Design priorities for online laboratories in undergraduate practical science

Brodeur, Marcus (2016). Design priorities for online laboratories in undergraduate practical science. PhD thesis The Open University.



The use of remote and virtual experiments to supplement undergraduate practical science instruction has accelerated in recent decades, as isolated proofs of concept have given way to integrated suites of educational content. Online laboratories are poised to assume even greater importance for teaching, as the growing availability of distributed learning approaches, high-speed internet access, and ambient and mobile sensors broadens opportunities worldwide for experiencing practical work. My original contribution to knowledge has been to identify – and differentiate by scientific discipline – key priorities for the design of more effective online labs as informed by students' perspectives of the technology. This dissertation is motivated by three research questions: (1) Which aspects of online labs determine whether participants perceive them as authentic learning experiences? (2) Which online lab characteristics dictate their suitability for social modes of learning? (3) How can educators use metafunctional elements – i.e. computer-mediated features impossible to implement in a proximal setting – to enhance understanding and skill acquisition? Studies of undergraduate cohorts from both distance learning and conventional institutions were carried out, with an initial emphasis on physics and astronomy coursework that was later extended to other scientific fields. A mixed methods approach was adopted, with quantitative data elicited primarily via multi-stage survey instruments and qualitative data derived principally from interviews or focus groups. Statistical and thematic analyses yielded key findings regarding the roles authenticity, sociability and metafunctionality play in the design of successful online labs. For instance, establishing professional relevance and data reliability in online labs appears far more important to achieving authenticity than photorealistic depictions of scientific sites. Moreover, interfaces that students perceive as denying them agency – including the ability to make genuine mistakes – lead to shallow engagement and worse outcomes. Students often deem social interaction a defining aspect of proximal lab work, so missing provisions for synchronous multi-user presence and communication engender feelings of isolation and helplessness in
online labs. While mostly sceptical of metafunctional enhancements, students nonetheless repeatedly express a desire for practice with non-ideal scenarios and with the setup and teardown stages of practical work. Incorporating the proposed design principles will better align future online labs with student expectations, thus deepening engagement and securing improved academic outcomes.

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