From one teacher to another: My learning path to Labster

Good teachers never stop learning.
In education language, this refers to a teacher being able to continue learning within their discipline, whilst simultaneously performing pedagogical inquiry into their technique and practice. This leads to informed decision making about what, when, how to teach, after which reflection must be practised.
These aren’t just wish-list attributes, but help provide the framework under all professional teaching practice. They are some of the criteria against which teachers can be measured for their successes and failures (which are equally important to learn from too in that self-reflection journey). They are the benchmarks against which an individual can receive recognition and teaching institutions can strive for excellence.
They are some of the signposts for success.
After 5 years teaching in various roles in a leading UK university, I came to recognise these as some of the attributes which made for great students as well, and it struck me that the learning path of student and teacher is very much entwined and (forgive the microbiologist’s angle here) a truly symbiotic relationship of interdependence.
If the teacher doesn’t succeed at their job, neither will the students, and of course if the students don’t succeed, university rankings and student survey responses can hit back painfully.
Teachers and students get on best when this mutualism is properly appreciated and each has an honest and respectful investment in the other.

Building the bridge to binary

I like to think that I am both a good teacher and a good learner.
It was my role as a teacher that reminded me (daily) of just how much my teaching depended on my learning, and how much I still need and must learn!
One of the biggest lessons I learnt was to truly value the potential and ability of digital teaching tools, which I’ll admit was a little bit of a threshold to cross for a 40-something xennial. An analogue childhood and digital adulthood.
Being the bridge generation isn’t easy.
I really wanted to be open and believe in that power, but, but, but… I kind of needed the proof first hand before I bought in. So what helped me bridge that gap and put my belief in binary?
Two things were key to me.
Firstly, was working with a great group of people to build an in-house teaching app for a component of our course. This taught me truly about globalisation. We pushed it a little into the ether and watched it spread its wonderful word (who doesn’t love molecular biology?) around the world. The feedback from students from locations that were geographically remote from me was incredible, and humbling.
What I learnt from that was a first-hand realisation that they were ONLY remote by geography. Not technologically. We CAN teach anyone, anywhere…. and there is a huge world-sized classroom out there looking for teachers who can share with them.

Labster try-out

It was about exactly at that moment I met with some of the team from Labster, who were visiting my university.
Labster came with the teaching product of my dreams (yes really), and showed me what I would have spent wasted hours, months, years! trying to pull together with grant proposals for development and a network of technological collaborators that I just did not have.

Bacterial isolation virtual lab
Immersive, interactive laboratory simulations from the Labster catalogue

They have a catalogue of virtual labs – lab simulations – in key STEM curriculum areas. These labs allow you to lead your students to log-in and learn-up. In their own time. Off campus. Theory. Skills. Repeat learning and practice opportunities at their disposal. With clear indicators of how each of them is achieving.  Pick the labs that match your course aims and set them off!
Sounds too good to be true? We thought this might be the case too.
I was encouraged by supportive management to keep on with my pedagogical inquiry so I took my class of 200 undergraduates and split them into 2 groups – half of them were to learn a practical lab skill from the simulation, and and I went head to head with technology in tutoring the other half to learn the same technique the old fashioned way (a short footnote I feel is necessary here to assure you that students gave consent to be the guinea pigs in this trial, and all had access to both types of teaching experience before their exams).
Afterwards they were all sent to the real lab to perform this technique in a simple practical test, and their results were marked blind.
Petri dish
Learning to isolate single bacterial colonies like this is a key skill for any Life Science student who will practice Microbiology or techniques in Molecular Biology. Students learnt how to do this expertly using a Labster simulation.

It was another moment of discovery… both groups performed equally well in the task and as an add on, the group who used the Labster simulation to learn had higher scores in motivation and self-efficacy.

Reflect and review

What did I learn here?
Certainly not to feel my job undone or threatened by digital teaching. And not that real labs would become obsolete.
I learnt that there are truly novel ways to teach and learn, that are there for teachers to adopt and adapt to.
I learnt from my expert collaborator in educational psychology about cognitive loading, and how easing that could let lab experiences in the real world become so much more of an opportunity for discovery and experimentation for students.
I learnt to think about how a course could be reshaped and optimised to deal with tighter budgets and increasing student numbers.
I learnt that this was an inclusive way to teach.
I learnt that students valued it as one of their resources.
I learnt how my time could be better used in other ways for the students.
I learnt – most of all – to keep an open mind and love that journey of learning myself.

Growth and change

Fast forward 2 years from this testing with Labster and I’ve fully committed myself to this learning path.
After another study with our university students looking at the effect of location on how well students learn from simulations (is it pedagogically sound to give them this to do at home themselves?) I moved on to building a complete simulation with the incredible developers at Labster, shaped around content and learning outcomes that I felt would be ideally delivered to my students via a simulation.
Specifically I felt the simulation should cover a topic that can be hard to teach, with some threshold concepts that many students need to hear a couple of times before they sink in completely.
This would provide a ‘safe’ environment for them to practice and read again and test themselves, at their own pace and away from the view of peers and teachers before coming into class to explore further with confidence.
This was preparation for some serious classroom flipping.
Invested as I was with their simulation products, naturally I am now thrilled to be working for Labster. The rigour and objectivity by which they analyse their own products and performance feels familiar to me, and how could I not feel at home in a company that is so truly committed to their core value – empowering the next generation of scientists to change the world.
To me, this will be achieved by empowering them with the science of learning as much as it will be by the learning of science.
Faculty wishing to speak to Helen about how to get the best from their Labster experience please reach out

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