My Labster Experience: Tom Haffie, Western University

With over two thousand students, Prof. Tom Haffie from Western University in Canada oversees one of the largest groups of students using Labster. The class uses a blended learning format that was implemented as a way to provide students with a digital bridge between tutorials and practicals. We talked to him about why the university decided to implement a virtual learning tool at such a large scale, and how it has worked for him and his students.

Virtual labs: the digital bridge between dry and wet labs

Prof. Haffie teaches an Intro Bio course that has two lectures per week. Between the lectures, the students have guided study assignments where they work on their own online. In a parallel structure, students have two types of “skill development” sessions: a “dry” lab in a classroom followed the next week by a “wet” lab in a typical laboratory. Labster fits in as a “digital bridge” that links what the students learn in the dry lab and what they practice in the wet lab.

Prof. Haffie explained how this bridge worked as a way to replace the traditional lab manual: “In our dry lab we talk about, for example, microbiology. Students do a simple experiment; they put their thumbprint on a petri dish, they wash their hands with different kinds of sanitizer, they put their thumbprint on again, and over the week, those plates incubate and the students then go on to do the Labster simulation. Then, when they go on to do the wet lab, they can streak plates, do dilutions, and do some of the things they saw on the simulation. So we no longer have a lab manual, we only have just-in-time instruction.”

By blending the lab in this way, the university no longer has the need for physical documents. The introduction to the lab is in their LMS, and the entire preparation for labs takes place online. 

Three benefits of using virtual labs

Digging deeper into the motivations behind using Labster as a part of the school’s blended learning format, Prof. Haffie described three main benefits of Labster’s simulations: Providing students with context to help them understand the importance of what they’re learning, letting them fail safely and learn from that failure, and giving them the opportunity to see and experience the basic structure of the wet lab in advance.

First, Prof. Haffie explained how Labster fits into the university’s system as a way to provide context: “Since it can sometimes be hard to motivate and engage students in content that they don’t immediately see the relevance of, we use Labster to provide context and help the students see how what they are learning “fits” into important real world situations. Labster’s case stories help the students relate the content and skills they are learning in school to their real life.” 

Furthermore, Labster is used as a physically and psychologically safe environment in which students can try experiments in advance, possibly fail and get frustrated, learn from that failure, and then enter the wet lab primed for success. For example, Prof. Haffie explained how in one simulation, students are tasked with centrifuging a tube. In this experiment, the students have to discover that the centrifuge needs to be balanced by adding a second tube. But many students only put in one tube, and therefore struggle to complete the experiment. “Intuitively it seems more effective to have the students fail safely online, and then figure out in advance how to get the experiment to work, than to just have them read the protocol in a manual.”

The students at Western University aren’t graded on the score they get in the simulations. Instead they get academic credit just for the completion. Prof. Haffie explained how this method helped make sure that the students would properly prepare for the experiments: “In the past we would ask students to read a chapter in the lab manual before they came to class, so they would know what to do. But students are busy and they find it hard to prioritize. Labster serves as a much more engaged and accountable version of this lab manual, ensuring that more students are coming to the lab prepared.”

What do the students say?

In a survey completed by Prof. Haffie’s 2000 students, roughly three quarters found Labster to be a useful learning tool. Prof. Haffie explained that some students don’t enjoy Labster due to frustration they experience with the simulations: “Some students throw up their hands and say it isn’t working, even though the problem is just that they’re doing something wrong, such as picking up the wrong type of tube. Some students are quick to blame the software or hardware for what is in fact their own lack of understanding or willingness to problem-solve.”

To reduce such frustrations with the simulations, the course has now been designed to promote collaboration and communication among students, so that they can support each other. The students are divided into groups of four in lab sections of 40. “We encourage the students to work together on Labster, because, for us, it’s not about the students getting the content questions right, it’s about them working through the labs, so they understand it and don’t get in trouble in the wet lab.” If the students do get stuck, they have their three team members, their TA in their lab section, or their online forums, where they can reach out and ask questions at any time. “This makes the course essentially infinitely scalable,” Prof. Haffie added.

Prof. Haffie further described how the collaboration in teams, and the way that Labster had become a part of that, helped the students prepare for their practical sessions: “Our students work in the same teams of four from day one. Part of team-based learning is individual accountability, and every time the students go to a team meeting they need to have done their homework, so that they can contribute. In our implementation, Labster is a part of that individual accountability. When you come to the wet lab, you have already done the Labster simulation, so you already know you have to balance the centrifuge or sterilize the inoculation loop or use anaerobic conditions for growing cells.“

The role of technology in education

Finally, when asked about where he thought the education field is moving, Prof. Haffie said; “It’s hard to imagine most of higher education without technology. It is embedded and it will become more embedded.” 

Prof. Haffie addressed the fear that many teachers have of technology replacing their role: “Technology won’t replace the very human and social aspects of education. Labster is simply a tool that, like other tools, extends or amplifies our abilities. Labster can teach my students some of what I can teach them, but it can do so at any time, at any place in a way that supports the diversity that I see in such a very large class.”

To conclude, Prof. Haffie highlighted one more benefit that he found Labster had contributed with: “I also want to mention engagement. Students these days just don’t find reading a chapter in a textbook very engaging. Students use technology all the time, and they find this kind of learning with virtual labs more engaging.” Using the technology also makes it possible for the university to let students, particularly younger ones, get access to tools otherwise not available to them: “There are pieces of equipment and analyses that our first year undergrads would not be exposed to if it weren’t for Labster. We could do some watered-down version of it in the wet lab, but Labster is much more sophisticated and engaging.”

This blog post was originally published in 2019.

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