Canadore College

Project Description

The proposed virtual lab simulation project involved the integration of selected virtual lab simulations into relevant biotechnology courses. Currently, courses are delivered face-to-face and employ an online learning platform that houses course content. Within the program, some courses have lab components, whereas others are strictly lecture based. Biotechnology program learners are diverse and come from a range of backgrounds, including high school, university, and the workforce. The learning environment consists of small class sizes (under 20), an average of five contact hours per day, and a balance of individual and group-based work assignments.

The development phase of virtual lab integration occurred during the August 2017 preparatory period, and delivery occurred in a course-specific manner depending on scheduling. Courses selected for integration of the virtual lab simulations occurred during the fall and winter semesters. Integration of the software into lecture-based courses exposed students to course material in a hands-on manner, whereas integration into lab-based courses exposed students to techniques that are not able to be performed in the actual lab due to infrastructure and/or time limitations.

The project was deemed successful in one respect: it is compatible with course material and existing course delivery strategies (i.e., it can be delivered using the existing online learning platform). However, the faculty within the program area determined that the Labster product was not ideal in their courses for a number of reasons that were identified specifically in responses to eCampusOntario’s survey.

The college academic year was atypical, being complicated by a faculty strike, and it is difficult to know for certain if the project outcome was impacted by that circumstance.

All faculty engaged in the project have said they would not likely use the virtual simulation software for their courses in the future.

The main success was that faculty became aware that there are other options available when hands-on, real labs are not possible.

Team Description

The implementation team consisted of three faculty members (two full-time and one part-time) of the Biotechnology department at Canadore College. The full-time members are current and former published researchers in the fields of education biomedics. Each member of the participating faculty implemented a minimum of one Labster lab into their fall and winter semester course loads. The Labster activities were implemented through the College’s online learning management system (Brightspace by D2L). For the initiation of the project, the students were guided through the activities by the faculty members via in-class discussion and computer lab assistance.

Initially, communication with other faculty at the institution was to have consisted of regular professional development workshops occurring throughout the academic year. However, given the work stoppage, Reading Week in the fall semester was cancelled, and during the winter semester PD Opportunities Week, the institution chose to deliver a simplified calendar. Presentation of the Labster software to the broader college community did not occur.

Communication with Labster was via email and teleconference, in addition to the training webinars, as necessary. The learners participating in the project had access to the online learning management system (LMS) and computer labs at Canadore College as well as regular debriefs by the faculty of the department. The use of surveys and data-gathering techniques allowed the faculty and Labster to assess the impact on engagement and median class grades compared to historical data in the LMS.

Integration Details

This section includes responses to the question on integration from each participating faculty member.

PT Instructor

BTN110–Organ Physiology. Three virtual labs were designated as required assignments, each worth 5% of final mark. The virtual labs were chosen to provide a laboratory example to support body systems covered in the lecture-based class. This is a first-semester course, and students (n=19) liked the idea of being exposed to a lab setting. Overall students liked having the theory portion of the lab available so they could go back to it any time to reread information in order to answer the corresponding lab questions.

BTN455–Virology. One virtual lab was assigned to students (n=12), worth 5% of their final mark. Although this lab did not explicitly deal with viruses, it allowed students the opportunity to understand the basics of cell culture. BTN455 is a lecture-based course, and this allowed for a virtual lab experience. Students overwhelmingly did not like the virtual lab. There was a verbal appreciation for the theory covered in the lab, but they found the simulation too automated.

FT Instructor 1

In the second semester of the pilot program with Labster, two courses were used to experiment with Labster as a learning platform:

  • BTN215/230–Organic and Biochemistry, second-semester students (13 enrolled).
  • BTN 435–Proteomics, fourth semester students (14 enrolled).

Each of the cohorts was presented with varying numbers of simulations (three for BTN215/230 and four for BTN435) to support curriculum delivery (BTN215/230) and enhance the laboratory experience (BTN215/230). The students in each cohort were offered a bonus of 5% to 10% to participate in the simulations and the assessment survey.

Looking at the breakdown of the cohorts individually:

  • BTN215/230 students participated at a rate of approximately 50% in the second part of this pilot program. The chosen simulations for these students were Introduction to Food Macromolecules; Protein Synthesis; and Protein Denaturation. Each of the participants reflected on the experience through the use of a survey.
  • BTN435 students participated at a rate of about 50%. There were four chosen simulations reflecting the curriculum of this non-laboratory based course: HPLC, NMR, Mass Spectroscopy, and Enzyme Kinetics. These student participants were also asked to reflect on the experience through the use of survey tools.

FT Instructor 2

Table 13.1 summarizes the integration details for my four courses.

Course Semester Simulation name: Number of Educators Number of Learners
BTN100 Cell Biology 1 Cellular Respiration 1 16
BTN405 Molecular Biology 3 CSI Lab & Molecular Cloning 1 12
BTN131 Genetics 2 Meiosis & Mendelian Inheritance 1 16
BTN310 Industrial Microbiology 4 Fermentation Lab 1 13

Table 13.1 FT Instructor 2 Integration Details

Integration into the Curriculum

For each course, students were instructed to complete the virtual simulations individually during their own time—not during scheduled lecture or lab times (fall semester courses: BTN100 and BTN405), or during scheduled independent lecture time (winter semester courses: BTN131 and BTN310). Instructional help was available (although not used) remotely.

For lab-based courses (BTN100, BTN405, BTN310) the goal in using the virtual simulations was to provide contextual information for techniques not yet performed in the lab. Students were required to complete the selected simulations as a prerequisite to conducting the lab on site. This strategy was intended to benefit the students by providing them with a self-guided review of the techniques prior to applying them in the lab. For BTN100 and BTN405, completion of an evaluative summary contributed up to an additional 5% on final test grades, and for BTN310, students who were able to complete the assigned simulation by the due date and time were given a 5% bonus on the associated test (test 2).

For the theory-based course (BTN131), prior to being assigned the virtual lab, learners were introduced to the theory in class and had already completed a graded review assignment on the topic. The simulation was assigned to reinforce what was covered during lecture and assessed as part of the written assignment. Following the simulation, students completed a quiz, which applied the concepts covered. Students who were able to complete the assigned simulation by the due date were given a 5% bonus on the associated quiz.

Learning Outcomes Supported and/or Met by Simulations

The primary goal in using the virtual simulations in my courses was to reinforce important theory-based concepts. For each course, the concepts supported or linked directly to the learning outcomes outlined in the course syllabus, as specified below:

  • BTN100: Cellular Respiration simulation directly linked to specific learning outcome 4.4. (Identify and describe the reactions involved in cell respiration in theory and in the lab.)
  • BTN405: CSI Lab and Molecular Cloning simulations supported learning outcome 6.0. (Perform some of the major experimental techniques used to manipulate DNA in the laboratory.)
  • BTN131: Meiosis simulation directly linked to specific learning outcome 1.5. (Describe eukaryotic cellular reproduction, and differentiate between mitosis and meiosis.) Mendelian Inheritance simulation supported learning outcome 2.0. (Apply Mendel’s Laws via the analysis of human pedigrees and the use of probability calculations/measurements.)
  • BTN310: Fermentation lab simulation supported learning outcome 2.0. (Categorize the beneficial uses of microbes [use of microbes in recombinant DNA technology] in the pharmaceutical industry.)

Benefits and Challenges (Educator Perspective)

Benefits: The simulations provided the learners with an additional tool for learning key concepts. This enhanced theory added variety to the learning materials made available to the students. In addition, the simulations exposed the students to selected lab techniques that are otherwise not able to be demonstrated due to limitations in the tools/materials/equipment available on-site.

Challenges: Student engagement was a challenge. Giving the learners an incentive for completing the simulations (i.e., bonus marks) helped to increase participation.

User Experience

The pilot project had three educators working on the integration of simulations in multiple courses of the biotechnology program.

The project consisted of two halves: the first half consisted of students in the first and third semesters of the program and the second half consisted of students in the second and fourth semesters of the program.

PT Instructor

  • BTN110: Three virtual labs were used throughout the semester. In general, the students like the virtual labs. Some suggestions for improvement were to have the option of the lab reading the information to the user (i.e., text to speech). Students prefer to have the information read to them, but some students really disliked having it read to them. Students using Mac computers also said that the Labster drained their laptop batteries quite quickly. As well a few students had difficulty getting their account set up and/or having the program stall and/or glitch.
  • BTN455: One virtual lab was used during the semester. In general, the students disliked the virtual labs. Verbal responses to questions about the labs included an appreciation of the theory involved, but dislike of the computer-generated voice and repetitive actions.

FT Faculty 1

The assessment of the students and simulations that I  was responsible revealed that there was initial excitement about the use of virtual simulations, but that excitement waned significantly in the second half of the program. The loss of enthusiasm is reflected in the surveys, as six of the seven second-semester students comments on the lack of “real” skill learning using simulations compared to the use of laboratories. The fourth-semester students were already overwhelmed with capstone projects as part of the program and felt that, although the simulations were interesting, provided little in the way of curriculum support to enhance completion of those projects.

The simulations themselves are very well synthesized and presented on the part of Labster, but it was difficult to directly align existing course curriculum with the virtual simulations without having to rewrite some of the curriculum in a condensed semester.

FT Faculty 2

For my four courses, I was the only educator, and in total, there were 16 first-year students and 13 second-year students involved during the evaluation period.

Each virtual lab was assigned once.

Likes: Based on written feedback, learners found the simulations enjoyable, relevant, and educational. Many commented on their overall strength as a learning resource. Specifically, students found that the simulations addressed different learning styles through auditory and visual descriptions, and that they provided a good alternative to on-site labs through the provision of extra practice and exposure to new techniques. The convenience of being able to interact with realistic lab procedures remotely was also highlighted, and the content was generally viewed as relevant to the associated course material. Finally, some students specified that they liked the quizzes and that the platform provided feedback and allowed for multiple opportunities to answer questions correctly.

Dislikes: Many students found the simulations to be tedious and time consuming with respect to the precision with which they were required to navigate through the visuals. Individual learners specified that instruments were difficult to find, some actions were not responsive, and that the interface was too sensitive to cursor placement, all of which impeded progress. In addition, some learners indicated that the procedural steps were not always clear, which created confusion. Other dislikes included online learning in general, and the audio used in selected simulations, which mispronounced key scientific terms (e.g., “de-na” for DNA).

Technical issues: Many learners reported glitches that prevented them from being able to complete the simulation unless restarting. The simulations reportedly did not work on all monitor widths, which required students to restart on a different computer. Other complaints included a long load time, and that the simulations drained laptop battery.

Support: Extra support was not accessed during the evaluation period; however, the initial orientation was useful, and the eCampusOntario team ensured that educators and learners were aware of, and had access to, technical support if required.


PT Instructor

  • BTN110: An online survey was conducted at the end of the semester using our online learning management system, D2L.
  • BTN455: A verbal question-and-answer period about the student experience was conducted after the students completed the Labster.

FT Faculty 1

In both the first half and second half of the pilot project, first- and second-year students were assessed by survey on our in-house learning management system (D2L). The first half results were submitted as part of the interim report.

For the second half of the pilot project the same survey approach was taken with the participants. The main personal goal for this educator was to assess the student’s opinions on whether the virtual simulation was comparable to the actual laboratory experience, whether the simulation reinforced the curriculum content, assessing the quality of the virtual simulations, and determining the student opinion on simulations as a learning tool for science.

The second half of the pilot had significantly less participation than the first half, even with an equal added bonus participation mark. Overall, the students did enjoy the visual nature and individual time to participate. The consensus was that the virtual simulations did not compare in direct impact to learning as did the actual laboratory experience. This was consistent with both the second- and fourth-semester participants. They did comment that they were able to reference the course curriculum when completing the simulation, but, there was only modest overlap between the course curriculum content and the objectives of the simulation labs. The student participants did like the quality of the simulations; there were very few comments about the difficulty of the actual mechanics of the simulation. They felt that it was a reasonable tool for achieving learning objectives but felt that they would achieve more if doing more actual laboratory work.

Reflecting on the experience I would say as an educator that the experience was not terribly exciting. It provides little opportunity for actual physical training and preparation for working in a standard laboratory environment. I would probably not elect to use the virtual simulations further as part of my course delivery.

FT Faculty 2

For the fall semester simulations (CSI Lab, Cellular Respiration, and Molecular Cloning), students completed a voluntary evaluative written summary. They were asked to submit a short (one-paragraph) evaluation on their experience using the virtual simulation. They were asked to include the following in their evaluation:

  • What they liked about the simulation and learning platform.
  • What they disliked about the simulation and learning platform.
  • What they would change about the simulation and/or learning platform.
  • Overall contribution to their learning with respect to the course content.

A descriptive analysis was completed on written responses (n = 17). For each of the four outcomes outlined above, meaning units (MUs) were identified and grouped into themes. Based on the themes, analytical categories were generated, and each MU was recoded with the appropriate response categories for descriptive analysis. Multiple MUs were generated from each response, and MUs that fit into more than one category were coded and analyzed as such. (Please see Appendix D for details.)

These results will be made available to the college community upon request.

Future Plans

PT Instructor

I do not plan to integrate virtual labs into my curriculum as students prefer to have physical hands-on labs. Although the first-year students thought the labs had some value in supporting theory and allowing them to experience a lab setting, by the second year the students overwhelmingly did not see the value in the virtual labs.

FT Faculty 1

Personally, I have seen no additional benefit to using the virtual simulations in my curriculum. I do not believe that they have given support or reinforcement to the student as part of the learning experience. I am not electing to use the virtual simulations as part of my course delivery in the future.

FT Faculty 2

There are currently no plans to continue integrating these virtual simulations into the existing curriculum. Although most learners indicated that the simulations helped with retention and understanding of course material, the written and verbal feedback also indicated that the simulations were overall too time consuming.

In light of their relevancy and educational integrity, these simulations have potential to serve as alternatives for missed labs in the future. In order for this to be feasible, there would need to be additional simulations available so that more on-site labs (ideally all on-site labs) could have a corresponding virtual option.

Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

PT Instructor:

  • Students are more likely to complete the lab if they are given a specific time frame in which to do so. As well, by assigning marks to the lab students feel the labs are an important part of the curriculum. These simulations are best geared to first-year students who do not have much experience working in a laboratory setting.

FT Faculty 1:

  • I would say that in order to use the virtual simulations effectively as part of course delivery, the educator is going to have to pay attention to aligning the course curriculum content to mirror the objectives of the simulations very closely. Unless there is a direct requirement for participating and completing the simulations, students lose interest in the simulations as the novelty of the activity wears down. It becomes just another activity for completion.
  • If a course) were designed around the use of the virtual simulations (being central to learning outcomes) there is a greater chance for incorporation and success.

FT Faculty 2:

  • Associate completion of the simulations with a grade.
  • Dedicate instructional time to the completion of the simulations.
  • Ensure that the simulations are adding some additional educational content for the learner, rather than simply reinforcing concepts that have already been covered.



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