Dr. Yap Wei-Hsum teaches Animal Biotechnology at Taylor’s University, Malaysia, and has pioneered the use of Labster’s virtual labs in her university since adopting it in 2018. Dr. Yap works to actively promote the use of virtual labs throughout the School of Biosciences as well as faculty-wide, and inspire other lecturers to transform science education in Malaysia. Read on to find out how Dr. Yap uses virtual labs in her course to better prepare students’ technical and conceptual skills in cell culture handling and ultimately encourage a more collaborative learning environment with a range of digital learning tools.
Reinforcing lab skills outside of the lab
As a cell biologist, Dr. Yap works on macrophage lipid accumulation. A major component of her course focuses on teaching students the technical skills of handling mammalian cell culture, for example, mastering the aseptic technique.
A common challenge in practicing and performing these lab techniques is that it is often time-consuming and resource-consuming. As a result, students usually have limited time in the lab to practice their skills and, inherently, less time to master the techniques and fully grasp its underlying principles.
In the effort to expose students to an immersive environment for learning the aseptic cell culture technique, Dr. Yap tried out Gibco’s free trial of Labster’s Cell Culture Basics simulation back in 2018. Since then, she and 11 of her colleagues have taken up Labster’s virtual labs to be used in different programs within the School of Biosciences, from Biomedical Science and Biotechnology to Food Science.
Though Dr. Yap had previously used eLearning platforms such as Padlet and Conceptboard, as well as collaborative online platforms such as Moxtra and Google Hangouts, Labster would be the first virtual lab platform implemented in her school.
The virtual labs are used in many different ways in the School of Biosciences. Dr. Yap, for example, teaches in a blended learning format in which the virtual labs and other online learning tools are used as a part of her students’ learning activities. She says, “We have been doing blended learning in the sense that we incorporate platforms for students to collaborate in a synchronous or asynchronous manner. Students can work even when they are away from the class via collaborative learning activities, so their learning is not restricted to face-to-face classes.”
“Students can work even when they are away from the class via collaborative learning activities, so their learning is not restricted to face-to-face classes.”
Some lecturers have used virtual labs in tutorial groups to replace lab sessions, while others use them as a pre-lab activity and, in some cases, as a lab replacement. In this way, lecturers are able to demo the virtual labs with students face-to-face to properly guide them through this new way of learning.
“Some lecturers have used Labster for pre-lab activities so that students are more well-equipped with the background knowledge in order to carry out the lab session,” she explains. “In some cases, the labs are used for the actual experimentation. For example, if the course has six lab sessions, one can be replaced with a virtual lab because the content is more or less similar. Students can then build on their existing knowledge using the simulation and then apply it in a subsequent session.”
Dr. Yap also weaves the virtual labs into students’ assessments. “My students would have a hands-on lab skills test in which they are assessed on how well they complete the procedures. Another part of their assessment is based on the score they have obtained from Labster’s in-simulation quizzes.”
Practicing labs without constraints
Though it has only been a semester since taking up Labster, Dr. Yap has seen that the simulations have aligned with her course’s learning outcomes in terms of both technical and conceptual skills. She explains, “Overall, I find that the simulations are engaging and they stimulate students to be more interested in doing science labs. They help to enhance the understanding of not only the skills but also the underlying principles behind the labs.”
“Overall, I find that the simulations are engaging and they stimulate students to be more interested in doing science labs. They help to enhance the understanding of not only the skills but also the underlying principles behind the labs.”
“I like the way the simulations are driven from a problem perspective,” she says. “For example, it starts off with a research question and that would drive student learning based on some existing scientific questions. In this way, students can then appreciate the value of how these labs can be applied in research.”
Still, one of the biggest outcomes since integrating virtual labs for Dr. Yap’s biotechnology course and her cell culture lab practicals, was to give students the opportunity to repeat the labs at their own pace: “One thing that you can do with Labster and not regular labs is the number of times that you can perform an experiment. It’s without constraints or restrictions to the particular time or space that they would be able to do these experiments.”
“One thing that you can do with Labster and not regular labs is the number of times that you can perform an experiment. It’s without constraints or restrictions to the particular time or space that they would be able to do these experiments.”
By being able to spend as much time as they need to complete and repeat labs would help reinforce the knowledge that they are learning from these labs. Dr. Yap explains that, “With repetition, students would be more familiarized with the lab in terms of the principles and the knowledge underlying the skills.”
What do the students say?
Like all good researchers, Dr. Yap and her colleagues wanted to test how well Labster’s virtual labs would perform and how students would react to them. A survey was sent out to selected groups of students who would potentially use virtual labs in their courses.
Of the 100 students who use virtual labs at Taylor’s University, 64 responded to Dr. Yap’s pre-lab survey. The majority of the respondents indicated a high interest in using Labster’s virtual labs as a more fun way of learning, and around 50% felt the simulations to be more motivating than a traditional practical lab session.
A post-lab survey gathered feedback from Dr. Yap’s Animal Biotechnology module. It asked students about Labster’s positive aspects and whether they were able to achieve the intended learning outcomes based on a 4-point Likert scale (1 being the lowest and 4 the highest). Overall, the survey showed that students generally liked the combination of a gamified learning experience, in-simulation quizzes and the ability to repeat the labs, as they helped them to better understand the topic.
- 56.3% thought the virtual labs were extremely helpful as a part of their learning.
- 62.5% would like to see more virtual labs in teaching.
- 62.5% felt confident (rated 3 on a 4-point scale) in their laboratory skills in cell culture aseptic technique after completing the virtual lab.
- 56.3% found the quiz questions in the simulation activity to be extremely helpful in deepening their understanding of the topic.
- All students felt that the gamified virtual lab simulation made them enjoy the learning process (all rated 3 or 4 on a 4-point scale)
Virtual labs: the way forward to student-centered learning
Since Labster was implemented in Taylor’s University nearly two years ago, Dr. Yap has been a strong supporter of virtual labs and currently works to generate more interest in Labster’s virtual labs for science education both locally and nationally. She says, “I have been an early adopter of Labster at my university and we have been promoting the virtual labs at the School level as well as at the county level. We have promoted the labs to the School of Pharmacy and the School of Medicine to see whether their students are also interested in using lab simulations – and the responses have been good.”
From these promotions, Dr. Yap had convinced 10 more lecturers to try out the simulations – and she plans to keep the momentum. “This year we plan to do similar promotions and roadshows to attract more lecturers to come on board. We want them to try out how they can apply Labster in more meaningful ways, and how we can integrate it into teaching and learning, pedagogy, and how we can offer more student-centered or personalized learning paths for modules and courses.”
“I believe the way forward is to engage students by using Labster’s VR version so that they are more immersed in the lab environment itself.”
It’s clear that Dr. Yap integrates a variety of online learning tools in her pedagogy. From using the Moodle LMS to consolidate her online learning activities to collaborative student learning through Google Hangouts, and practicing lab skills online with Labster’s virtual labs, Dr. Yap is a strong advocate for adopting new and innovative educational technologies such as Labster for VR headsets.
“This is really the way forward,” she says. “And I’m only just using the lab simulation on the desktop, which at the moment can be restrictive. With the virtual reality (VR) version of Labster, it would be even more stimulating for students because they would really focus on their psychomotor skills instead of just clicking and looking at a screen. I believe the way forward is to engage students by using Labster’s VR version so that they are more immersed in the lab environment itself.”