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Distance Learning Labs: Are They Feasible?

by by Eddy van Hunnik, PhD, Carolina Distance Learning® Specialist on April 28, 2015
Best Practices: Getting Started in an Online Laboratory Course

Let me start by saying I have been teaching for a while now (too long to think about or admit to). When I started we had lecture classes and lab classes, all on campus. Students had to come in and do all the work there.

Then we were told we needed to start hybrid classes. Part of the course needed to be online since we had a shift in student population which were working adults. We all groaned and said this would be impossible: How can we ensure proper student work and maintain academic integrity? But we were told to go ahead and make it happen. We were adamant that if we had to it would only be lectures. Well, we started off and after some teething problems guess what—it worked! Students were happy and even for us as faculty it worked. We did not have to come to campus but could work in our homes.

Student population kept increasing and my college ran out of lab space. We were in an old part of Boston without a place to grow into. So just as a temporary solution we were asked: Why not do labs online? That caused the biggest uproar since the Boston Tea Party! That was impossible—students do not have equipment! What about safety? And chemical storage? The administration said the same thing: Just make it happen. We as the faculty kept pushing it off as long as possible but in the end, we had a partial online course. The basic, safe investigations were done at home while the more complicated, dangerous experiments were done in the lab. Of course the administration was not happy, but it worked as a compromise.

We were all surprised by how easy and quick the transition was. Students did the work and took pictures of themselves to prove they did. And there was an even bigger surprise: They enjoyed doing the labs in their homes. They now could show their family what they were doing and how interesting these investigations were. Even better, each student now had to do the experiment. We all know how it goes in a lab on campus: One student does the work while several others stand around. This does not work when we send the investigations to the student’s home. To our amazement, grades actually went up and our retention shot through the roof.

Now jump ahead a few years. I am now working for Carolina Distance Learning® and am designing the investigations. We have made huge leaps in the sort of investigations and quality since I started doing online labs. Most of the investigations are very similar if not identical to what students do in a physical lab on campus. The only difference are the supplies. The quantities of chemicals are scaled down to just what one student needs and are safe to use and dispose of in the home.

In conclusion, are distance learning labs feasible? The short answer is yes, at least for most undergrad programs. Why don’t you try one and check it out for yourself?

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