Next Online Ed Challenge: Recreating Science Labs

A science laboratory, with its long, chemical-resistant tables, Bunsen burners and beakers, has been a staple of learning science in middle school, high school and beyond. Now, as online education becomes ever more popular – and more accessible – course designers are wondering how to transform the hands-on learning of the science lab into a virtual experience.

As M. Mitchell Waldrop of Nature Magazine explains, it's a difficult nut to crack, and an online-only approach to teaching science may never be considered on par with the real thing.

The approach adopted by massive online open courses – made up chiefly of online videos and interactive exercises – is great for teaching facts, formulas and theory. But without the practicum, students can't be considered to have absorbed and understood the knowledge. Or can they?

Bringing such experiences online is tricky, but education-technology researchers have been making substantial progress over the past decade. Thanks to smartphones, immersive gaming software and other rapidly evolving technologies, says James Gee, an education-technology researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe, "we can do problem-focused learning way better now" — and can make it available to students around the planet. "It's a way to give everyone the kind of education we used to think of as a luxury," he says.

For MOOC designers, looking forward means looking back – specifically at the pioneer of distance learning, The Open University, headquartered in Milton Keynes, England. OU offers a number of degree programs, including physics, chemistry, biology, health sciences and engineering, where a practical component is essential. Prior to wide availability of the internet, students who were enrolled in courses that would traditionally offer a lab would receive experimental kits in the mail and after completing the tasks assigned would mail them back.

Today, almost all the lab work is available online through the university's OpenScience Laboratory. Just like many working scientists, students can collect real data from remotely controlled instruments — among them a γ-ray spectrometer for identifying elements and isotopes, and a 0.43-metre telescope in Majorca, Spain. Students can also explore real data with simulated instruments such as the virtual microscope, with which they look at high-resolution images instead of real specimens. "They zoom in, adjust the focus and control where in the sample they're looking," says Sharples — just as they would on real instruments.

OU Courses aren't analogous to MOOCs, but one of the largest MOOC providers in the world, Coursera, is learning from OU's experience. According to Daphne Koller, Coursera's co-founder, the company is working to make the same kind of practical software a part of all its courses right along with videos and the exercises.

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