The Complete Guide
to Virtual Labs

Everything you need to know about virtual labs

Do you teach biology, chemistry, physics or other STEM subjects at a university or college, and are you looking to engage your students and improve their learning outcomes by means of innovative technology? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Virtual labs are a great way to help your students achieve success. Virtual labs can be used in countless ways and for different purposes. In this guide, our aim is to help you find out how virtual labs can help you and your students.

Although getting started with a new technology can seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be (particularly not with Labster!).  

In this guide we answer the questions we get asked the most, so that you can make an informed decision when investing time and money in virtual labs.

Read the guide from beginning to end, or skip to the sections you need most.

You can also download the entire guide as a PDF to share with your peers or print it to read at a later time.

If you prefer talking over reading, get in touch and tell us more about your needs for virtual labs. We have a dedicated team of virtual lab experts, ready to answer all your questions!

Talk to us

Looking to learn what virtual labs can do for you? Contact us to talk to our team about curriculum alignment, pricing, integration and more.

Virtual labs: What and why?

What are virtual lab simulations?

The use of laboratories in science education first emerged at least 200 years ago. Since its emergence, it has been regarded as an integral part of the education of science students across the globe. Moving into the modern day, new innovations in technology have opened up what is possible in science education and, in particular, the lab element of science courses. 

A virtual laboratory simulation is a learning experience that simulates an authentic laboratory. The software shifts this crucial part of science education into the virtual realm by allowing students to complete laboratory experiments and explore concepts and theories. There are many kinds of virtual lab simulations, from simple 2D animations that can be viewed on your desktop, to advanced 3D experiences that can be viewed in immersive virtual reality headsets. 

Labster's virtual labs

Labster’s virtual lab simulations allow students to work through real-life case stories, interact with lab equipment, perform experiments and learn with theory and quiz questions. 

Students can explore life science at a molecular level and look inside the machines they are operating through animations. 

With Labster’s virtual labs, the possibilities for exploring, experimenting and learning are (virtually) endless! Watch the video below to see a preview.

Over 250 educational institutions around the world are already using Labster. Read how some professors and teachers use Labster here.

Watch the video to learn more about Labster's virtual labs

Play Video

What is virtual reality?

With virtual reality, the world is your classroom. Virtual reality is a reality in which users can engage in and interact with a computer-generated world. There is essentially no limitation to where you can go or what you can see. In education, we see virtual reality being used in fields such as geography, history and science. 

For teaching science, virtual labs can be used either on a desktop or laptop computer to create a ‘low-immersion’ experience, or through a head-mounted display to create a ‘high-immersion’ experience. Each provide their own benefits.

Low-immersion, desktop simulations

This is a virtual experience that is shown on a conventional computer or laptop. The user is immersed in a 2D, computer-generated, interactive learning environment. Low-immersion virtual labs can easily be used in an interactive classroom, and there is no need to purchase additional hardware.

High-immersion, head-mounted display simulations

This experience allows users to have the digital world existing around them rather than on a computer screen. Wearing a VR headset entirely immerses the user in a 360 degree virtual 3D environment, controlled by head motion tracking.

7 challenges in science education (and how virtual labs can help solve them)

Why I chose virtual labs: A way to fix the problems that exist in science education

Dr. Helen Gadegaard, former Professor and Customer Success Manager at Labster

“Labster visited my university at a time when I was looking for scalable (digital) teaching resources that would allow a truly active learning experience for my students and align with the key learning outcomes that I already had at the foundation of my course.

Sounds like too much to ask for, I know!

I needed something that was going to provide a solution to my problems with lab teaching, which were compound. I had been heavily involved with a lot of lab teaching and could see that, despite the fact that one hundred students were sitting in front of me in white coats at their bunsen burners, this wasn’t always ‘active learning’. 

Students were whisking themselves through protocols and procedures as quickly as possible, and wouldn’t think about why they were applying these methodologies, or how they worked. Worse than this, I saw bored and disengaged students being turned
off their subject by the fast pace and the mental leap they were having to make from lecture (theory) to lab (practice).

Further to this, resources were being stretched to maximum in our lab classes (time, space and money), and we were struggling to make efficiencies without diminishing the learning content or experience for students.

The virtual labs meant that I was now able to introduce my students to a range of topics, concepts and practice in a much more flexible way. I could take some key laboratory learning out of the lab. We could open new doors too and have worry-free fun using equipment that would be completely out of reach and budget for us in a traditional lab setting.

Labster made it easier for me to teach and easier for my students to learn. Its virtual labs eliminated a number of issues that were previously limiting the structure and breadth of my course.

In this guide I have worked with the rest of the Labster team to highlight some of the key problems that I used to face in my teaching, and the ways in which virtual labs helped to eliminate them.

Through fixing these problems, and offering an easy and fun addition to the traditional labs in your course, I honestly feel as if Labster could transform the learning experience of you and your students.”

Challenge #1: Limited resources and access

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

Using virtual labs lets you introduce students to a range of advanced machines and equipment. Students that have access to this virtual equipment have the opportunity to practice, become familiar, and become confident with the equipment, before entering a real lab.

Labster’s virtual labs offer students a true-to-life lab experience at a fraction of the cost of a real lab. The virtual labs have advanced machines and lab equipment such as compound microscopes complete with digital cameras and dissecting microscopes. By using the virtual labs, universities have been able to cut costs on equipment and save thousands of dollars.

The cost of performing experiments can also be dramatically reduced with virtual labs. For example, in order for students to perform a next generation sequencing experiment in a face-to-face lab, sample preparation alone can cost up to a thousand dollars per student. Running the next generation sequencing lane can cost three times that much. In a virtual lab, you can give students unlimited access to these at no additional cost.

“Labster helped open the doors to a more inquiry based style of presenting the content, because the students were exploring. They were walking around in a virtual lab, messing up, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. This is something that you typically can’t do all that well in a hands on lab, where you have a fixed amount of time, fixed amount of resources, and safety concerns have to come into the equation."
Kambiz Hamadani
California State University San Marcos

Challenge #2: Limited time in the lab

Very few students have unlimited time to spend in a lab due to safety and cost reasons. At the same time, many experiments are time-consuming, and a lot of time can be wasted on waiting for experiments to complete. Additionally, students sometimes feel the pressure of finishing experiments quickly. As a consequence, students’ attention can shift from understanding the experiment well, to just getting it done.

Using virtual labs allows you to give students an endless amount of time to repeat and engage in experiments. In fact. virtual labs allow students to control time: Students can speed up time to complete experiments and study results faster, slow down time to see the details of rapid chemical reactions, and go back in time to repeat experiments multiple times.

There’s no rush in a Labster simulation, so students can go at their own pace, checking theory whenever they want, and repeating experiments again and again, until they’ve mastered it. They don’t have to worry about making mistakes.

In Labster’s Embryology lab, for example, students might incorrectly place a needle in an egg during the windowing experiment, or forget to sterilize the outside of the egg prior to windowing. It is just as likely that students make these mistakes in the virtual lab as it is in a real lab. The key difference is that, in the virtual lab, students can speed up the time in the incubator and quickly see the results to find out if they performed the procedure correctly.

If they made an error, they can simply go back in time and try the methodology again. That means that a lot of time is saved, and since the embryo is virtual, there is no loss or waste of resources.

“I think what I appreciated most when I first started using Labster was the fact that within 20-30 minutes, students could evaluate a technique that normally takes hours and is quite boring and dry. And because of the animations and the way the simulations have been put together, students could alter conditions and actually step a little beyond what they would have been able to do if they’d been in the laboratory.”
Caroline Smith
Westminster University

Challenge #3: Low student motivation and engagement

Classrooms with a passive learning environment significantly reduce students’ motivation to learn and engage in the content of their course. In addition, students tend to become disengaged if they cannot see or understand the real-world relevance of what they are learning. Down the road, you risk ending up with unmotivated students, some of whom eventually drop out.

Conducting experiments in a virtual lab allows you to engage your students in a unique, enriching and immersive experience that has real-world relevance and application. Students can explore new and fascinating environments (some simulations even take place on other planets!) and they can freely experiment in a lab with cool, advanced machines perhaps not usually available to them.

Many students love having a range of learning tools available to them when trying to understand a new concept or technique, and having virtual labs as a part of your tool box offers students that. In fact, within each simulation, students are challenged with quiz questions, can study theory pages, visualize concepts with 3D animations, and much more.

“The students really love that each simulation has a story, letting them understand how they can use the techniques and apply them in the real world.”
Pirjo Spuul
Tallinn University of Technology
“When I think of the Meiosis lab, there’s a story behind it. You’re following a couple going through IVF. In the HPLC lab, you’re analyzing medicine. So you’re working with real world applications and you can make real world connections with the course content, as opposed to just coming into a lab in school, where you follow a lab protocol, you do what you’re able to do, sometimes without giving it much thought, and you go home... you learn better when you’re able to attach meaning to a concept or theory. When learning is contextualized, you not only learn the material better, you also retain it better. So will I keep using Labster? Of course I’ll keep using Labster! I love it. And the students clearly love it too.”
Paul Kasili
Bunker Hill Community College

Challenge #4: Teaching complex topics

Without active visual tools, it can be incredibly hard to explain to students the complexities of certain scientific concepts.

Through using a virtual lab, you are allowing students to visually experience complex concepts otherwise too abstract or complex to explore in a traditional course.

Labster offers countless animations that visualize life science down to the molecular level and make the abstract concepts more comprehensible.

At the same time, Labster makes it possible to conduct experiments that students wouldn’t usually be able to do. They can also take a look inside the machines and equipment they are using, to better understand how they work. 

This gives the students a better all-round understanding of the concepts and techniques they are learning.

“My students find it difficult to understand the sub-microscopic levels in chemistry. Some of them don’t really enjoy chemistry because it’s just too abstract. So that’s why I wanted to use simulations. Labster allows a dynamic visualisation of chemical reactions so that students can practice and better understand these concepts, and consequently enjoy the classes more.”
Sabine Matallana-Surget
Stirling University

Challenge #5: Making mistakes in high risk environments

Safety is of the utmost importance when working in a lab. But students tend to be unprepared for the experiments they are engaging in, and unaware of what can happen if something really goes wrong, putting them at risk when working in a real lab.

Virtual labs are safer for students to practice in than a real lab if the students are unfamiliar with the safety protocol. Virtual labs are similar to flight simulators that prepare future pilots for flying. In a lab simulator, the students can learn and test their skills, before entering a real lab.

Labster simulations include all the safety measures that you’ll typically find in a real lab. For example, students must always wear a lab coat and remember to put on safety goggles and gloves before performing dangerous experiments. The students cannot proceed in the virtual lab if they do not follow the safety protocol, meaning the students become familiar with these steps before entering a real lab.

If anything goes wrong, no physical harm is done and students have the opportunity to try again until they get it right. In some simulations, such as our Lab Safety simulation, the students are actually purposely set up for failure, in order to show them what goes wrong if they do not follow safety protocol.

“It is just as likely that students make these mistakes in the virtual labs as it is in a real lab. One key difference is that [in the virtual lab] if they made an error, they can simply go back in time and repeat the experiment.”
Brian Harfe
University of Florida

Challenge #6: Ethics

For experiments that test or dissect parts of animals, there are many questions involving ethics that teachers must consider. Because it is unethical for students to experiment with certain animals, students rarely get the chance to learn about these experiments

Using a virtual lab completely eliminates ethical questions, as the animals that their students are dissecting and testing upon are all virtual.

For example, in the Experimental Design virtual lab simulation, students learn how to set up a scientific experiment. When designing the experiment, the students will have the option to perform experiments on animals. The virtual nature of this option eliminates the ethical issues that surround experimentation on real life animals.

The Regeneration Biology virtual lab offers a similar opportunity, In this lab, students learn why some wounds regenerate and others do not. As part of the simulation, you get the chance to virtually operate on axolotls and observe their regeneration process.

Challenge #7: Unprepared students and knowledge gaps

With little-to-no lab access, many students don’t feel prepared and confident enough to carry out experiments in a lab. At the same time, students often have different starting points, leaving knowledge gaps between students.

Students are often supposed to do pre-lab reading of the instructions for the experiment they’ll be doing that day. The reality is, assessed coursework and other responsibilities tend to take priority over this.

Students either start doing the experiment anyway, feeling under-confident, or waste valuable lab time sitting down and reading before they can get started.

But if used as preparation for the real lab, playing a Labster simulation is more fun than reading a protocol, and gives students a more visual, hands-on idea of what to do.

Many teachers use Labster as a pre-lab exercise to let them understand the equipment and procedures as well as the safety protocol before entering the lab. This can help level knowledge gaps between students.

Some teachers also use Labster as a post-lab exercise to reinforce the learnings. In virtual labs, students can also study the insides of machines and test what goes wrong if they mix the wrong reagents, giving them a deeper understanding of the experiments they are about to perform.

“We have HPLC machines, but when they do the HPLC lab simulation as a pre-lab, they know the components and how it’s operated. So they come in with a familiarity, and they’re not scared of using this big machine for the first time. This has worked really well in my biotechnology classes, because we have equipment such as bioreactors, plate readers, HPLC, and PCR machines. The virtual labs really help the students become familiar with the material before they engage in the class, and I think that’s really, really useful.”
Paul Kasili
Bunker Hill Community College

Get the complete guide in our whitepaper

Download the Complete Guide to Virtual Labs as a convenient, downloadable PDF.

6 ways to use virtual labs

How to use virtual labs: On a scale from supplementing to replacing

Helen Gadegaard, former Professor and Customer Success Manager at Labster

“There are so many ways that Labster can be integrated into your course, but key to the success of them all is that there is a clear plan with Labster as part of the course learning path. 

In this section, I will talk you through a number of ways that I used Labster in the past, and encourage teachers to do in the present. 

Since I have the great privilege of getting to hear how many of our teachers use Labster, I am also excited to share their ideas and successes. 

It is a common belief that virtual labs simply serve the purpose of replacing traditional labs, or even replacing the teaching of course content.

This is just not true! I have been able to use virtual labs to enhance other teaching components of my course. 

I used simulations as a mandatory pre-lab exercise, for students to learn theory, skills and techniques. This allowed me to cut out some existing lab teaching that I did of basic skills, and meant the students could be tasked with a more interesting investigative lab instead. 

I also used the simulations to allow flipped classroom teaching to foster participation in active lectures and small group tutorials. 

Lastly, I used the simulations as extension work for my classes, as directed self-learning. 

Here at Labster we encourage you to shape the simulations to the needs of your students, and your content.

6 ways to use virtual labs

1. As a visual aid to teach complex concepts

Virtual labs can be used to help you as a teacher explain complex theoretical concepts. A visual, immersive experience can make it easier for students to get to grips with complex concepts, such as the composition of DNA.

2. To refresh students’ knowledge before teaching new material

Labster can be used as a tool to help students reflect on previously covered topics. Using the simulations as a prerequisite to new material can help eliminate the time and resources that may otherwise be used to ensure the students are up-to-date on their learning.

3. As a pre-lab exercise

Labster can be used as an exercise to teach students the safety measures, techniques, and procedures that will be required before they undertake a real-life lab experiment. This can be particularly useful if the experiment is complex or new to the students.

4. To provide lab work to courses with no existing lab component

For students in courses that lack a lab component due to time restraints, a lack of resources, or for other reasons, using Labster can majorly enhance their learning.

5. To facilitate home assignments

Labster can be used for student assignments to complete at home. As the software can be accessed via a desktop or laptop computer, this can be a good way for teachers to record and test their students outside of contact hours. Alternatively, for online-courses, this can be an extremely helpful medium through which to run assessments.

6. As a post-lab exercise

Virtual labs can be used following a lab experiment to help students reflect upon and analyse their results. This can be helpful to ensure that students internalise the tools and skills that they have learned.

Download as PDF

Get the Complete Guide to Virtual Labs as a convenient, downloadable PDF.

What hardware and software is needed?

Figuring out the technology

Helen Gadegaard, former Professor and Customer Success Manager at Labster

“After deciding that you want virtual labs as a part of your course toolbox, your next decision is a pretty practical one: How and where will the virtual labs live?

On desktops at home or in the classroom? With VR headsets? If you want to use VR, then who is accountable for the cost of that and do you have a VR suite that you will have to schedule access to? 

There are probably some logistical, technological and financial factors that will influence your path at this point.

Use this section to get an overview of the options. 

We have provided some guidelines on options and pricing, but since technology is an ever-changing field, doing some research of your own or contacting us (we’re ready with the latest information if you need it!) to get the most updated guidance.”

What hardware and software is needed?

To figure out the technological requirements, you must first decide if you wish to use virtual labs on a desktop computer or with virtual reality.

Labster with a desktop or laptop computer

Labster simulations run directly in the browser, and no plugins or installations are required. This means you can get started without first requiring an approval of plugin installations from your IT department. This allows you to get setup quickly with Labster. 

Labster can be used on laptop or desktop-based computers, which meet standard requirements. All popular browsers (Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Safari) are supported. Labster simulations are typically only 30MB or less in size, however, internet/wifi speed may affect the time it takes to load a simulation. Typically it only takes 1-5 minutes to load the entire simulation.

Labster simulations do not yet run on the browsers mentioned above if you are using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Labster with virtual reality

Whether or not you know already that you will use simulations through desktops or via VR headsets, Labster can help you to understand the continuum of virtual reality hardware that is available. 

We are now at a place where there is a greater range of headsets available than ever before; spanning from the most basic to the most high-end products. You should be choosing a headset that is able to deploy the best content available for changing your student’s learning experiences.

Scroll down a little further for a brief overview of currently available headsets, and to see which work with Labster.

Labster integrates with your LMS

Labster integrates with major learning management systems to allow a more personalized, flexible teaching experience that includes unlimited tracking and seamless integration with your gradebook.

Watch the video to learn more about Labster VR

Download as PDF

Get the Complete Guide to Virtual Labs as a convenient, downloadable PDF.

3 ways to fund virtual labs

Finding funding for virtual lab pilots

Helen Gadegaard, former Professor and Customer Success Manager at Labster

“There are a number of ways that you can find funding for virtual labs. Although these vary greatly depending on, for example, the location of the school, there are a few models of funding that we see more often than others. See these below.

In order to get the ball rolling, however, you will need to ask your university which departmental body deals with educational funding. This could be within a number of the areas mentioned below, all of which have helped teachers in the past make their dream of using virtual labs a reality. 

Other questions you could ask in seeking out the best avenue for funding include: are there people already looking into this software, are other teachers interested or already using simulations, and would your university support a system where students rent out their own headsets? 

Asking these questions could make your journey to adopting virtual labs easier. It is however extremely hard to give general advice on this, so we urge you to just use these sources as inspiration and to instead reach out to us, so we can have a look at your options together.”

3 ways to fund virtual labs

1. Institution pay

  • Grant funding: We see many schools finding temporary funding through grants for, for example, innovative teaching. These can help you get started with virtual labs, and to establish the foundation for using online learning tools. It can be useful to document the effects (student satisfaction, cost savings, resource savings etc.) to build the case for additional funding once the grant runs out. You can read more about documenting effects and overall evaluation in the PDF version of this guide. 
  • Core teaching budget: Some schools manage to find funding within their core teaching budgets. Perhaps virtual labs can replace a lab kit that you have previously invested in? Depending on what resources you already have, virtual labs can substitute some elements at no additional costs.
  • Budget from e-learning: Many schools today have a budget for online learning. In many cases, the administrators of these budgets consult with faculty for adoption and inspiration, and it can therefore pay off to reach out to them to share the possibility of investing in virtual labs.

2. Student pay

Some schools choose a student pay model to avoid additional costs for the school. This option largely depends on the school’s general payment system, but it can be done at a relatively low cost for the students. One way to fund VR headsets, for example, is to purchase headsets for the library, and to have them lease out the headsets at an affordable price.

3. Blended model

An institution can subsidize the cost, and ask for partial payment from students.

Download as PDF

Get the Complete Guide to Virtual Labs as a convenient, downloadable PDF.

Research on virtual labs

At Labster, we strongly believe that building successful partnerships between academic and industrial partners is key in having the highest impact in the development of technology tools for learning. For that reason, Labster both participates in and leads a number of large-scale research projects, where we collaborate with various world renowned universities and biotech companies in the pursuit of understanding how to develop better simulations for learning. Read more about our research initiatives here.

Download our whitepaper to get an overview of the available research

This whitepaper lays out the need for change in science education and highlights the unique advantages virtual laboratories offer while also addressing the skepticism surrounding their use. 

Throughout the whitepaper you’ll find published research studies evaluating the effectiveness of virtual labs, as well as first-hand case studies from independent educators who have used virtual labs in their courses.

The whitepaper covers:

  • 5 challenges of today’s science education
  • How virtual labs can improve learning and teaching
  • Skepticism surrounding virtual labs
  • Effectiveness of virtual labs: what does the research say?
“Labster publishes research in journals, and that’s very rare in our experience. Of the companies that can create simulations, I don’t think there’s anyone who has the same expertise in-house that Labster has. I haven’t seen anyone else working in the field have this level.”
Phillipos Savvides
Arizona State University

Integrating virtual labs: 4 steps to success

Integrating Labster into your course: What to do

Helen Gadegaard, former Professor and Customer Success Manager at Labster

“This next section is relevant to you if you have decided that you want to use virtual labs as a part of your course, or if you are already a Labster user and want some ideas about how to expand your usage and effectively sync it with your current syllabus. At Labster, we want to make the process as easy as possible, and share our understanding and experience of the best way to integrate Labster into your course or module. Each year we talk to hundreds of teaching staff who are doing the same work as you; being innovative and creative with their teaching, and hoping to inspire, motivate (and educate!) the next generation of expert scientists.

From these conversations, we have been able to identify 4 key steps to success with implementing Labster simulations: Planning, Preparation, Execution and Review. 

Download our guide as a PDF to get the full whitepaper, where we’ll go into each of these in further detail, with some other supporting ideas and thoughts around each. Read through the whole paper or skip ahead to the sections you need most.”

Here’s an overview of the 4 steps to success identified by our Customer Success Managers at Labster. Download the whitepaper to get detailed explanations of each, to ensure that you get the most out of virtual labs.

1. Planning

Look to see which simulations align with your syllabus and decide how to embed them in your course. Plan how you will measure achievement of your intended outcomes as needed.

2. Preparation

Work with your Labster contact to decide which platform(s) to use and select payment method.

3. Execution

Lead your students to the simulations in their course. Use your Teacher Dashboard to check on engagement and scores.

4. Review

How did it go? Look at scores, engagement, student feedback. Check Faculty Resource pages to see new simulations and plan any switches in your course list. Set up for next semester!

Get your detailed guide on integrating virtual labs in our whitepaper

This whitepaper helps you get started as a Labster customer. In four steps Customer Success Manager, Helen Gadegaard, describes how best to integrate virtual labs into your course, and to make sure that you get the most out of Labster.

The whitepaper covers:

  • Which simulations align with your course and how will you embed them?
  • Which platform should you use and how will you fund the simulations?
  • How do you get your students to use the simulations and make sure they get the most out of them? 
  • How can you evaluate the success of using Labster in your course?

Download the complete guide to get an all-in-one PDF

This whitepaper provides you with everything you need to know about using virtual labs: From initial reflections to best practices. You will be taken through each step of the process from getting started to implementation by Labster’s Customer Success Manager and former lecturer in Life Sciences, Helen Gadegaard.

The whitepaper covers:

  1. What are virtual labs and how can you benefit from using them in your science courses
  2. Everything you need to know to get started with virtual labs: What hardware and software do you need and how can you find funding?
  3. Integrating virtual labs: Step by step guide to success

Pricing: What do virtual labs cost?

The cost of access to Labster’s virtual labs depends on a number of factors, such as how many simulations you want to use, and how many students you wish to give access. For this reason, we kindly ask that you fill out the form below with your basic details. You will then be contacted by a sales representative, who, with a little more information, will be able to give you a price quote. 

Want to know more?

Talk to us and get a price quote. Complete the form below, and we will get back to you.