In this project we used simulations in two second-year seminar-based molecular and cellular biology courses: MCB 2050 Molecular Biology of the Cell and MBG 2040 Foundations in Molecular Biology and Genetics. The initial project plan was to use the Labster virtual simulations in a seminar format, with TAs leading a group of approximately 50 students through one simulation presented in front of the class. We envisioned that at each opportunity—that is, each quiz question or “user decision”—the TAs would ask the students for responses. We believed that this would encourage collaboration among students, stimulate discussions, and increase seminar engagement. We felt that this could be in some ways superior to individual use, and it allowed all students in these two courses (1,000 to 1,200) to experience these simulations with a limited number of licences.
This project design was a unique approach that had the potential to provide original data about non-conventional uses of these simulations. This format could have served as an example providing the framework for large-scale implementation of these simulations with minimal associated costs. Because many undergraduate courses in Ontario have a similar seminar-based structure, this information would have been very valuable as eCampusOntario looks to make online tools such as these accessible throughout the province.
However, once we had access to the full suite of simulation, it became clear that this format would not work. Our seminar sessions are 50 minutes in length. The simulations that were appropriate for our courses, in terms of content, each had 45 to 60 quiz questions, and it would not have been possible to complete them within the seminar time frame. In addition, the audio function of many of these simulations was not functioning properly and we felt this would be difficult to overcome in the tutorial setting. Eventually Labster generously provided an additional 1,200 licences enabling all students to use the simulations individually.
While we did receive some positive feedback from the students, much of the data collected in this project was similar to that already collected by Labster and other similar projects. For these reasons we were disappointed with the final design of this project. By and large the implementation was a worthwhile endeavour but did not present any new or unique findings and, as such, is of limited benefit.
The team for this project included the course coordinator (myself), the course instructors (two per course), and the chair of the MBG program curriculum committee. We communicated through regular curriculum meetings of which this virtual simulation project was a component. We communicated with learners through the course D2L websites, which is the main forum for information distribution in these courses. Links to the Labster website, access codes, and full account set-up instructions were posted on these sites. We also made multiple announcements about the project in lectures, and we were available via email for questions and support.
In MCB 2050 two simulations were integrated into the course, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) and Medical Genetics.
Two of the 10 learning outcomes in this course focus on understanding molecular techniques and biotechnology and their applications in the field of molecular biology. Without a lab component in this course it has been difficult to meet these technique-based learning outcomes through traditional lectures and assignments alone. We chose the two simulations because the concepts and techniques covered closely aligned with our course curriculum. Specifically, the technique polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is covered in detail in this course and in several course assessments. Tutorial 2 is entirely focused on the concept of PCR and primer design and has traditionally been very challenging for the students. In an attempt to support student understanding of this technique we made the CSI simulation, which focuses almost entirely on PCR, available before students attended Tutorial 2. Two bonus marks were given to students for completing the simulation before attending the associated tutorial and completing the assignment.
In MBG 2040, three simulations, Meiosis, Mendelian Genetics, and Monogenic Disorders, were offered as review and mid-term study aids. For these simulations, student participation was poor with only 17%, 9%, and 9% of the students participating respectively. We believe this was likely because of the lack of marks associated with completion. In addition to poor participation, many students did not fully complete the simulations.
Many students complained of technical difficulties with simulations not loading properly or freezing. We also noticed many students from both courses did not complete the simulations, and we believe the technical issues were a major contributing factor. These issues were most likely experienced because students were not all using compatible devices, but it may be that the inconvenience of needing to use a desktop computer was a deterrent particularly when there were no marks associated with completion, as was the case with the MBG 2040 simulations. In addition, the average length of completion appeared to have an impact on student attempts/completion, though this was not analyzed statistically.
From an educator perspective, the biggest challenge was finding simulations that fit well with our current curriculum. The CSI simulation was an excellent fit, but the other simulations were less so. Often only particular parts of the simulation matched course content or it was of a lower level than covered in these courses, resulting in limited value for reinforcing content. In some cases there was simply too much time devoted to one particular concept, and we felt that the time spent would not reflect how they would be assessed. It was for this reason that no marks were associated with the completion of the simulations other than the CSI lab.
Student participation varied for each simulation. Typically, each student completed a lab only once, though often several attempts were made. Likely this was due to the technical difficulties experienced as mentioned above.
While it appears as though technical difficulties were experienced in both courses, we were only made aware of them from students in MCB 2050. We believe it was the mark incentive that encouraged students to ask for assistance in completing the simulations in this course. Once the problem was identified, a post was made on both course websites suggesting that students use desktops. This was effective for MCB 2050 but appeared to have little positive impact on student participation and completion for MBG 2040.
Overall, the training, orientation, and support for the virtual labs was excellent from the educator prospective. While any students experiencing technical difficulties were directed to the Labster support team, no students actually contacted them.
We assessed the value of these simulations by attempting to analyze the impact of student participation on relevant student grades.
Results were separated by TAs. For seven of the eight TAs, the average Tutorial 2 grades were higher for students who completed the simulation before attending tutorial when compared to those who did not. However these results were not statistically significant (two-way ANOVA, p-value = 0.070). At any rate, because students self-selected for simulation participation it would not possible to establish clear causation.
In addition to analyzing student assessment grades, feedback surveys were emailed to students in the last week of classes. These surveys consisted of several questions regarding the tutorials in general, followed by three questions specifically about the Labster virtual simulations.
For MCB 2050, the feedback received on the CSI simulation was generally positive when asked if they found the simulation helpful in understanding PCR, a useful study aid, and if they would like to see more virtual simulations in their courses. For example, on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the most positive response, the average response was 73 when asked if this simulation helped students in understanding the concepts of PCR.
For MBG 2040, the feedback was generally poor, with average responses of less than 55 (on a scale of 100) for similar questions. These results were not unexpected as we had received some negative feedback about the simulations used in MBG 2040 via email.
We believe the student feedback responses directly reflect how well the simulations matched course content, which explains the positive feedback for the CSI simulation and poor feedback for the others.
These results will be communicated with the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology Undergraduate Curriculum Committee at our regular meetings.
We will continue to explore virtual tools as supplemental material for these courses and interactive and engaging activities for the seminars. As they stand, these simulations would not be suitable for continued use in these courses. Aside from the CSI simulation, the content covered was not closely matched with our learning objectives and did not fit with our time constraints. If educators had the ability to add and remove questions—perhaps even remove segments of the simulations—it would allow a tailored product that would be more beneficial to students. Not only would educators have more control over the length of the simulations but also over the content covered, there would also likely be more effective reinforcement of course concepts, which was the desired outcome for this project. More positive student feedback would also be more likely, as we have seen.
We are very cognizant of the time constraints students face and, therefore, tend to be reserved when assigning more activities and assessments unless they are of maximum value for time spent. Unfortunately, we did not feel that all of these simulations met these criteria. However, as Labster continues to develop these virtual labs we will revisit the simulations in our continued efforts to support our technique based learning objectives.
- As we have established, the alignment between supplemental material such as these virtual simulations and the course content it is meant to reinforce is essential for project success. Therefore, it is imperative that educators have full access to the product they are considering to use before committing to implementation. We found that while the demo lab safety simulation appeared to be an excellent product, most of the other simulations did not meet these expectations. We felt that we could not force students to participate, nor did we want to replace pre-existing course material without having full confidence that these simulations would be effective learning tools and a valuable use of students’ time.