How to move a traditional science course online

Technology has changed what is possible today within teaching and learning.

It has only been about twenty years since educational institutions began offering courses online. Though the first digital training courses were developed as early as the 1960s, the early days of online learning, or eLearning, didn’t rise in popularity until home computers finally found their way into regular homes and offices in the 1980s.

What began as a distant possibility of a decentralized means of learning has now exploded into a global eLearning market with a value estimated to reach $325 billion by 2025. Educators today are seeking the different ways that eLearning can be leveraged in order to improve student performance, increase engagement, and adapt to the learning needs of the modern student.

For science courses especially, where an important element of learning involves practical applications in a laboratory, transitioning from the traditional classroom to a virtual space requires careful planning and reviewing.

In this article, find out how you can make the move to digitizing your science course. You can keep scrolling to read the article as a whole, or jump to any of the sections below:

What’s the big deal about online learning?

It’s not hard to understand the global boom in online learning. 

Vast numbers of students can now be educated at a lower cost, with online learning solutions showing a recent decline in pricing. eLearning also offers a high return on investment: one study suggests that students seem to learn five times more material for every hour of training with eLearning, while another showed that students learn twice as much scientific content with Labster virtual labs

The growth of eLearning in numbers:

• The global eLearning market was worth $107 billion in 2015 and is expected to triple in value, reaching $325 billion in 2025. (Source: Forbes)
• Students learn 5x more material via eLearning for every hour of training. (Source: Brandon Hall Group Research Published June 5 – June 11)
• eLearning courses consume 90% less energy on average and produce 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student compared to traditionally taught classes. (Source: The Open University)
81% of US college students agree that digital learning technologies help them to improve their grades. (Source: Statista)
• 41% of US teachers state that the lack of training was the biggest barrier to integrating more EdTech in their classrooms. (Source: Statista)

Classes are no longer restricted within a lecture theatre or a physical lab; there are no geographical barriers and students can access a multitude of options to get high-quality science education, no matter where they are in the world.

From the educator’s perspective, moving courses online can take some burden off their workday – despite the initial investment in time needed to set everything up. Teachers often find themselves filling in too many roles at a time and unable to keep up to their work expectations – from excessive paperwork, grading tests, planning curricula and updating content, to balancing the needs of students and communicating with parents.

The benefits of online learning typically fall into 5 categories:

1. Overcoming limited resources and access

Due to reasons regarding costs and resource availability, not all universities and high schools are equipped with sufficient equipment or materials to teach important scientific concepts and techniques. 

Having an online component to your course and incorporating digital learning tools lets you expand the kinds of resources you can provide to your students – from virtual labs to online lecture series by experts in the field.

2. Saving valuable time in-class & out

Very few students have unlimited time to spend in a lab (due to safety or cost reasons) or on their science coursework (they have other subjects to study for!). At the same time, many experiments can be time-consuming and going over the minute details of certain techniques can waste valuable time practicing in the lab.

By having students spend time preparing before class with online materials, you can more effectively utilize class time to drive home students’ understanding of potentially complex concepts.

3. Improving student motivation and engagement

Many teachers attribute stronger motivation and engagement in their students as a reason to incorporate some form of interactive and/or online learning. Digital learning tools can also help students identify and understand the real-world relevance of what they are learning, which helps boost engagement with the learning material even more.

Did you know that students find learning with virtual labs more motivating and interesting than traditional text-based learning? The use of virtual labs also shows an increase in students’ learning, self-efficacy and perceived relevance.
Source: Thisgaard and Makransky, 2017; Markransky et al., 2016.

4. The ability to teach complex topics

Digital learning tools can especially be helpful for subjects that involve abstract concepts, for example visualizing the underlying sub-atomic reaction mechanisms of a chemical reaction.

Students can delve deeper into a complex topic and personalize their learning according to their own unique learning style. Taking the example of understanding reaction mechanisms again, students using virtual labs can get hands-on in understanding these concepts by manipulating and trying out different reaction pathways to achieve a certain product (see: Labster’s Nucleophilic Addition simulation). To further deepen their understanding (and similar to benefit number two), students can then repeat these labs in their own time to get a better all-round understanding of the concepts and techniques they are learning.

5. Closing the knowledge gap

The idea of democratizing education is solidifying now more than ever with new advances in education technology (EdTech). Leveling the playing field, closing the knowledge gap, making quality education available to all; students are able to access the best educators in the world at low-to-no cost, with the advent of online education platforms such as TED-Ed, Coursera, even YouTube. With no more geographical barriers and more options for remote learners, universal access to high-quality science education is getting closer to reality.

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Labster is working actively to highlight the inclusivity and diversity of characters that appear in our lab simulations. We highlight the importance of representation in the science field and how it reflects our mission to empower the next generation of scientists.

Teachers and students now have a constantly growing digital toolbox – from digital textbooks to immersive learning with VR headsets. This lends itself to so many different types of online learning available to educators to suit their course.

Enhancing learning: your digital learning toolbox

One of the first few things to consider when moving your course online is the digital tools that you will employ. From supplementing theory and labs with an online element to holding classes completely online, there is a range of EdTech that can help you to transition your course online and ditch the textbooks.

67% of US classrooms reported using online educational videos as digital learning material during a typical week. Educational apps or software had a 65% weekly usage rate.
Source: Statista – US digital learning materials usage 2016.

In a 2016 survey, the most popular devices (56% of respondents) used in US classrooms are reported to be laptop computers, followed by tablets at 51%.
Source: Statista – US classroom device weekly usage 2016

43% of US college students find digital learning technologies “extremely helpful”.
Source: E-learning and digital education – Statistics & Facts

1. TED-Ed

TED-Ed is an educational platform that allows teachers to create their own interactive lessons and helps curious students dive deeper into specific subjects. TED-Ed also creates its own original animated content and collaborates with subject experts: all with the aim to democratize access to information for both students and teachers everywhere.

2. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a more interactive learning platform that allows teachers to create quizzes, discussions or surveys that complement academic lessons. Their platform’s popularity was founded on game-based learning, where students answering quiz questions in real-time simulates a fun activity and thereby increasing student engagement and creating a more fun educational environment.

3. Quizlet

Quizlet is another quiz-based learning platform comparable to Kahoot. Students and teachers can co-create their own learning materials, including flashcards and diagrams. With Quizlet Live, these learning materials can be assessed in-class in the form of an engaging and interactive game. 

4. Google Classroom

Google Classroom is a powerful community-based tool to help teachers manage coursework. Students can easily post questions and receive feedback, teachers can post course material in a centralized manner, and it can also be integrated with other Google products.

5. Socrative

Socrative is another virtual classroom of sorts, emphasizing the personalization of students’ learning. Again, teachers are able to create their own quizzes and immediately test student understanding, thereby providing teachers with valuable feedback to personalize future lessons.

6. Labster

How can we not mention Labster as an EdTech tool? With more than 100 virtual labs to offer, Labster has provided educational institutions and students a new means of science education. Labster’s interactive virtual labs is a learning experience that simulates an authentic laboratory and covers a range of scientific concepts and techniques in biology, chemistry and physics: from the Atomic Structure to Evolution. The gamified elements of these labs are combined with an immersive 3D universe, engaging storylines and intermittent quiz questions to create a unique learning experience that highlights the real-world relevance of what students are learning.

Four types of online learning (and how Labster can be integrated)

Now that you’ve seen a few examples of all the digital learning tools at your disposal, how can you use them in your course? There are a number of formats to consider when moving your course online. Here are some tips on how you can apply these tools in lots of different ways.

1. Flipped classrooms (Asynchronous learning)

In flipped classrooms, learning is done asynchronously and the conventional way of learning in-class is essentially “flipped”. This means that lectures and other course materials are uploaded to a Learning Management System (LMS), students view these materials and possibly completes short assessments of the content before coming to class. 

In flipped classrooms, students learn the course materials online and work on active learning (i.e. understanding concepts more deeply) in-class, with teachers acting as facilitators or coaches to help guide students and answer questions.

Dr. Carmen Nusbaumer at the Management Center Innsbruck, Austria uses Labster in a flipped teaching format. She says that in flipped classrooms, “students get more time to discuss the topics and further exercise what they’ve learned in a ‘live’ environment. They can complete the simulations within their own time, and they have as many tries as they want or need. This kind of repetition has had a positive effect on students’ learning.” Read her testimonial here.

In practice: Teachers can use co-creating educational platforms such as TED-Ed to record their own lessons or collect lessons to suit their course content. For science courses, teachers can use virtual labs to drive home scientific concepts and give students the chance to practice lab techniques virtually – at no cost to finite resources or time in a lab. 

For example, Labster’s HPLC virtual lab allows students to dive into the inner workings of an HPLC instrument in their own time and perform endless compound analyses. From learning about how HPLC works in the simulation, students can come to class fully prepared with any questions and apply this knowledge to any other area of study that uses chromatography techniques.

2. Hybrid course (Blended learning)

Hybrid courses, also known as blended learning, is similar to flipped classrooms in that online learning components are combined with some face-to-face learning. In this case, the online element does not replace traditional learning but instead supplements in-class teaching asynchronously.

As the name suggests, online learning materials, which can include videos, web pages and online assignments, are blended with traditional face-to-face learning in a complementary way.

Dr. Ana Barral at the National University, California teaches microbiology in a blended learning format. Watch our recorded webinar to find out how she uses Labster virtual labs to help better prepare her students for the real lab.

In practice: Combine live in-class quizzes to test students’ knowledge of course material they learned online with tools like Kahoot! and Quizlet Live. At home, students can practice and apply concepts they learned in-class with Labster’s virtual labs.

Virtual labs can especially help drive home complex and abstract scientific concepts that are hard to visualize when reading from a textbook. For example, students may find it difficult to visualize the intricacies of mitosis and meiosis during cell division. This can especially be true for students in high school or introductory-level courses, or visual learners. Simulations such as Cell Division (Principles), Mitosis and Meiosis are just a few examples of immersive and engaging simulations with helpful 3D animations that can help students better understand these concepts.

Labster’s new Principles simulations are suitable for introductory-level students as well as high school curricula. Explore the Principles packages we offer for Biology, Chemistry and Physics, or reach out to us to find out how they can align with your curriculum.

3. Face-to-Face (Synchronous learning)

Online elements can also be incorporated into a traditional classroom environment! This is especially true for younger students who aren’t yet familiar with independent learning.

In practice: Use Google Classroom to distribute a Doc in-class for students to work on an assignment, project the Doc in class to facilitate discussions with the class and boost students’ collaborative skills. Kahoot!, Quizlet Live or any other live quizzes can also be utilized in-class to test students’ knowledge for immediate feedback.

If you’re prepping students before starting an experiment in the lab, having them complete a virtual lab together in-class will help ensure they go through each step of the protocol with your supervision, and allow you to support them with any ad hoc questions. Going through potentially hazardous experiments synchronously (for example, our Acids and Bases simulation) means fewer students risking themselves when they get into the lab.

4. Web-based (Online only, can be synchronous)

On the opposite side of the spectrum, web-based learning – as its name implies – is held completely online. Teachers and students do not meet face-to-face and generally use an LMS to hold syllabi, learning materials, assignments and communication from teachers. Online classes can be both synchronous (where students attend virtual classrooms or lectures from held by teachers) or asynchronous (where learning can be self-paced and/or have specific deadlines for assignments and quizzes).

Teaching science classes online can make it virtually impossible for students to have access to a real lab where they gain less essential practical experience in comparison to their traditionally-taught peers. This is where online learning tools can step in.

Dr. Mike Angiletta from Arizona State University was one of the first teachers in the world to teach a biology course that relies on VR to deliver practical lab sessions, in collaboration with Labster and Google. Watch Google for Education’s video above to learn more about the collaboration, and read more about his Labster experience here.

In practice: In online classes, study material can be consolidated on an LMS and supplemented with digital learning tools such as Google Classroom (for synchronous learning) or Socrative to personalize student learning. 

With Labster virtual labs, students can gain invaluable experience with lab techniques that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Students are able to immerse themselves in a realistic lab environment and learn step-by-step to prepare themselves for the real thing. For example, in the Biosafety virtual lab, students will be introduced to good practice in a Biosafety Level 3 research laboratory and learn various techniques such as bacterial inoculation and microscopy.

Labster’s step-by-step guide: successfully transition your science course online

So what are the next steps to transitioning your course online?

Here’s Labster’s step-by-step guide to success:

1. Planning

Good planning is the foundation to the experience you and your students will have. Look to see which digital learning tools and simulations align with your syllabus and decide how to embed them in your course – curriculum alignment will greatly impact how smoothly the transition to online will go. Plan how you will measure the achievements of your intended outcomes as needed.

2. Preparation

Take care of the practicalities and logistics of moving your course online. Reach out to Labster and we’ll discuss how best to decide which platform(s) to use and how they will suit your needs.

3. Execution

Once the online transition is live, it’s important to make sure that your students are using and engaging with your new online course. Communicate with and lead your students to the new digital learning tools in your cours; it will be easier than ever to monitor their performance and engagements with tracking tools and Labster’s Teacher Dashboard.

4. Review

How did it go? Once you reach the end of the semester, you’ll want to review how your new digital course has worked for you. Look at scores, engagement and student feedback to review well how your new digital learning tools performed.

Integrating virtual labs white paper: image of booklet

These steps are just a quick look into the various other substeps you need to consider to move your course online. To get a better understanding of how you can successfully integrate virtual labs, you can download our whitepaper, Integrating Virtual Labs.

The Rise of EdTech: How technology helps science education today and how you can be a part of the growing movement

Technology has allowed us to push the boundaries in education: not just in what we learn but how we learn. It is now easier than ever for students across the globe to connect with each other, and get access to degrees and resources that they never had access to before.

Countless innovations in EdTech in the past – such as the development of graphing calculators, online wikis and the increasingly popular MOOCs – have shaped education today. 

With the turn of a new decade, we take a look back at significant EdTech innovations and predict upcoming EdTech trends in the future in our white paper, “What’s Next for EdTech?”. Download the white paper for free here.

More teachers than ever are turning to digital tools to enhance their science course. From supplementing lectures to replacing labs, Labster’s virtual labs were developed with the vision to equip today’s teachers with the tools to educate the next generation of scientists and radically improve science education.

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