Our Labster Experience: Laurie Harrison, University of Toronto
Along with her colleagues, Laurie Harrison, Director of Online Learning Strategies at the University of Toronto, first heard about Labster more than two years ago. Several instructors were intrigued by the idea of the VR experience and the possibility of using virtual labs in their courses.
As part of a provincial innovation initiative, a group of interested faculty members sampled the labs as they began planning for their use beginning in March 2017. Labster access was integrated into the institution’s learning management system (LMS) over the summer of 2017, and by fall, a number of instructors were using the labs in their courses, with good results. These experiences were summarized in a report by the University of Toronto:
“All collaborators provided positive feedback about the enriched experience that Labster created for their learners. The instructors saw impact through opportunities to extend existing teaching, providing students with lab experience where on-site labs are not available, and as a complementary self-directed learning resource for the students to deepen their understanding of the relation between theory and lab experiments.”
Read on to learn about this pilot project and how Labster’s virtual labs were used to achieve positive outcomes at the University of Toronto.
The instructors using Labster had a variety of reasons why they wanted to pilot the use of virtual labs. They indicated several areas of potential impact, including the possibility of improving students’ depth of understanding, their motivation and retention, and access to laboratory equipment.
The instructors all implemented Labster into their courses using blended delivery formats. The instructors integrated the virtual labs in a number of ways, including:
Extending current teaching
Providing lab work opportunity in seminar courses with no existing lab
Opportunity to work on a lab that did not currently exist
Refreshing students’ knowledge before teaching new material
Other examples of the instructors’ use of the virtual labs in their courses included a virtual lab substituting a lecture session where the instructor was attending a conference. In another course, the instructors used two virtual labs as self-directed complementary learning activity so that students could deepen their understanding of complex course topics. A last example from a seminar-style course was where the labs were the only lab-type learning activity. In this case the labs provided the students with a unique opportunity to link theory and lab experiments.
To assess the impact of Labster’s virtual labs, the University of Toronto undertook a virtual lab integration pilot project called Active Learning Opportunities Through Virtual Lab Curricular Integration,
The pilot phase of this project was undertaken by five university instructors, three staff members who provided administrative coordination, and an Education Specialist from Labster. Instructors participating in the project represented courses across several program areas, including Biomedical Engineering, Cell and Systems Biology, and Human Biology program areas. This group closely collaborated for over a year, starting March 2017, to identify relevant labs, design course curricula, address IT integration aspects, implement Labster virtual labs in four undergraduate courses, and evaluate the pilot phase of the project. They used 10 of Labster’s simulations across four of the university’s courses (see a more detailed description of the project in this report). In the final phase of this project, when the 2017 courses had ended, the instructors shared highlights of their experience.
Some of the main highlights from the evaluation project included the virtual lab’s ability to deepen student learning, their flexibility, and the strong connection between theory and practice in the simulations:
Deepening student learning
The possibility for students to supplement their course work with Labster enabled students to clarify concepts that they may have found difficult to grasp during the lectures. The instructors found that they could use Labster to purposefully deepen students’ learning in this way, and at the same time connect the labs to the course learning objectives. Furthermore, Labster could be used to enhance the students’ understanding of concepts that were either complex or too resource intensive to teach in on-site labs or face to face.
Adding flexibility and removing time limits
Another key benefit of the labs was that students could use the labs and repeat exercises within simulations as much as they wanted, and as much as it required for them to understand the content, without being pressured or restrained by time limits. One instructor emphasized that the labs could be completed at times and in places convenient to the students, thus providing them with a desired flexibility in planning for their learning.
Strong connection between theory and practice
The theory embedded in the virtual labs was considered a pedagogically significant feature that enhanced the quality of the virtual labs. The instructors highlighted the importance of this connection between theoretical concepts and hands-on lab experiments. One instructor specifically pointed out to the high quality of the theoretical component of the virtual labs.
This evaluation was mirrored in the students’ feedback. The students thought the virtual labs were aligned with their learning as supplementary resources, lecture substitute or pre-lab activities. Students found that this alignment to the course outcomes was beneficial to their learning and understanding.
Looking to the future, the instructors expressed their interest in having more ability to customize the labs so that they could curate the most relevant sections of the virtual labs to complement and extend their instruction. In addition to breaking out access to content further, the instructors suggested that assessment questions could be modifiable to connect more seamlessly with course content and learning goals. As the Director of Online Learning Strategies, Laurie Harrison indicated that from an instructional design perspective there would be strong interest in new developments in this direction:
“It’s our understanding that Labster is working on more customizable labs and we are looking forward to seeing new options available on the platform. Modifiable assessment questions is another area we understand Labster is working on and are pleased to hear it.”
Did Labster meet expectations?
The collaborating instructors provided positive feedback about the enriched experience that Labster virtual labs created for learners. They also reflected an overall positive response from their students. The instructors' observations indicated that Labster helped increase the students’ depth of understanding, motivation and retention, and access, and it therefore met their expectations and fulfilled the intended purpose.
From an administrative perspective, one of the advantages that Harrison highlighted was that that virtual labs could be used to improve access to the lab experience.
"We have constraints in terms of availability to physical labs that can be eased by access to virtual labs as a supplement to the current curriculum. Online labs may provide opportunities for students at an earlier point in their studies, and students may also benefit from learning about the more practical aspects of lab work such as understanding lab safety and protocol in experimentation. While going through the motions of attending a lab and conducting experiments virtually, a student can also get different points of view through different angles and animations that, for example, take a participant into the bloodstream or illustrate theoretical concepts."
Future and VR
Instructors at the University of Toronto have plans to extend exploration of Labster in more ways, and they are currently planning a new pilot project that will support the full VR experience with Google Daydream headsets.
The University of Toronto will continue to research and evaluate the impact of Labster on students’ learning and to examine the process of curriculum design and implementation. To learn more about the University of Toronto’s evaluation project of Labster’s virtual labs read their report here.
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