University of Toronto

Project Description

The Human Biology in Action sandbox project closely builds on a previous research and innovation project at the University of Toronto (U of T), entitled Active Learning Opportunities through Virtual Lab Curricular Integration. Our original goal was to extend the availability of Labster resources across more courses and support an instructor-led research project to evaluate the student experience.

The project was successful in extending our capacity and building a community network of instructors interested in exploring this domain. A research project was successfully launched, and we were able to collect data across four courses. Data analysis is now complete and the instructors have prepared a journal paper based on this project.

We have continued interest and several projects and events planned for the coming months. The sandbox initiative has been successful as it has helped us to sustain our momentum in exploration of use of virtual reality in educational applications.

Team Description

This sandbox project extended work already underway at the university. Collaboration was undertaken by three U of T instructors at St. George campus and three staff members from Online Learning Strategies Portfolio who provided administrative coordination. A Labster specialist provided consultations for virtual lab content integration, logistics, and assessment components.

The project team included the project lead, Dr. Laurie Harrison, director, Online Learning Strategies, and three collaborating instructors:

  • Dr. Dawn Kilkenny, assistant professor, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering
  • Dr. Maria Papaconstantinou, associate professor, Human Biology Program
  • Dr. Ron Wilson, associate professor, Human Biology Program

This multi-expertise group has collaborated for over a year to identify relevant labs, design course curriculums, address IT integration aspects, implement Labster virtual labs in six undergraduate courses and one undergraduate summer research program, and evaluate the pilot phase of the project. With the eCampusOntario Sandbox licences, in addition to additional capacity available through the previous research and innovation grant, we were able to accommodate 315 students over the course of the summer semester of 2017–18.

Online Learning Strategies (OLS) staff were in contact with the collaborating instructors and Labster specialists to follow up with their progress of IT integration and pedagogical planning and to identify and address potential issues. The following meetings were coordinated and organized by OLS staff, along with ongoing communication on project activities:

  1. August 2017: Addressing technical integration of Labster virtual labs within Blackboard; sharing new course syllabuses.
  2. October 2017: Sharing feedback and early lessons learned.
  3. February 2018: Round table to discuss learning benefits of Labster virtual labs and potential next steps (summer 2019 and beyond).

Faculty development and capacity building for IT integration and curriculum design was ongoing and provided as needed. However, other than the initial setup of the Labster virtual lab links in Blackboard, the collaborating instructors required minimal support and assistance in implementing the labs. IT integration support was provided by an OLS staff member who was in contact with both the instructors and Labster support personnel.

The goal of curriculum design support was to ensure that Labster virtual labs as learning activities were explicitly contextualized within courses.

Integration Details

In conjunction with the sandbox project, instructors of two undergraduate courses and one undergraduate summer research program integrated Labster virtual labs in their curriculum as part of the Human Biology in Action Sandbox initiative. Here, we explain for each the course/program information, reasons for Labster virtual lab integration, Labster labs used, any changes in course grading scheme, and instructors’ reflection on the perceived benefits of labs for their students’ learning and any challenges that they may have faced. We used our ongoing communication with the instructors, their course syllabus, and the instructors responses to a Labster virtual lab integration survey.

Undergraduate Summer Research Program (USRP)
Offered through the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME), Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, the USRP accepts students from across undergraduate years and programs at U of T. In summer 2018, USRP was organized by Professor Dawn Kilkenny with 50 students enrolled. In this program, students could complete five out of 23 selected Labster labs and submit an anonymous feedback survey to count as one lab skills workshop. Dr. Kilkenny provided a general description for each lab and indicated the techniques that each lab facilitated.

Selected Labster labs for USRP students were:

  • Bacterial Isolation
  • Cell Culture Basics-Transfection
  • Mammalians Transient Protein Expression
  • Cancer cell Preparation For Mass Spectrometry
  • Biological Circuits
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Gene Expression
  • Gene Regulation
  • High-Performance Liquid Chromatography
  • Microscopy
  • Molecular Cloning
  • Next Generation Sequencing
  • Protein Synthesis
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Viral Gene Therapy
  • Pluripotent Stem Cell Culture
  • Cell Culture Basics
  • FACS
  • ChIP-exo
  • Tissue Engineering
  • Signal Transduction
  • Confocal Microscopy

According to Professor Kilkenny, two main objectives of integrating Labster labs in the USRP were (1) to provide lab work opportunity in courses with no existing labs, and (2) to provide an opportunity to work on a lab that did not currently exist. Completion of the labs were participation based and students could voluntarily opt to complete five labs and an exit survey to count as one lab skills workshop. The overall advantages of this integration effort for students in USRP were to have extended and unlimited access to lab material and processes that the program could not provide otherwise; an opportunity for students to use Labster labs to deepen their learning; and, for those working off-campus, increased and facilitated access to labs without the need to commute to campus to participate in single lab.

Having completed the first offering of USRP with integrated virtual labs, Professor Kilkenny reflected that she would consider requiring all students to complete the labs so that the instructional team can gain a better understanding of the impact of different mode of lab work on students’ learning.

HMB302: Vertebrate Histology and Histopathology

This third-year course is offered by Professor Ron Wilson at the Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Arts and Science. In summer 2018, 65 students registered in HMB302 and used the following Labster labs:

  • Cell Culture Basics
  • Confocal Microscopy
  • Microscopy
  • Mitosis
  • Smooth Muscle
  • Tissue Engineering

Professor Wilson was not available to answer the survey.

HMB265H, General and Human Genetics

Professor Maria Papaconstantino taught 200 students in this second-year course at the Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Arts and Science. In this course, two Labster labs were integrated:

  • Animal genetics
  • Cytogenetic

According to the course syllabus, completion of the two labs counted toward 5% of the final grade. To receive a completion grade, students needed to achieve a minimum mark of 50% in each lab before the deadline. The course syllabus also included technical information, general guidelines, and troubleshooting strategies while conducting Labster virtual labs. Students were advised to contact Labster in case their problems persisted. The syllabus suggested a template for such email communications so that students specify their course name, indicate the name of the lab, describe the problem, and add a screenshot of the error message.

Reasons for integrating Labster labs in HMB265, as Professor Papaconstantino indicated in the survey, were to increase students’ motivation, depth of understanding in the topic, and access to resources; to extend current teaching; and to provide lab work opportunity in seminar courses with no existing labs.

Labster virtual labs contain theory pages that explain the concepts used in the experiments. These theory pages further strengthen the link between theory and practice as students progress through labs. Another advantage of Labster labs for HMB265 students was extended access to the labs to deepen learning in a self-paced manner. Finally, Labster labs provided a new learning resource for students that did not exist before this integration. Informal feedback from students showed they valued how Labster labs combined theory with practice and suggested that the labs increased their knowledge of laboratory techniques. One success factor in lab integration, Professor Papaconstantino noted, was that labs were introduced early in the course.

Professor Papaconstantino proposed that for future offerings of this course, she would include Labster-specific questions in mid-term and final exam.

User Experience

As licence capacity from a previous grant was leveraged, a total of three instructors and 315 students used Labster virtual labs in two courses and one summer research program. Students had unlimited access to the labs that were selected for their course while the courses and the research program were in session.

TA support and training was part of usual training time and no additional time was required. Student support was not required either. Students did not require extra support to use Labster virtual labs.

The instructors did not report any technical issues during the fall 2017 integration process. Likewise, students did not face any technical problems while using the labs. In summer 2018, OLS staff successfully addressed licence expiry before then end of a program.


A program evaluation and a research study were carried out to document the virtual lab integration process and to explore the impact of the labs on students’ learning experience. OLS staff led an evaluation project that was approved as program evaluation, quality assurance, or quality improvement project and, thus, was exempt from research ethics review. The outcomes of the evaluation project are high-level insights regarding opportunities for use of virtual labs at U of T, which are available at

A research project was conducted by the collaborating instructors with Professor Papaconstantino as the principal investigator. To conduct the research study, the instructors applied for ethics approval. The goal of the study was to examine the effectiveness of online virtual labs in improving student learning and student satisfaction in participating undergraduate courses. Study participants were undergraduate students. Participation in this study was strictly voluntary. An email was sent to all the students enrolled in the courses through Blackboard and invited them to participate in the study. Also, the instructors invited the students to participate in the study in class. Data was collected through a survey with 10 multiple-choice questions and one open-ended question. Each instructor collected the survey responses in their own course either electronically or on paper. Comprehensive data analysis is underway for collected data. Here we provide a summary of findings from two fall 2017 courses. Also, the instructor of the USRP shared anonymous results of a Labster student experience survey that she distributed in the program.

The answers to the open-response question in the fall 2017 survey provided insight into benefits of Labster virtual lab integration as well as areas of improvement as perceived by the students. Here we have distilled these comments, as developed through the research project, into broad categories.

Benefits of Labster virtual labs integration:

  • Effective and thorough review of course concepts and theories, specifically complex concepts.
  • Interesting for demonstrating lab techniques and skills in detail.
  • Good learning resource (especially if it is available free of charge).
  • Helpful, accurate, and realistic animations and visualizations.
  • Useful for learning lab applications when there is no actual lab.
  • Provides better visualization than an actual lab.
  • Less expensive than physical labs.
  • Good additional resource.

Areas of improvement and potential drawbacks:

  • Simulations won’t replace a real lab; not ideal for developing lab techniques and skills for real labs.
  • Bugs need to be fixed; unexpected delays.
  • Sometimes tedious and non-engaging.
  • Navigation needs improvement.
  • Sometimes lab safety was not observed.
  • Lacks the option to pick up where one has left off (students could not save their progress and had to start over if they did not complete a lab in one session).

One of the instructors of the summer courses provided anonymous comments from the students who had completed the Labster labs, which we summarize here:

  • Theory pages were helpful.
  • Virtual labs were somewhat helpful.
  • Virtual labs could help prepare students for hands-on labs.
  • Virtual labs were easy to use.
  • Self-paced and unlimited access to labs was helpful to students learning.
  • Embedded quizzes and visualizations were helpful for learning.

Students would mostly choose to use the labs again, but students who provided feedback in this course, however, did not believe that Labster labs can completely replace hands-on labs.

In terms of dissemination, the collaborating instructors and the OLS staff members have already shared interim insights from this work and will present and publish the findings of this study in academic venues such as at the University of Toronto Teaching and Learning Symposium, at the University of Toronto AR–VR Community Showcase, and in a peer reviewed journal.

Future Plans

Cost: A major concern about sustainability of Labster virtual lab curriculum integration was the cost associated with the labs. Students were in favour of free access to the Labster virtual labs used in these selected courses in the 2017–18 academic year. In future, the instructors are interested in using selected Labster virtual labs that they need for their courses, instead of the current model wherein all Labs in the catalogue need to be purchased as a whole collection. Labster has introduced a new pricing model to accommodate this possibility.

Support: Available support and instructor time were not prohibiting factors in integrating Labster virtual labs into the courses. The seamless single-sign on integration with our learning management system (LMS) was noted as a critical success factor. As we are changing to a new LMS, we require a new cycle of IT staff system integration/testing with the Labster platform, which will occur in the fall 2019 term.

Future projects: We worked with Labster to use fully immersive Labster VR labs, accessed through Google Daydream headsets,  for a graduate Molecular Genetics courses. The course instructor and the OLS team collaborated on curriculum design for lab integration, preparing a research proposal, and creating a protocol for students’ access to headsets. This course is underway and the instructors are planning to write a journal paper to share their findings. We are also working with two other universities in Ontario to explore a possible joint research and evaluation program to continue our exploration of use of web-based labs in undergraduate programs.

Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

  • With their first Labster virtual labs curriculum integration completed, the instructors reflected on how these labs can enhance students learning in a more effective way. One instructor explained that in future, she would make the completion of Labster labs mandatory, instead of voluntary and participation based, so that the instructor better understands how the differences in students outcome in physical and virtual labs.
  • At this time, Labster virtual labs are non-customizable. The instructors expressed their interest in having more granular control over the labs so that they can select the most relevant section of the virtual labs to complement and extend their instruction. Labster virtual labs also include quiz questions that accompany each lab. The instructors suggested these questions can be modifiable to connect more seamlessly with course content and learning goals. During the fall 2017 semester, students taking Labster integrated courses shared informal comments about their experience with Labster virtual labs with their instructors. A desired improvement to the labs was the ability to save their work, exit the lab, and resume it later. Currently, upon exiting a Labster virtual lab, students need to start over from the first step.


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