a virtual DNA lab” [F (1, 36) = 12.78, p = 0.001, eta-squared = 0.253]. However, the main research question wanted to investigate whether virtual laboratory (VRL) environment or hands-on laboratory (HOL) first is better. “Which order-condition is more beneficial for students’ knowledge development during inquiry learning when possible differences in prior knowledge are controlled? We hypothesized that there will be no significant difference in students’ learning due to order-condition because the integration of the two environments provides the same overall learning opportunities.”. The study did not show any order effect in terms of learning. However, qualitative results did show that students prefer working with a virtual environment before the hands-on laboratory. “Students’ reflections clearly indicated that they recognized the benefits of using a VRL due to the (a) added illustration of the mechanisms of the movement of different-size (small, medium, and large) DNA fragments, (b) the ease and speed of experimental design, and (c) the process of automation which helped them synthesizes their knowledge without the error common in the HOL environment. Students also noted the benefits of the real-life HOL environment which helped them learn (a) the manual skill of loading DNA without puncturing the gels, (b) the effects of their erroneous reversal of the positive and negative poles, and (c) the effects a variety of measurement and design errors that can contribute to the interpretation of results.” [2]

Makransky et al. (2016) [3] studied the effects on knowledge, intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy of a two hour training session with a class of 300 medical students. “Knowledge (Cohen’s d = 0.73), intrinsic motivation (d = 0.24), and self-efficacy (d = 0.46) significantly increased from the pre- to post-test. Low knowledge students showed the greatest increases in knowledge (d = 3.35) and self-efficacy (d = 0.61), but a non-significant increase in intrinsic motivation (d = 0.22). The medium and high knowledge students showed significant increases in knowledge (d = 1.45 and 0.36, respectively), motivation (d = 0.22 and 0.31), and self-efficacy (d = 0.36 and 0.52, respectively)”. This, and additional survey results, allowed the authors to conclude that the simulation based learning environment can help “future generations of doctors transfer new understanding of disease mechanisms gained in virtual laboratory settings into everyday clinical practice.”

Screenshots of the virtual patient consulting session on the left, the virtual laboratory environment in the middle, and a picture of students using the simulation based learning environment on the right (permission to use the picture was obtained from all of the students who are included). Source: Wästberg et al. (2019) [4]. Licence:CC-BY 4.0

Design of virtual laboratories

Wästberg et al. (2019) [4] analyse and present observations gained through the work on two web-based virtual laboratories developed with Flash technology the Gas Laboratory and the Virtual Colour Laboratory. Both environments use a design-based research approach, i.e. a principled user-centered iterative method. We shortly describe the Gas laboratory in the science simulation article.

Let us look at some conclusions about designing such environments: “Due to technical problems and lack of resources both projects produced virtual laboratories that were far simpler than the initially expected result. A conclusion drawn from this is that the development of successful virtual laboratories requires a huge amount of resources and time.” On the positive side, authors report that users achieved intended learning outcomes despite technical production issues, in other words, it is possible to develop virtual environments with limited resources. To achieve that, the authors formulate a number of recommendations that we reproduce here:

  • Be very clear about the purpose of the virtual laboratory, and in what context you intend it to be used. Media consumers, especially teenagers and young adults, are highly media literate and can quite easily see through attempts where for example a linear demonstration pretends to be an interactive laboratory. Consider which type of media you intend to build - simulation, laboratory, demonstration, and so on. Indicate clearly for the user what they are interacting with.
  • Strive to use the simplest possible design and technology, still meeting the demands efficiently. In some cases advanced technology such as virtual environments or even virtual reality might be needed, but a technology-minimalistic strive will lower the risk that a too advanced technology is used for its own sake. The most eye catching techniques might not always correlate with what is relevant to show.
  • Adapt levels of realism and accuracy to the intended target group as well as to the intended learning outcome.
  • Continuously consider enhancements of the virtual laboratory to increase the learning outcome. It can be profitable to provide help when needed and visualise things that are not possible in a real laboratory. Balance this potential against possible advantages of having a virtual laboratory that closely mimics real-life laboratory exercises.
  • Regard a virtual laboratory as an illustrative playground that requires external support in the form of guiding, explanatory texts or teacher debriefing. The virtual laboratory provides the students with experience and observations, but does not always necessarily provide understanding on its own. Guidance is often necessary to help the students to understand the illustrated scientific phenomena.

Wästberg et al. (2019) [4]



  • Algorithmic Botany. Includes plant modeling software called the Virtual Laboratory (PDF flyer). It consists of domain-dependent simulation programs, experimental units called objects that encompass data files, tools that operate on these objects, and a reference book
  • [ Virtual Playground]
  • Lewis, D. I. (2014). The pedagogical benefits and pitfalls of virtual tools for teaching and learning laboratory practices in the biological sciences. The Higher Education Academy: STEM. (PDF) list a number of virtual laboratories (until 2012) with links. These are listed in the appendix and some are also discussed in the text.



  • Achuthan, K., Francis, S. P., & Diwakar, S. (2017). Augmented reflective learning and knowledge retention perceived among students in classrooms involving virtual laboratories. Education and Information Technologies, 22, 2825–2855.
  • Achuthan, K., Kolil, V. K., & Diwakar, S. (2018). Using virtual laboratories in chemistry classrooms as interactive tools towards modifying alternate conceptions in molecular symmetry. Education and Information Technologies, 23, 2499–2515.
  • Campbell, B., Collins, P., Hadaway, H., Hedley, N. and Stoermer, M. (2002). Web3D in Ocean Science Learning Environments: Virtual Big Beef Creek. In Proceedings of the 2002 Web3D Symposium HTML Abstract/ PDF Full paper
  • Froitzheim, Konrad (), Communication Technologies for Virtual Laboratories HTML (does not really address the core problem, but looks at communication tools for participants).
  • R. Giegerich, D. W. Lorenz, ViSeL: An interactive Virtual Laboratory for DNA Sequencing, Tagungsband zum Workshop "Multimedia-Systeme" im Rahmen der GI-Jahrestagung 1998, S.53-S.65, Magdeburg, Hrsg.: H.J. Appelrath, D. Boles, K. Meyer-Wegener, 09/1998. Word
  • Jensen, Nils, Gabriele von Voigt, Wolfgang Nejdl, Stephan Olbrich (2004), Development of a Virtual Laboratory System for Science Education, Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning, 6 (2). HTML.
  • Jensen, N., Seipel, S., Nejdl, W. & Olbrich, S. (2003) CoVASE --Collaborative Visualization for Constructivist Learning. CSCL Conference 2003, (pp. 249-253).

References cited with footnotes

  1. Bonde, M. T., Makransky, G., Wandall, J., Larsen, M. V, Morsing, M., Jarmer, H., & Sommer, M. O. A. (2014). Improving biotech education through gamified laboratory simulations. Nature Biotechnology, 32(7), 694–697.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Erdosne Toth, E., Morrow, B. L., & Ludvico, L. R. (2009). Designing Blended Inquiry Learning in a Laboratory Context: A Study of Incorporating Hands-On and Virtual Laboratories. Innovative Higher Education, 33(5), 333–344.
  3. Makransky, G., Bonde, M. T., Wulff, J. S. G., Wandall, J., Hood, M., Creed, P. A., … Nørremølle, A. (2016). Simulation based virtual learning environment in medical genetics counseling: an example of bridging the gap between theory and practice in medical education. BMC Medical Education, 16(1), 98.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Stahre Wästberg, B., Eriksson, T., Karlsson, G., Sunnerstam, M., Axelsson, M., & Billger, M. (2019). Design considerations for virtual laboratories: A comparative study of two virtual laboratories for learning about gas solubility and colour appearance. Education and Information Technologies, 24(3), 2059–2080.