1 Why Interactive STEM: Instructional Design Considerations

Elena Chudaeva

Active Learning is based on Constructivism, a learning theory that asserts that learners construct their own understanding of a topic by building upon their prior knowledge. Implementing active learning therefore means shifting the focus of instruction away from knowledge transmission to learners’ knowledge construction through the creation of guided tasks, interactions, assignments, and environments that cultivate deep, meaningful learning. A closely related theory—Social Constructivism—holds that active learning best takes place when the construction of knowledge occurs in collaboration with others. Also, when choosing educational technology, it is always useful to make informed decisions based on the quality of the content, pedagogical effectiveness, ease of use, and accessibility. In general, it is wise to choose the most accessible resource which meets instructors’ needs, and plans for accessibility gaps in advance to ensure equal access to the curriculum for users with learning accommodations (MERLOT, 2020).

The Benefits of Using Virtual Labs, Online Simulations, and Interactive Web Resources

Active learning methods ask students to fully participate in their learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. In active learning classrooms, students may be asked to practice skills, solve problems, struggle with complex questions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words through writing and discussion. Active learning methods are especially effective for student learning when compared to classes that primarily consist of lecturing.

Faculty also argue that virtual labs are preferred when costly apparatuses and supplies are needed, or dangerous experiments are involved, but real labs are also needed to familiarize learners with real life future professional tasks and equipment. In general, teachers report that they do not differentiate one lab from the other and support the fact that both labs are essential to achieve a holistic view of reality as they both display interesting and useful features, suitable for learning (Tsichouridis et al., 2019).

Research shows that virtual labs may lead to an increase in non-cognitive outcomes such as motivation and self-efficacy that can result from doing virtual labs and lead to greater educational and life outcomes (Heckman & Kautz, 2012; Heckman et al. 2006; Makransky et al., 2016). Additionally, using simulations and virtual labs as gamification of the curriculum can be fun for students (Aljuhani et al., 2018; Carnevale, 2003).

Importantly, online labs may be most beneficial for students with special needs (Viegas et al., 2018) and interactive resources may be a good way to conduct problem-based learning and developing analytical thinking skills (Klentien & Wannasawade, 2016).

Interactions in Learning Environments

Anderson (2008) discusses three main types of interactions in learning environments:

  • teacher-student.
  • student-student.
  • student-content.

These interactions are critical components of the educational process. Active learning activities support all these interactions and provide meaningful and deep learning experiences for students. Read chapter 2, Towards a Theory of Online Learning from the book The Theory and Practice of Online Learning edited by Terry Anderson.


An image from The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, showing Educational interactions between a learner, a content and a teacher.
Note. From The Theory and Practice of Online Learning (chapter 2) [Image], by Terry Anderson, 2008, Athabasca University. Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 CA).

This figure illustrates six types of educational interactions:

  • learner-learner;
  • learner-teacher;
  • learner-content;
  • teacher-teacher;
  • teacher-content;
  • content-content.

By providing interactive and immersive experiences for students we focus on student-content interaction. Student-content interaction has always been a major component of formal education, even in the forms of library study or reading textbooks in face-to-face instruction. According to Anderson (2008),  Web 2.0 supports these more passive forms of student-content interaction, but also provides a host of new opportunities, such as immersion in micro-environments, exercises in virtual labs, and online computer-assisted learning tutorials.

Community of Inquiry

Introducing active learning activities, virtual labs and simulations help build and support a community of inquiry among learners.

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding (CoI Framework, n.d.).

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive, and teaching presences (CoI Framework, n.d.). Visit CoI Framework website for more information.


A screenshot taken from coi.athabascau.ca representing a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive, and teaching presence.
Note. Community of Inquiry [Infographic]. CoI Framework. https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/

All three presences produce educational experience. The intersection between social and cognitive presence supports discourse. The intersection between cognitive and teaching presences supports selecting content. The intersection between social and teaching presences supports setting climate.

Social Presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009, p. 352).

Teaching Presence is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes (Anderson et al., 2001).

Cognitive Presence is the extent to which learners can construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

Using available interactive web resources or creating your own rich web resources can support all three elements of Col in your own courses. For example, incorporating interactive activities (e.g., H5P) can enhance cognitive presence; providing an opportunity to discuss real life applications of the course content can support social presence;  active learning and collaborative exercises, which allow students to learn from one another, can reinforce teaching presence.

About Design of Virtual Science Lab Activities

Science lab activities are inquiry processes, and thus the Inquiry Framework suggested by de Jong et al. (2013) proved quite useful for thinking about the design of the virtual lab activities. This Inquiry Framework involves five steps:

  1. Orientation.
  2. Conceptualization.
  3. Investigation.
  4. Conclusion.
  5. Discussion.

During the Orientation phase, students are introduced to the problem: we motivate students to learn. In the Conceptualization phase, students learn about theoretical concepts related to the problem under investigation. The Investigation phase is about free exploration of the virtual science world or guided experimentation. During the Conclusion phase, students look back at their results and state conclusions. And lastly, the Discussion phase is critical for successful implementation of virtual science labs. Designing online lab activities this way also supports the social, teaching, and cognitive presences of the CoI framework mentioned earlier. Any support for developing self-regulated learning skills will help students use virtual labs successfully.

Read an illustration and sample activity of this approach in the article Supporting Students in Using Virtual Science Labs. Also, watch Design of Science Virtual Labs and Student Support.

Possible Challenges

Examining possible challenges is important for both educators and administrators. While external barriers to implementing new technology should be addressed at the institutional level, there are many other challenges faced by educators when attempting to implement new instructional technology in the classroom. First, we will explore challenges educators may experience followed by a discussion of some potential solutions to these challenges. The first challenge may be an internal barrier which includes the instructor’s attitudes and beliefs about the role of educational technology and pedagogy, confidence in their knowledge and skills, and resistance toward technology in the classroom. We have identified three general areas that should be addressed when integrating new technology into curriculum: access (internet connectivity issues and access to technological devices), training, and support. All three of these areas are applicable to teachers as well as students. To successfully implement new resources in the classroom, sufficient time and effort should be given to teachers’ professional development.

Potential challenges related to technology integration may include the following:

  1. Some students may not have access to the resources due to technical issues with their devices.
  2. Creating online hands-on activities requires additional time and effort for faculty.
  3. Community of practice plays a crucial role in supporting faculty using new tools, but this is an add-on to teaching responsibilities.
  4. Integrating new resources in meaningful way requires multiple attempts and iterations.
  5. Creating meaningful asynchronous active learning opportunities for diverse learners is very challenging.
  6. Finding a balance between direct instruction and free exploration in designing learning activities may require the support of an instructional designer and a learning- by-doing approach to faculty professional development .

Importantly, when adopting new classroom technologies, educators face the problem known online as the “double innovation” problem (Cleaver, 2014). This problem means that there is an additional layer of preparation teachers must work through. The teacher must first learn the technology well enough to utilize it in a classroom setting before deciding how to integrate the technology with classroom objectives and curriculum (Johnson, Jacovina, Russell, & Soto, 2016). The double innovation problem still results in additional preparation time.


Over the past couple of years, instructors have greatly increased their use of educational technology. However, we would like to share some strategies which may encourage instructors to continue using new technology as well as support their innovation in teaching and learning.

Teaching is a personal experience. Thus, in providing instructors with the choice of what technology tools to use will help make the process more comfortable.

Here are some suggestions for educators adopting innovative technology:

  1. Build in time for initial training. Be patient!
  2. If possible, seek instructional support from the Teaching and Learning Centre at your institution.
  3. Create alternative assessments (in case a student does not have access to technology, or the technology tool is not fully accessible).
  4. Be aware of accessibility features of a particular resource.
  5. Create a community of practice to be able to share successes and challenges with your colleagues and support each other.
  6. Share best practices and activities with other educators. Learn from and with peers.
  7. Be ready to make mistakes and learn from them.
  8. When introducing new technology in the classroom, make sure to allocate time for your students to learn the tool as well. When it comes to the actual use of new tools, unexpected challenges may arise.
  9. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, enjoy the learning process — of both yourself and your students! It can be a very rewarding experience to learn something new while also seeing your students learning new things.

Additional Resources

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative: 7 Things You Should Read About Instructional Strategies for Active Learning.

“Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born,” — Albert Einstein.


Aljuhani, K., Sonbul, M., Althabiti, M. & Meccawy, M. (2018). Creating a virtual science lab (VSL): the adoption of virtual labs in Saudi schools. Smart Learning Environments 5(16). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-018-0067-9.

Anderson, T. (2008). Towards a theory of online learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and practice of online learning (2nd Edition, pp. 45-74). Athabasca: Athabasca University. Retrieved from: http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120146.

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), Online (available).

Carnevale, D. (2003). The virtual lab experiment: Some colleges use computer simulations to expand science offerings online. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(21).

Cleaver, S. (2014). Technology in the Classroom: Helpful or Harmful? Retrieved from http://www.education.com/magazine/article/effective-technology-teaching-child/.

CoI Framework. (n.d.) https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/.

de Jong, T., Sotiriou, S., & Gillet, D. (2014). Innovations in STEM education: The Go-Lab federation of online labs. Smart Learning Environments, 1.

Garrison, D. R. (2009). Communities of inquiry in online learning: Social, teaching and cognitive presence. In C. Howard et al. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distance and online learning (2nd ed., pp. 352-355).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7-23.

Heckman, J. J., Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics, 24(3). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/504455.

Heckman, J., & Kautz, T. (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. Labour Econ.,19(4), 451–464. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612993/.

Johnson, A. M., Jacovina, M. E., Russell, D. E., & Soto, C. M. (2016). Challenges and solutions when using technologies in the classroom. In S. A. Crossley & D. S. McNamara (Eds.) Adaptive educational technologies for literacy instruction (pp. 13-29). New York: Taylor & Francis. Published with acknowledgment of federal support.

Klentien, U. & Wannasawade, W. (2016). Development of blended learning model with virtual science laboratory for secondary students. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Science, 217, 706-711.

Makransky, G., Thisgaard, M. W., & Gadegaard, H. (2016). Virtual simulations as preparation for lab exercises: Assessing learning of key laboratory skills in microbiology and improvement of essential non-cognitive skills. PLoS ONE, 11(6).

MERLOT. (2020). Virtual Labs by MERLOT. https://virtuallabs.merlot.org/index.html.

Tsichouridis, C., Vavougios, D., Batsila, M., & Ioannidis, G. (2019). The optimum equilibrium when using experiments in teaching – Where virtual and real labs stand in science and engineering teaching practice. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (IJET), 14(23), 67–84. https://doi.org/10.3991/ijet.v14i23.10890.

Viegas, C., Pavani, A., Lima, N., Marques, A., Pozzo, I., Dobboletta, E., Atencia, V., Barreto, D., Calliari, F., Fidalgo, A., Lima, D., Temporao, G., & Alves., G. (2018). Impact of a remote lab on teaching practices and student learning. Computers and Education, 126, 201–216.


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Engaging STEM: A Guide to Interactive Resources Copyright © 2021 by Elena Chudaeva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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