Designing online laboratories for optimal effectiveness: undergraduate priorities for authenticity, sociability and metafunctionality

Brodeur, Marcus; Minocha, Shailey; Kolb, Ulrich and Braithwaite, Nicholas (2015). Designing online laboratories for optimal effectiveness: undergraduate priorities for authenticity, sociability and metafunctionality. In: 15th International Conference on Technology, Policy and Innovation, 17-19 Jun 2015, The Open University, Milton Keynes.


Over the past two decades, growing numbers of universities worldwide have developed online laboratory facilities for teaching science and engineering. Remote experiments (REs) give students access to live data from – and, typically, control over – a distant real-world instrument or apparatus. Virtual experiments (VEs) present students either with computer-generated emulations of devices or phenomena or with reconstructions of real-world experimental setups that rely upon genuine data. In recent years some VEs have even employed fully-realised virtual environments in Second Life and Unity 3D.

While such distance approaches to practical work present key advantages over conducting experiments 'in the flesh', doubts persist over whether they can convey the full benefits of the traditional on-site lab experience. As early proofs of concept have given way to more mature implementations, a growing consensus has arisen that remote experiments and, to a lesser extent, virtual ones deliver comparable learning outcomes for students. However, relatively little attention has been paid to which elements of practical science work are valued most by undergraduates in different scientific fields, to what extent prior expectations impact their performance in online labs, and how such knowledge can inform the design of future remote and virtual experiments.

A large-scale (n=1140) study was undertaken during 2014 at The Open University, UK, one of Europe’s largest distance learning institutions, involving undergrads enrolled in two eight-month-long science modules – one built for second-year students and one for third-years. Each cohort engaged with a selection of online experiments in the course of their module work, the overall sample representing 5 scientific disciplines (chemistry and analysis; environmental science; geology; health and life sciences; physics and astronomy) and encountering 26 unique experiments.

Our data collection schedule included multi-stage survey instruments (comprising Likert-type, ranking, and open-ended questions), discipline-specific focus groups, and semi-structured interviews with individual students and the designers of the remote and virtual experiments they encountered. By eliciting student preconceptions of online labs and tracking their subsequent opinions after each study block, we were able to assemble a clearer picture of how their expectations for practical work had either been met or confounded in each instance.

Our mixed-methods approach included statistical tests using SPSS and thematic analysis in NVivo, both of which revealed significant differences in perceptions held between those studying different subjects, between males and females, and between those at different course levels. The findings of this study provide insights into student perspectives of online labs and clearly illustrate how the same experimental investigation may be viewed quite differently by students across various disciplines.

We provide recommendations for tailoring specific classes of virtual and remote experiments to the expectations and priorities of the intended users and thus secure improved student engagement and outcomes. Our results will be of especial interest to the designers of online scientific investigations and to educators who expect to deploy them at the undergraduate level.

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