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Science Online - Bringing the Laboratory Home

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Laboratories are an essential component of science courses. Experimentation provides students with real-world contexts to apply scientific concepts, develop critical thinking skills, and engage in scientific processes. For the online educator, designing laboratories can be challenging, but lab kits, field experiences, simulations, and remote instrumentation can enable students to investigate fundamental concepts from their locations. 



The posting below looks at some approaches to providing laboratory experiences to on-line science students.  It is from Chapter 5 – Science Online - Bringing the Laboratory Home, by Mary V. Mawn, SUNY Empire State College in the book, Teaching Science Online: Practical Guidance for Effective Instruction and Lab Work, edited by Dietmar K. Kennepohl. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright ©  2016 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Online Science Laboratories: Possibilities and Options


In addition to identifying laboratory approaches (i.e., expository, inquiry, discovery, and problem-based experiments) and defining goals and objectives in the knowledge domains (i.e., cognitive, psychomotor, and affective), delivering the lab components must be considered. In the on-campus setting, cost and space considerations aside, students generally have ready access to instrumentation, equipment, reagents, and materials. This is not the case for online students, who are often unable to travel to campus because of time limitations, distance, or both.

Cancilla and Albon (2008) described several approaches for engaging online students in laboratory experiences. In the hybrid model, students view lectures and participate in other activities online (e.g., discussions, virtual labs) but are required to travel to campus for in-person laboratory experiences. Sessions might be scheduled throughout the semester (i.e., weekly) or held during focused, intense periods of time (i.e., over a weekend). Another option is through partnerships with regional centers or campuses that provide face-to-face, mentored laboratory experiences for online students. Again, this requires students to travel to specific locations to fulfill their laboratory requirement.

Additional options include the use of lab kits, field-based experiments, computer simulations, and remote instrumentation (Hallyburton & Lunsford, 2013; Kennepohl, 2009; Mawn, Carrico, Charuk, Stote & Lawrence, 2011; Waldrop, 2013). Similar to on-campus laboratory settings, each approach challenges educators to design learning experiences that address appropriate objectives and outcomes and ensure that the desired skills and concepts are being taught. Benefits and limitations of various options are outlined in the following:

-       Lab kits, in combination with household items, provide the means to conduct experiments at home on a smaller scale and without the need for expensive equipment (Casanova, Civelli, Kimbrough, Heath, & Reeves, 2006; Jeschofnig, 2009; Reeves & Kimbrough, 2004). This engages online students in authentic, hands-on experiences that promote technical skills development and conceptual understanding, with the small quantities being used reducing hazards and risks. Many science vendors offer commercially available prepackaged lab kits. Faculty can also design customized lab kits based on their online courses. However, kit-based investigations can be limited in scope because of the cost and availability of specialized equipment and materials; the inability to repeat experiments because of limited reagents, which requires greater dexterity when conducting experiments that can be done only once; and concerns related to material disposal and lab safety (Crippen, Archambault, & Kern, 2013).

-       Field-based experiments provide students with real-world opportunities to collect and analyze data from their locations (Reuter, 2009; Waldrop, 2013). Nature centers, zoos, parks, and even backyards can serve as field stations for experimentation. This eliminates the costs associated with setting up comparable sites on campus, and the cost to the student is often minimal. In addition, the online setting provides an ideal forum for students to share, discuss, and compare data collected from a variety of locations. For example, citizen science projects such as Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology connects scientists, conservationists, engineers, educators, and students as they engage in scientific discovery and collect data on wildlife in their local communities ( A downside to field-based experimentation is that opportunities may be limited in some locations and may be dependent on particular climates or seasons. In addition, topics can be discipline specific and may not be an option for many courses.

-       Computer simulations provide alternatives to complex experiments that might be too large, expensive, or dangerous for physical manipulation or not feasible for a large number of students (Feisel & Rosa, 2005). When properly designed with options for variation, such programs can allow students to adjust parameters and experiment in ways that might not be possible in a traditional lab (Carnevale, 2003; Fiesel & Rosa, 2005; Pyatt & Sims, 2012; Schwab, 2012). In addition, simulations can provide students with prelab experiences prior to conducting hands-on experiments (Feisel & Rosa, 2005). For example, the University of Colorado Boulder offers free interactive, research-based simulations that actively engage students through inquiry (see About PhET: Free online physics, biology, earth science, and math simulations at Unfortunately, authentic simulations can be costly and time-consuming to create (Casanova et al., 2006) and are not readily available in all topic areas and disciplines. In addition, although simulations can provide students with opportunities to design experiments, make observations, and collect data, tactile learning and technical skills development can be limited (e.g., learning how to handle equipment, apply sterile techniques).

-       Remote instrumentation gives students online access to scientific apparatus for manipulation, data collection, and analysis (Baran, Currie, & Kennepohl, 2004; Crippen et al., 2013; Hallyburton & Lunsford, 2013). This provides students with concrete and authentic lab experiences complete with the possibility of error and potential for generating unexpected results (Baran et al., 2004; Petre, 2011). For example, the North American Network of Science Labs Online ( and the British Columbia Integrated Laboratory Network ( offer remote access to scientific instrumentation for analyzing provided and student-collected samples. One downside to this approach is that it can be costly to maintain instrumentation, facilities, and remote access (Hallyburton & Lunsford, 2013). In addition, students’ experiences with manipulating equipment and materials using remote instruments will differ from those gained through on-campus experiences.

Although there may be limitations to these approaches, there are numerous possibilities as well. The challenge is not to simply recreate campus-based experiments in online settings. Rather, a key component is to specify the goals and objectives for each laboratory experience and design experiments using the tools, methods, concepts, and technical skills that will enable students to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

Learning Outcomes in Online Science Courses

A number of studies have explored ways that science can be taught online, with a specific focus on the laboratories. This work provides the necessary data and evidence to show what is and is not possible. These findings also provide much-needed insights and examples, which will help online science educators define best practices for course design and instruction. Three examples of such studies are summarized in this section.

In the first study, students enrolled in on-campus and online versions of general chemistry were compared to determine the effectiveness of alternative approaches to instruction (Casanova et al., 2006). The face-to-face students completed experiments on campus, whereas online students conducted “kitchen chemistry” experiments. To compare these groups, the researchers collected qualitative and quantitative data, the latter in the form of final exam and laboratory practical scores. Overall, the online students were satisfied with their experiences and appreciated the flexibility but found the course more difficult than a conventional course. Regardless of this perception, the online students scored significantly higher on the final exam and achieved greater scores in every category of the on-campus lab practical (procedure, data presentation, and data analysis). This indicated that the online students had little difficulty using glassware and equipment during the practical, despite the fact that they used common household items during the semester (Casanova et al., 2006).

In the second study, online students of a junior-level fluid mechanics laboratory engaged in video-based, “hands off” experiments by watching recordings of an instructor and student conducting experiments, and the face-to-face students conducted identical experiments on campus (Abdel-Salam, Kauffman, & Crossman, 2006). The effectiveness of these approaches was measured by comparing achievement on eight laboratory reports and a final exam. Although the two groups performed similarly on the final exam, the online students achieved higher averages on the laboratory reports. Comparing responses on the final exam, the researchers found both groups scored similarly on their overall writing performance, although the distance learning students outperformed their counterparts in technical comprehension. These results show that the lack of a hands-on experience did not negatively affect the performance of the online students (Abdel-Salam et al, 2006).

In the third study, online and on-campus students in a general education soil science course were compared to determine if online students could effectively learn laboratory skills in a field-based course using lab kits (Reuter, 2009). Similar lab experiments were conducted by the two groups, with several of the field experiments being identical. Lab assignments and final course averages between the groups were similar. However, pre- and postassessment results revealed differences. The online students showed greater gains and scored higher on the postassessment, with an average score increase of 42% (online) versus 21% (on campus). In addition, when researchers compared postassessment student essays and a skills test for hand-texturing soils, they found both groups scored similarly. These finding show no significant difference between the online and on-campus formats in achieving learning outcomes, with the online students showing greater gains in the postassessment (Reuter, 2009).


Abdel-Salam, T., Kauffman, P.J., & Crossman, G. (2006). Does the lack of hands-on experience in a remotely delivered laboratory course affect student learning? European Journal of Engineering Education, 31(6), 747-756.

Baran, J., Currie, R., & Kennepohl, D. (2004). Remote instrumentation for the teaching laboratory. Journal of Chemical Education, 81(12), 1814-1816.

Cancilla, D.A., & Albon, S.P. (2008). Reflections from the moving the laboratory online workshops: Emerging themes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12(3-4), 53-59.

Carnevale, D. (2003). The virtual lab experiment. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(21), A30.

Casanova, R.S., Civelli, J.L., Kimbrough, D.R., Heath, B.P., & Reeves, J.H. (2006). Distance learning: A viable alternative to the conventional lecture-lab format in general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 83(3), 501-507.

Crippen, K.J., Archambault, L.M., & Kern, C.L. (2013). The nature of laboratory learning experiences in secondary science online. Research in Science Education, 43(4), 1029-1050.

Hallyburton, C.L., & Lunsford, E. (2013). Challenges and opportunities for learning biology in distance-based settings. Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching, 39(1), 27-33.

Kennepohl, D. (2009). Science online and at a distance. American Journal of Distance Education, 23(3), 122-124.

Mawn, M.V., Carrico, P., Charuk, K., Stote, K.S., & Lawrence, B. (2011). Hands-on and online scientific explorations through distance learning. Open Learning, 26(2), 135-146.

Pyatt, K., & Sims, R. (2012). Virtual and physical experimentation in inquiry-based science labs: Attitudes, performance and access. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21(1), 133-147.

Reeves, J., & Kimbrough, D. (2004). Solving the laboratory dilemma in distance learning general chemistry. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(3), 47-51.

Reuter, R. (2009). Online versus in the classroom: Student success in a hands-on lab class. American Journal of Distance Education, 23(3), 151-162.