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Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

Virtual Labs Coming of Age

Online: Trending Now #144

Have we finally arrived at a point where we can effectively teach laboratory classes online?

Recently, the University of Pennsylvania announced that they will launch a baccalaureate degree at scale online next fall. They are not the only ones to offer entire undergraduate degrees online, but they are the first from the Ivy League. There is a surfeit of master’s degrees online from a wide variety of institutions. So, why have the baccalaureates lagged behind? 

There are a number of factors. Of course the baccalaureate commonly requires 120 or more credit hours, while the master’s commonly requires 36 to 48 credit hours. The shorter degrees are easier to mount because they require fewer courses, if for no other reason. The challenges of accessing computer labs for coding and desktop software in general has been tackled by a wide array of virtual desktop solutions. However, the deeper challenge has been to find a way to effectively offer the science laboratories that are part of most general education core curricula. How can chemistry, biology, physics and related sciences be effectively offered without laboratories?

Solutions have been pursued through the use of “kitchen” labs and lab kits sent to students. These offer students the opportunity to perform non-dangerous experiments in their own homes, often using chemicals that are readily available at groceries. It can be useful, particularly for general education, non-science major students. But, there is a growing move toward alternatives that provide more realistic experiences for those who are pursuing STEM degrees. These alternatives include remote access labs and virtual labs and simulations. These can be seen as part of the continuum of advancements to provide more robust AI-enhanced, interactive resources to distant students.

Drexel’s Virtually Inspired site points to a handful of outstanding virtual labs at universities around the world. Most notable are those that use a smart phone app to conduct the experience, rather than requiring a larger machine and monitor. 

Perhaps the use of virtual labs at this point in 2018 is best as an introduction to lab work, rather than advanced experimentation as is suggested in this EdSurge article

While we may not be all of the way there in fully replicating laboratories in virtual and augmented environments, it is still impressive to view how Case Western Reserve University Medical School is implementing the hololens to augment some of their instruction and practice. 

As business and industry continue to implement virtual and augmented tools to replace “wet” labs and approaches, the move to distant virtual labs will accelerate. Stay tuned! 

Of course, I will continue to track the developments in emerging trends, technologies, pedagogies and practicesContinuing and Online Education Update blog by UPCEA. You can have the updates sent directly to your email each morning  – no advertising, no spam!


Ray Schroeder, Founding Director
National Council for Online Education


Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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