For the fall semester of 2017, 680 students were registered in my course CHM1701/1711 (Principes de chimie). The original project foresaw using Labster in both a traditional course in the fall semester and a fully online course in the winter 2018 semester. In mid-October, it was not clear whether a fully online course would be ready by January (but it did get delivered with about 50 students, and again in the spring semester with over 100 students, and the students were required to purchase heavily discounted Labster licences). Therefore, we made use of this project’s Labster licences in fall 2017, with 149 of our 150 licences attributed to volunteer students in CHM1701/1711. One licence was set aside for an undergraduate student employed by me to help out with the project. The 149 students were fairly representative of the entire student population of CHM1701/1711, skewing slightly toward high achievers. But overall, the group had roughly the same distribution of francophone Canadians, francophone internationals, and French immersion Canadians as the entire CHM1701/1711 class.
At the time of the application for this project, it was anticipated that only original English-language Labster experiments would be used. However, in a separate project funded by the University of Ottawa and in-kind contributions from Labster, all virtual simulations associated with this project were translated into French and made available to the 149 students. In fact, the students were free to choose between the original English simulation and the translated French versions. Roughly one-third chose English, and two-thirds French (it is university policy to have the right to submit evaluations in the language of your choice). Our partnership in the translation of the experiments allows us to offer Labster at a substantially reduced price, for both our fully online course and our traditional course.
Our traditional CHM1701/1711 course has five experiments in the “real” lab setting. The 149 student volunteers did three of these five experiments and four virtual simulations. Anecdotally, the feedback from the students on the virtual simulations (and the translations) was very positive. Labster also did a survey at the conclusion of the virtual simulations, and 94% of the feedback was positive. A more detailed survey was conducted independently by the university. One set of questions was sent to the 149 participants, and another survey was sent to the students who did not participate. The survey results indicated clearly that the project was a success.
As professor of the course, and as vice-dean of the faculty, I took care of all of the logistics associated with the project. The survey and analysis was conducted by Jovan Groen from the University of Ottawa’s Teaching and Learning Support Service. As for the students, they were volunteers from all my CHM1701/1711 classes, which total 680. Though students can be from any faculty, they tend to come from Science, Engineering, and Health Science, and to a much lesser degree, Social Science (the B.Sc. Psychology program). Communication throughout was between me and my students as I handled the process of enlisting volunteers and fielding questions regarding Labster. Mr. Groen communicated with the students directly to conduct the survey.
As stated above, I incorporated four experiments from the Labster analytical chemistry and general chemistry libraries: Titrations, Acid-Base Reactions, Equilibrium, and Ionic and Covalent Bonds. Licences were issued to each of the volunteer students, who replaced two experiments in the traditional laboratory with these four simulations. This was done exclusively within a first-year general chemistry course where I was the sole instructor (other sections are taught in English, and they did not take part in this trial).
The virtual experiments allowed the students on several occasions to perform experiments that were not possible in a traditional setting. Many of the students commented that the accompanying videos and texts allowed them to better understand the theory behind the experiments they were carrying out. The multiple-choice questions left them little choice but to consult these pedagogical materials if they wished to get a high mark.
As an educator, I was pleased to see how students were repeating experiments until they got perfect scores, requiring them to master the material. Though virtual laboratories could seem to be a solitary activity, I was aware of some students having virtual “Labster parties” where they would go through the experiments together.
It is clear that, overall, the students were extremely happy with the use of Labster. The numerical results within the survey they completed clearly indicate that the students felt they learned quite a bit from the virtual experiments. It should be noted that many commented that we should not entirely replace the traditional laboratory with simulations (this was not our intention at any time). So a hybrid approach of real and simulated experiments would seem to be the approach of choice for both educators and learners.
There was one technical issue with one of the simulations, and it was not clear if it was a result of our translation or an error in the programming. It has since been resolved by Labster.
There were no complaints from the students on our French translations of the Labster simulations.
All in all, the survey clearly indicated that the experiment of incorporating Labster within CHM1711 was a success. Independent of this program, we committed to incorporating Labster within our traditional fall 2018 and fall 2019 CHM1711 courses. It has been used in our online offerings of CHM1311 and CHM1711 in winter and spring 2018, and the same will be done in winter and spring 2019.
We conducted a survey of those who took part in the Labster trial, and 75 of 149 learners responded. My department and faculty have been notified of the results, but I did not want to push for incorporation within the English sections of the course or within other courses in other departments until looking at results of surveys where students were required to pay for the licences. Given that the licences were free, students may not have had much invested in Labster. This year, with the students paying for the licences, we can assess whether students feel they are “getting their money’s worth.”
Overall, the survey indicated that students enjoyed the virtual laboratories. Of particular note:
- Students strongly agreed that they learned the concepts behind the experiments.
- Students felt strongly that they learned much about security and lab techniques through the simulations.
- Students reported that feedback provided throughout the simulations was good.
- Students felt they learned much more about theory with the virtual simulations, and there was a very slight preference for the virtual laboratories when it comes to learning safety and technique.
- Students reported that they would be very willing to retry a hybrid approach as we did in this trial or even a fully virtual laboratory. However, in the free format comments, many students indicated that a hybrid approach is far preferable and the traditional, or “real,” laboratory should not be abandoned.
In winter 2018 and spring 2018, over 150 students (combined) took my fully online course, in both official languages, and the purchase of a discounted Labster licence was mandatory (a result of our collaboration on translating their virtual chemistry experiments). We will again offer fully online courses in winter and spring 2019, and the use of Labster will again be mandatory, with the discount remaining in effect.
In the fall 2018 semester, in my traditional format of the CHM1701/1711 course, the use of Labster was optional and was being assigned a weight of 10%. The weight of the traditional lab was being reduced from 25% to 20% as we cut five experiments down to four (our fall 2017 trial had done a reduction of five to three), and 5% was reduced from the weight of the final exam. For those students opting out of Labster (at the time of writing, it was too early to know the percentage), the 10% goes to the weight of their final exam. The same will be done in fall 2019. The discounted licence agreement remains in place for at least up until the fall 2019 semester.
If possible, we would like to continue our translation partnership with Labster and maintain its use in my course. In each academic year, we expect this to approach nearly 1,000 students, distributed across my traditional fall course (French only) and my fully online winter and spring courses (both official languages). Very little support is required to maintain this arrangement.
Incorporating virtual simulations, in my case, was made a bit easier given my administrative role and seniority. I could foresee younger faculty members having trouble instituting such changes.
- First and foremost, the use of virtual simulations is only possible within an existing course by cutting back on other activities. In my original implementation, it replaced 40% of the “in-person” or “traditional” laboratory. Now, it replaces only 20%, and the weight of the theoretical component of my course had to make up the difference. Cutting back on the lab component, in any way, has consequences on TA duties for graduate students who require funding, and alternative solutions must be found. Given my administrative role, this is something I could overcome, but it is not easily done.
- Incorporating Labster was very easy. The support from the company itself was excellent, and the students overwhelmingly enjoyed the experience. Of course, this came with free licences, and the satisfaction level may not be the same if students feel that they did not get their money’s worth.