The project was attractive to us, and we ran virtual simulations in our program for the first time the 2017–18 academic year. With the launch of our new program (Pre-Health Sciences), wet labs are a requirement for in-class students. We also have an online stream of this program and were looking for a “one-stop shop” for biology virtual simulations.
The vision and goal were to create a virtual environment for online students where they get the experience of a lab environment similar to what our in-class students might experience.
From the faculty perspective, the project was successful. Student feedback throughout the project was positive in many regards (Labster customer support, ease of use, look and feel of the interface).
Some areas of growth include adding more topics. Our students had to do a meiosis lab because that was the only one available, even though this lab did not necessarily fit as well with our course learning objectives. Also, anatomy is a large part of the second-semester biology course, and there are no anatomy-related labs.
Overall the user experience was a smooth process. One instructor experienced an issue with a student signing in, but there was excellent and responsive customer support from Labster. In general, students had few technical issues.
The virtual simulations project was managed by the online biology instructors. Communication and collaboration with the larger Pre-Health Sciences program team happened at meetings, through email, and in informal, anecdotal conversations. Strengths and weaknesses were also informally communicated to administration as we consider how we want the use of virtual simulations to be incorporated in future (e.g., use only one resource like Labster or draw from a variety of free online resources).
As this was the first year of the program launch and the first program experience with virtual simulations, learners were frequently asked for feedback about their experience. This happened multiple times throughout their first- and second-semester experiences with Labster. This feedback was also informally communicated to colleagues.
For the duration of the virtual simulations project, two instructors and approximately 90 students were involved. Labs were chosen to align with course learning outcomes. Unfortunately there were gaps in finding a virtual simulation that aligned with our course learning outcomes, and at times students had to be provided additional information not relevant to our course in order to complete a lab.
From the learner perspective, the learning skills supported included organization, following instructions, and performing labs using appropriate techniques. While there are some skills demonstrated in a wet lab setting that cannot be covered with a virtual simulation (e.g., tactile skills), the virtual simulations met several of the intended competencies and learning outcomes of our introductory biology course.
From the educator perspective, the largest issue experienced was finding labs that connect to our curriculum. Lab content was at times too advanced for our students, but we balanced this against the high quality look and feel of a real lab offered through the simulations. Labs could not be modified, so there were times when content was introduced that was not part of our course learning outcomes. Also, on occasion the virtual simulations did not supplement or enhance the curriculum. This could be problematic as we are a preparatory program and students need to be prepared with the content and skills required for their further studies.
The virtual labs were used five times throughout each semester. At completion of the certificate program, students would have finished 10 Labster virtual labs.
Feedback on both the student and instructor user experience was very positive. The instructions provided for faculty were very user friendly, and Labster was always quick to reply to emails and was very helpful in providing guidance. Students were able to register for and access labs easily. Instructor support was also high quality, but it should be noted the Labster website could be more intuitive.
Three surveys were administered to students throughout the project time frame. The surveys included questions such as:
- Did you have any issues with the simulation? If you had issues, did you contact the instructor and get the issue resolved?
- How much did you learn from the third Labster simulation?
- Did you enjoy the third Labster simulation?
- How can your experience with the simulation be improved in the future?
Student responses to the above questions were positive, including comments on the platform and overall user experience. One student noted a dislike for performing actual labs and much preferred a virtual lab option.
Results of these surveys have not yet been communicated to the team, but will be after the current semester finishes.
We have plans to use Labster for the 2018–19 academic year in all online Pre-Health Sciences Biology courses. We will continue to reflect on the effectiveness and fit of Labster for our course needs. In the 2017–18 academic year we used five Labster labs each semester. In the upcoming academic year we are increasing this to six Labster labs each semester.
For Labster to be most effective for our students and a good fit for our program outcomes, we need more variety and more entry-level biology concept-based simulations.
The online program also has a chemistry course but a different virtual simulation provider is used. We find Labster very limited in its chemistry offerings, and of the chemistry labs available, none of them are at a level required for our students and they do not align to the chemistry course learning outcomes.
In general, the look and feel of the Labster interface seems like it is preparing for students to work at a lab bench. However, our students go onto clinical settings (e.g., RPN, RN, para medicine) and could benefit from more anatomy and physiology-based experiences.
- You need to be aware and clear on why you are integrating virtual labs and how they connect to your learning outcomes.
- Virtual labs are great but they do not address all skills and knowledge obtained from an actual lab experience.
- It’s important to refer closely to your course learning objectives when selecting a virtual simulation.