The primary aim of this project was to pilot virtual labs as an augmentation for physical labs as the Faculty of Science starts to develop more online programs where labs are still critical learning tools. The Labster labs were seen as a way to prepare students for on-campus labs, whether for online, hybrid, or on-campus courses.
The project is progressing slowly for a number of reasons, including implementation of new policies for educational technologies that apply a much more rigorous approach to evaluating privacy and risk abatement, and the implementation of our new enterprise resource planning (ERP) technologies, which have consumed all IT and many human resources, and placed significant limits on implementation of any new tools.
Despite the challenges, there is considerable interest from Forensic Sciences in using several of the labs as a regular part of their curriculum, starting with two courses that do not have textbooks (both courses rely on instructor-created resources at no cost to the students). The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is also interested in including Labster virtual labs in their new online courses. The first of these courses was planned to run in the winter 2019 term.
One microbiology course (primarily for nurses) and one forensics course successfully trialled Labster. Both made the lab usage non-compulsory, but the microbiology course assigned bonus marks for completion and also for completing a survey on their experience. The forensics course was not able to use the tool from the start of term, so it had less usage.
One of the challenges we encountered was integration with our learning management system (LMS) because of ongoing instability with the UWindsor systems, limited technical resources available due to the ERP implementation, and a new policy and procedure for making changes to the LMS that has just been implemented. Issues with instability were mostly resolved with an update, and Labster offered to host access through their own LMS to avoid any issues during the pilot (which is still the case for any ongoing usage). Labster had to be submitted to the new privacy impact and risk assessment process that is being implemented, and this is ongoing.
Students in the microbiology course provided qualitative feedback on their experience, while those in the forensics course did not. Both instructors indicated they saw value in the labs, and the forensics instructor plans to use them in at least two courses on an ongoing basis, with students paying for the cost of access. Both indicated a strong preference for students not having to pay, but the unbundling of labs and cost per lab that Labster offered was considered acceptable.
The team consisted of the director of the Office of Open Learning, dean of Science, and individual faculty members who agreed to pilot the labs in their courses, plus the Labster team.
Labster was demonstrated to the provost, AVPA, and dean of Science with a visit to campus from the Labster team. An open workshop was held following that, and faculty who attended were invited to be involved in the pilot. A second workshop was also held and advertised to the campus through channels such as the Daily News (daily email newsletter to all of campus), communication through target departments and faculties, and communication directly to potential faculty.
In selected courses, Labster provided template information on how to access and use Labster, which was disseminated to students through the LMS. Student/instructor/course information was manually provided to Labster, and a Google Doc was used to track the project with Labster’s team.
Two faculty were chosen to pilot the labs. Both chose not to make the labs mandatory, but the microbiology instructor offered bonus marks for completing the labs and a survey on their experience. No incentives were provided in the forensics course. Both instructors promoted the labs to their learners as supplemental materials that would help them learn the practical concepts.
Microbiology: The microbiology course had approximately 120 learners. This course typically does not have a lab in the online section (on-campus sections do, so this tool helps to make the courses more equitable and equivalent in learning), so the labs provided learning that would not have otherwise have been available to the students. The instructor selected five labs for students to engage with, and they were told to complete a minimum of two, plus the qualitative survey, in order to receive bonus marks. Some students who were familiar with physical labs from other courses indicated that they were impressed by how well the labs replicated a typical lab environment, and they saw value in them for that reason. The instructor in the course also indicated that she saw value, but was concerned about cost to students because she uses a commercial textbook and did not want to add any costs for students. There is an existing open text that may be suitable for the course, which may make it more viable beyond the pilot. At least one student recognized that there is an open textbook in the area that might be a substitute, and would be happy to pay for the labs if the textbook was open access.
Forensics: The forensics course is a fully online course as well, which does not typically have labs in the online section, so the labs were considered supplementary. Access to the labs was not available from the start, so much lower usage was seen, and no reliable data was collected from students. The instructor, however, saw considerable value in these labs, and hopes to continue using them in other courses. He has experimented with most of the labs currently available in Labster and selected a series of them to apply to his courses. As with the microbiology instructor, there were serious concerns about cost, but the forensics courses typically do not have textbook costs as the instructors use their own created resources, so the cost of individual labs was seen as not being too prohibitive to proceed.
Students and instructors reported a simple sign-up and access process (even though Labster was not integrated to the LMS), and few technical issues overall. Students generally only accessed the desktop version of the tool, but reported that they enjoyed using it, and most indicated they would be happy to use it, with the caveat that it should contribute to the overall grade in the course.
We do not have data on how often the labs were used, but the microbiology students indicated they used it fairly often.
The microbiology instructor selected five labs for students to access, while the forensics instructor selected two. Students described the labs as fun, challenging, authentic, intuitive, fluid, and easy to comprehend. Some said the labs helped them to understand the theoretical concepts, as well as introducing them to the practicalities. Others talked about how they reinforced their understanding.
Students commented that the labs were at about the right level for introductory microbiology, and took a reasonable amount of time to complete.
Some students (and the instructor) reported lagging and slowness at times. Most were accessing labs over wireless connections and, as they were using their own devices, may have had older or lower-level equipment. A small number of the students said they would not pay for the simulations for a range of reasons (most often because they didn’t think they would be crucial to the course), or would only pay for them if they contributed to their grades.
No issues were found to be blockers to the use of Labster. The challenges that did exist were usually related to the university’s own IT capacity, or internal policies and procedures. For example, a new privacy impact and risk assessment approach for new technologies (and especially those that interface with other systems on campus such as the LMS through LTI) was implemented during the pilot and Labster is still going through that process. This is a necessary and important step, but it does take considerable time, and because the process is in beta, it is not always clear. One flag that has arisen in that process is that Labster’s standard terms and conditions allow them to collect data from student activity for their own purposes, but students by default have no way to opt out of that (student data is by default able to be used for the above purposes), and it is difficult to determine how to either opt out or remove data. This issue is not resolved yet to allow for full integration. However, if students do choose to read the terms and conditions, they will find them relatively unambiguous and clear on what Labster intends to do with the data, including limits. The university is looking at whether there is a way to facilitate positively affirmed consent, or to remove the ability to use student data by default.
Throughout our engagement, the Labster team have provided good communication, engagement, flexibility, and support.
The microbiology course used an online survey (administered by the faculty member) that included open-ended questions that asked about:
- Ease of use of the simulation/software.
- Level of difficulty/content.
- How useful/relevant the simulation would be as a resource for Introductory Microbiology.
- How interesting/engaging students found it.
- How students felt about the idea of paying for access to this type of software.
Student responses were anonymous. Responses were collated and themes were derived from the data.
The forensics instructor chose not to formally evaluate the student response due to the limited nature of the usage in his course.
Labster was found to be sustainable and useful as a tool, using the student-pay model. Further piloting is planned over the coming year following a full privacy impact and risk assessment evaluation. This will allow it to be integrated to the LMS once technical capacity is restored to the LMS team. Some customization of the connection between the LMS and Labster may be needed to allow students to opt out of their data being used for Labster’s own research. We are currently investigating the feasibility of this.
Faculty will continue to be offered pedagogical support for intentionally integrating virtual labs and simulations into their courses. We also look forward to the release of the lab builder tool to allow for customization of the simulations.
A number of lessons learned may be helpful for others.
- Explore unbundling to allow instructors to choose the individual labs that make sense to their course and their students. Determine the point at which it will become cheaper to buy access to the full catalogue.
- It is very important to thoroughly vet the contract that will cover the use of the tool. Particularly, the use of student data while in the system, data passed from the LMS if integrated, and any opt-in/opt-out capabilities that may exist.
- Students will have variable access to the labs depending on their computing equipment, Internet speed, and so on. Ensure there are alternatives on campus available for people who can’t access the labs from home or elsewhere, and consider what the alternative may be if students are unable to complete the work for other reasons (e.g., medical reasons).
- Think of the simulations as an augmentation to physical labs, not a replacement for them.
- Students are more likely to complete the labs if they receive recognition for that work, usually in the form of a contribution to their grades.