Teaching Lab-Based Courses Online & Remote: From “Are You Kidding Me?” to “This Is Effective!”

May 27, 2020

We are offering a second run of the “Teaching Undergraduate Biology Webinar Series.” We encourage you to attend the webinars to learn best practices for remote teaching. 
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education is in a period of upheaval. As educators, we need to adapt to this new environment of remote learning courses. You may have already discovered that remote learning has many hurdles, one of the largest being how to teach hands-on laboratory courses outside of an actual laboratory. Can teaching online labs even work? Numerous studies have shown that students can engage in remote laboratories that meet the learning outcomes and objectives and engage in scientific inquiry from a distance. So, we know it can be done. But how?  

We hope the information that follows will help you find techniques suitable for online or remote labs but also face-to-face courses once you are back on campus.

Create Learning Objectives and Outcomes for Each Course

When designing any course, whether it be for in-person or remote instruction, an important step is to determine learning objectives and outcomes. These will inform the concepts being targeted, the teaching strategies used and the assessments developed. Looking specifically at laboratory classes, incorporate these 5 general learning objectives into the course
  • Understanding scientific concepts. 
  • Determining interest and motivation. 
  • Acquiring scientific practical skills and problem-solving abilities.
  • Forming scientific habits of mind.
  • Understanding the nature of science. 
Additionally, several undergraduate laboratory themes can be incorporated into online courses. These include research experience; group work and broader communication skills; error analysis, data collection and analysis; connection between lab and lecture; lab-specific transferable skills; non-lab-specific transferable skills; and laboratory writing.

Outline a Course Design for the Lab

So you have identified your laboratory learning objectives—now what? One of the first steps is course design. Converting face-to-face teaching to remote methods does not mean drastically changing the learning outcomes to fit the activities. Instead, review your existing course learning outcomes and ask yourself this: what do students need to do and know? Based on that information, begin to think about how to develop and deliver your learning activities within the course. Consider how to seamlessly integrate lecture with laboratory content, making connections between core concepts and observable phenomena. Having laboratory exercises embedded within lecture material inside of your learning management system (LMS) may help in this process. Be aware, however, of your student population when designing these activities. Keep in mind that without the “just-in-time” support and a lab partner, the workload of conducting labs at home increases. It will take students longer to become familiar with the material, conduct experiments and critically think about the concepts presented. You may have to adjust the time allotted for these assignments to ensure they are effective in this new modality. In addition to carefully watching student workloads, be sure to structure assessments so that timely grading and feedback can be managed and not become overwhelming. This will require more of an investment on your part, but it is vital to the success of each student in meeting course goals.

Another way of tackling course design is to work in reverse order in a process called backward design. Using this technique, your existing learning outcomes could better articulate what students are expected to do and know. For instance, do students have to make a perfect streak plate or should they be able to understand the protocol and troubleshoot when things go wrong? This is also a good time to compare course learning outcomes to those established by professional societies.

Adapt to At-Home & Virtual Labs

When adapting labs to online or remote learning, think outside of the box in terms of how course learning outcomes can be met at a distance. Virtual simulations provide an often inexpensive option to acquire skills and knowledge, especially when specific equipment is not available in a remote setting. Lab kits offer another option, one that provides tactile hands-on learning for students. Such kits can be purchased for under $200, allowing students to acquire skills traditionally taught at the bench. If the price tag of kits is too steep for your population, creating your own kits can be another solution. These DIY kits typically contain disposable (low-cost) laboratory items that can be used in conjunction with materials commonly found in the home or purchased at minimal cost at a local store (be sure to vet the kit with your institution’s legal team to ensure safety). Local professionals are yet another way to engage students in laboratory learning. Videoconferencing with these individuals while they are in their workplace can offer a meaningful experience that provides students with the opportunity to remotely operate and troubleshoot equipment in a real-world situation. And then there is the laboratory that exists outside your doorstep: outdoor experimentation and observation are easily implemented in field-based courses. Certain lab techniques cannot be readily conducted at a distance, so make use of the scientific literature to highlight and review with students just how such methods are utilized by scientists and medical professionals. In terms of safety, liability is often held through for-purchase lab kit companies, but it is vital to align all lab activities with existing professional society safety guidelines

Have Students Discuss Lab Activities

It’s important to remember that online and remote labs still need to incorporate communication and critical thinking skills, while also allowing proper assessment of students’ learning. Whether it’s an at-home or virtual lab, have students create self-narrated video submissions demonstrating laboratory protocols. Further assess their knowledge and understanding by utilizing images taken in your lab or from vetted online sources showing good data and incorrect data for troubleshooting skills, data collection and analysis. WebEx, Zoom and Google Meet have all become integral to the delivery of online lecture content. Why not use them for online and remote labs, too? These platforms can create a lab community, either synchronously or asynchronously, and they allow for interpersonal exchanges that often lead to deeper meaning and understanding. To further mimic the “lab chat” that occurs on campus, use discussion boards to foster peer-to-peer teaching and deepen the learning experience.

Once on-campus courses resume, do not leave all the progress you have made behind. Many of these methods can become an effective part of your face-to-face courses moving forward. Consider assigning small, low-stakes assignments in your campus’ LMS so that students will have an easier transition to remote learning if necessary in the future. Perhaps utilize remote learning to provide students with pre-lab quizzes and videos to improve their preparedness. On this same note, try detailing “alternative mode of delivery” methods in your course syllabi so that students will always know the plan B for lab-based courses.

No matter the modality, we must provide learning that remains effective, robust and accessible. Our students are paying for this experience, and we owe them our best effort, just as we expect the best of them in class.

Author: Jennifer A. Herzog

Jennifer A. Herzog
Jennifer A. Herzog is an associate professor of Biology at Herkimer College.

Author: Mary Mawn, Ph.D.

Mary Mawn, Ph.D.
Dr. Mary V. Mawn is Dean of the School of Science, Mathematics, and Technology and an Associate Professor of Biology at SUNY Empire State College.