Inclusion in the Virtual Lab: The Labster Podcast, Episode 1
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, my name is April Ondis, and I'm a blogger and writer for Labster, creator of virtual lab simulations for science students. As always, I'm proud to say that Labster is guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving problems like climate change and curing diseases like cancer. If you're listening to this podcast, we know that you likely also share that mission. So thank you. And let's get started.
April [00:00:37] Today's episode is about the topic of inclusion in virtual science education. With me is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton. SJ is an educational designer and former university lecturer whose current work involves developing new virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university science courses.
April [00:01:01] Hello, SJ It's great to be talking with you again.
SJ [00:01:04] Hi. Good, good to hear from you too.
April [00:01:07] So I wanted to ask in your role at Labster, I know you get to do the really meaty, fun part and actually help create virtual science labs. I really love to hear more about that whole process. What is it like and can you give us a background on what we actually mean by virtual labs?
SJ [00:01:26] No, for sure. So when we’re thinking about a virtual lab experience, we're thinking about having a simulated environment.
SJ [00:01:34] Most of the time it does look like a lab room in a very futuristic and hexagonal platform. But sometimes it's in a forest or sometimes it's on the desert plains of the imaginary planet Astakos IV. And what we're aiming to do is create an opportunity for students to, for example, try out new techniques for the first time or maybe even become a little bit more familiar with pieces of equipment that are expensive or that might be inaccessible. I know, for example, when I was a student, we had one gas chromatography machine in the entire university and trying to get 60 pharmacology students around that machine was really tricky.
SJ [00:02:15] So maybe a simulation could have been super helpful when I was a student. But yeah, there are opportunities for creating alternative access to science education.
April [00:02:28] So, you know, one of the things that I wanted to make sure to mention in this episode is that as we're recording, this is Chemistry Week in the UK. And I know this year the Royal Society of Chemistry is focusing its week on the topic of inclusion. And a part of your role at Labster has to do with finding inclusive tools to support learning. And I wanted to ask you to say more about that. How are you helping to make our virtual labs more inclusive and what do we mean by inclusive design? What is it?
SJ [00:03:05] That is a big question for me. So when we are talking about inclusive design in the context of our virtual simulations, what we mean is creating access to the learning that's embedded within the simulations for every user, be they educator or student. And what we aim to do is break down the barriers that stop the user from, stop a student or an educator from really engaging with the learning opportunities that are contained within. One of the things that can be helpful to think about during an inclusive design process is something called the Three Dimensions, which has been published in various places. But they all come down to the same kind of three things.
SJ [00:03:56] And the first thing is recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of every user, every student. The second is ensuring that the processes that are used during the design phase are transparent and that they involve a really diverse range of perspectives from different people and different places. And the final thing is around recognizing that as designers and creators, we are operating within a really complex and adaptive context and that things are always changing. So there's a need for response and constant listening and monitoring of an environment or a context of our learning. So I think we address those three dimensions in lots of different ways. And there's a lot of opportunity with the way that we work with educators and students and listen to their feedback and for us to really create something that's truly both accessible and inclusive for as many people as possible.
April [00:04:55] And I've seen and heard a bit about how you are developing, the simulations are in constant contact with learners, with educators for their feedback, both in the beta phase of your design, but also even after a simulation has been developed and released. Can you say more about that, if you could?
SJ [00:05:18] So we have a number of different ways that we listen to the different uses of our simulations. For example, through Intercom, which is a rapid access, get some help with the simulation system. And there are a bunch of very tireless and excellent people that are there on the other end of our Intercom listening and helping.
SJ [00:05:38] What you might not know is that everything that they pick up on in terms of issues for access or cultural bias or suggestions for how we might improve the diversity of representation within our simulations comes to the content team. And we listen and we try and formulate responses that are useful that we can actually implement within our current platform. So we're always listening and always trying to create new ideas for how we can improve in the future if we can't do something about the issue in that moment. Another way that we listen is through content creation managers, content creators are often talking with educators and sometimes talking with students to listen to what their needs are in terms of educational experiences, but also access arrangements. So we might want to understand better the needs of a student who has a visual impact. So do they need things like a screen reader or do they need to use keyboard navigation instead of using a mouse? And do we need to ensure that there are alternatives to reading on a screen or alternatives to only hear and instructions?
SJ [00:06:54] And I'll talk a little bit more about some of our work towards creating accessible simulations for visually impacted uses a little bit later. But just to show that that's something that we're working on right now, some of those comments also come in around diversity. So, for example, in our very first platform or very first simulations, the avatar that represents the user in the simulation and you might recognize if you've ever played on simulations, is a hand and one hand holds a thing called the Labpad, which is like a tablet-style computer that all of your instructions and images are contained within. And the other hand is one that floats around and does all of the work.
SJ [00:07:36] Originally that hand was just a Caucasian white skin tone and we got some feedback that it would be really nice to be able to change that skin tone or indeed to have opportunity for other skin tones to be represented within the simulation. So in response to that feedback, when we were able to or when our platform had matured a little bit more so that we could support the feature that was needed, we have a feature now where the skin tone of the avatar representing the user is randomly generated and there are five different skin tones to represent the different users of the simulations that can randomly be generated in the simulation.
SJ [00:08:18] So our newest simulations, this is something that happens. I mean, more often than not, the hand is blue because it's got a glove on because we have to engage in unsafe practices. But certainly, when the simulation first starts, you'll see that hand uncovered certainly for the first few tasks of the first few interactions. So that skin tone is randomly generated.
April [00:08:37] That is something I think a lot of people would not be aware of if they only run through one simulation one time.
SJ [00:08:45] Yeah, for sure. And part of that that we're working on in the minute is by diversifying our character catalog. And what I mean by character catalog is kind of the range of digital avatars that we have to portray different characters within our simulation. So the lab technician and the patient that's in for a blood test and so on and so forth. So these digital avatars can have different features, physical features that identify them as having a particular ethnicity or size or hair color. And we're trying to ensure that those avatars that we generate don't unnecessarily reinforce particular stereotypes or don't aren't only used in stereotypically recognized places.
April [00:09:30] Well, thank you for that. I'm conscious that I know some of the teachers, high school science teachers, maybe university instructors who are listening to us right now might be thinking, OK, but how can I create a more inclusive virtual lab course?
April [00:09:47] And before the show, I had tried looking up some best practices and I found some academic journal articles and other just web resources that were really centered around face-to-face in-person labs. But I didn't find as many on virtual labs and online courses. So is there anything helpful that you could share with teachers whose lab courses are now one hundred percent remote and online due to the pandemic?
SJ [00:10:14] You know, one of the most exciting things that came to mind while you were speaking there is that all of the educators that are listening, all of the people that they're thinking about, including virtual lab classes, they are the pioneers and they are the ones that are going to be generating those resources for the people that come next. So my hat's off to these early adopters. Congratulations. You're the best.
SJ [00:10:35] In terms of creating those inclusive experiences, though, I guess there's a few key ingredients for how virtual labs can be best embedded within a traditional curriculum or set of teaching experiences. I guess the first one is always checking for access needs and do your students need a screen-reader? Do they need keyboard navigation? Is there something that is going to, in their personal education plan, is there something that means they can't necessarily interact with the virtual lab as it exists in its regular mode?
SJ [00:11:09] We are in the process of creating an accessible version of what we call accessibility mode, of all of our simulations in the catalog. We're not sure when we're going to have them all done. But we are certainly making a big old dent in getting our entire catalog up to scratch. And what this means is that, say, for example, a student with a visual impact would be able to use keyboard navigation to access all of the content and have a commensurate experience of a non-visually impaired user when they were playing virtual simulations.
SJ [00:11:43] So if you have any questions about that, if you're an educator that might need a keyboard navigation virtual sim, just drop us a line, get in touch with us. I'm more than happy to talk to you about that. And you can always visit our website to find out which simulations are actually in accessible version right now. So do check ahead for access needs and reach out to us and talk to us if you want to learn more and find out more about it. So needs in the bag. Definitely check those.
SJ [00:12:10] My second bit of good advice, hopefully, would be to really surround the lab with supportive activities to truly embed it within a set of or within a learning regime. It might pre-reading, it might be a fact-finding task, it might be a quick research task, find an information online or find an information in a textbook. A small activity that kind of primes the student for the type of activity they're going to interact with in the virtual lab or even just a topic that the virtual labs on so that they're not Internet completely cold. After we've done this very simple or kind of warm-up activity, we head straight into the virtual lab, hopefully, and they have a grand old time. We hope that everybody enjoys them. Let's just put it out there. I want everybody to enjoy every lab. I think that's a fair goal of mine as a content creator.
April [00:13:02] And I think the goal of Labster is to make learning fun, because that's when learning happens, when you're relaxed and open and hopefully engaged.
SJ [00:13:13] Sure. And I really hope that, you know, Dr. One doesn't irritate people and the jokes don't always fall flat because she does try bless her. Dr. One is the main person you will receive teaching from in the lab. She's a drone, she can fly and she tells terrible jokes. So forgive her and be warned if you do meet her in a virtual lab.
SJ [00:13:35] But yeah, within the simulation, we try and follow kind of like a little I think I've called it before, like a little micro-learning cycle where we recall knowledge, introduce knowledge and introduce a new activity, extend knowledge and then check in whether knowledge transfer is actually taking place. Not always, you know, there are often more steps than that, but it's just this tiny little cycle of learning that's repeated in the simulation as the student moves through different learning activities within the larger simulation.
SJ [00:14:06] And that's echoed by the large event and cycle where we recall prior learning at the beginning of the simulation, work through different activities, checking in with quiz questions as we go, and often have a consolidation, conversational quiz questions at the end. So we're always embedding this little cycle of recall, activity, and consolidation within the simulation.
April [00:14:28] I was going to pop in and just say that, that just knowing how much goes into each simulation, that is not immediately visible to the layperson on the surface. I know I've played simulations and I really was not aware that those kind of like micro cycles, as you said, are happening all the time and that that's what's kind of moving me through this learning process. I think in a future episode, it would be so much fun to dive a little deeper into that.
SJ [00:14:56] Oh, absolutely. I'd love to talk more about that and sneak preview of something that we're working on right now in the background is this idea of trying to really recognize what in our simulations works for great learning activity and trying to create almost like templates of activity to ensure that those same actions and interactions and activities can be addressed in multiple simulations. So when we we're making a new content, we always know this pattern of interaction works really well to teach this topic, so we can be consistent over a whole course or a whole program of education within our content. So I'm really excited to see how that stuff turns out myself. We're in the process now, so you know, come check back in next quarter and see how we're doing.
SJ [00:15:46] So if we've got our simple activities, our simple pre-lab activities, if you want, and fact-finding, reading perhaps in a blog or finding information online, then we have a virtual lab experience and then maybe we have a more constructive activity, something that's more consolidated after the lab or something like that might be designed in a protocol based on a technique that's taught in the lab or maybe even troubleshooting a protocol that isn't written very well.
SJ [00:16:13] It's always a great way to help students recognize what good practices, what safe practices are. I love a good troubleshooting activity. So if we can relate what's in the virtual lab to an actual practice in the physical lab or a practice that would happen in a physical lab through a protocol, that might be one way of negotiating and not being able to get into the lab right now, but still kind of engaging with the process of science, or the process of experimentation.
SJ [00:16:41] Another constructive activity might be interpreting the data set that's related to what the virtual has offered or the techniques that's demonstrated in the virtual lab, or maybe even choosing a best method, not necessarily writing the whole protocol, but choosing from a few different methodologies like which one would you use to investigate the topic that we've accessed in the lab, which is best? Why is that best?
SJ [00:17:05] So really engaging students with that critical analysis of what it is they've actually done in the virtual lab and in the physical world, how that translates. It would always be good to try and use group activities to maybe get the students collaborating a bit more seeing as how at the minute lots of students aren't seeing their peers in the classroom like they might traditionally do.
SJ [00:17:27] So I'm all for a good group activity where possible, maybe after the lab, especially when during the virtual lab, it's done on a one user, one simulation basis. You're not interacting with your peers when you're in the virtual lab. But yeah, I think there's still a place for good old group work outside of the virtual lab to really consolidate the knowledge.
April [00:17:44] Absolutely love hearing that suggestion for group activities, for consolidating the learning. I know that the topic of student loneliness and isolation is something that came up at the recent Labster Science Online 2020 conference, and several of our educators who spoke recommended it. Having Zoom meetings, breakout sessions in Zoom or Google Meet where students can work simultaneously on their own work, but then come together after the simulation and put together some sort of a project, and that students really rated those activities highly. They loved the opportunity.
SJ [00:18:26] For sure, and there's always the opportunity to kind of flip the classroom a little bit, depending on what that means to you, where maybe the activity before the virtual lab is to really tease apart and learn the topic through research, through group collaboration on producing a poster, for example, or producing a short blog or even depending on the resources available, a web page, whatever the technical level of that class is. And then the virtual lab is used as the consolidation activity. It can work that way, too. So you've got your group activity at the beginning and your virtual lab afterwards as the consolidation activity, if that fits the pedagogy of your course or the curriculum of your course.
SJ [00:19:05] It might not, but it's another suggestion of how you can leverage virtual labs within the classroom. You could talk all day about cool ways to teach, and I just love that we have this virtual tool that could maybe offer some alternatives during a time where I'm really feeling for educators right now, I'll be honest, and anything that creates the opportunity for discussion with the students, so even though they're completing these virtual labs on their own, it creates an opportunity for critique and discussion, even if it's informal, even if the students are just like, "oh, did you play that lab? Did you like it?" There's still that kind of shared experience for discussion.
SJ [00:19:42] And that in itself could be a really inclusive activity. Just sharing an experience and sharing your vantage on that experience is, to my mind, a hidden curriculum, but a very positive part of the hidden curriculum of any course. So, yeah, I guess the final thing that comes to mind when I'm thinking about virtual embedded within a curriculum is ensuring that they are given time and importance. One way that labs have been used in the past is just to say, oh, we have this resource. If you want to use it for your revision or whatever, just go ahead and do it. Virtual labs are great revision tools and I get that.
SJ [00:20:18] However, if you want to use the virtual labs to really deliver a portion of your syllabus or to really highlight a particular topic or technique within your syllabus for a course, then it would be better to either dedicate a time slot in the timetable for completion of the virtual lab or giving a very clear deadline of when the lab needs to be done. And then embedding or creating value for that experience by following up with a secondary activity, like a discussion or like a report or like a data analysis, something like that, that we the importance of the virtual lab is really highlighted and it gives value to the content that's within that virtual lab rather than it just being a passive activity that's done in isolation.
April [00:21:02] Great advice. And, you know, thinking of dedicating a time slot is making me recall that our time is kind of drawing to a close for this episode. And wow.
April [00:21:15] Yeah, I know. We could go on forever. It's been so much fun to talk with you. I want to thank you for our conversation.
SJ [00:21:22] No, I really enjoyed talking about what it's like to be a creator for this kind of thing. And I really hope that the educators that are listening, or even the students that listening, really see the amount of prep work and thought that goes into creating the experience, not just the learning, but the actual experience of the virtual lab itself.
SJ [00:21:40] It's so much fun. I love my job. I'm not going to lie. I love my job. But I do feel like we do put a lot of tight consideration into how we can create the best experience possible for all users.
April [00:21:53] And I do believe that comes across. And I'm so excited to continue our conversations. For today, though I would say that's probably all for us. So until next time everyone, keep learning, keep teaching and stay safe. Thank you. Bye-bye.