Virtual labs: Are they virtually as good as real ones?

I've been reading a paper by Majorie Darrah and others (full reference below) on the use of 'virtual labs' in Undergraduate Physics. At Waikato (along with lots of other universities) our first year physics students carry out laboratory sessions to help them learn physics concepts and practical skills. If you are someone who has run a first-year laboratory class, you'll be well aware that these things are costly and time-consuming. If they're not done well, they become an expensive way of wasting everyone's time. 

Recently, there's been a lot of work on 'virtual' laboratories. These are laboratory sessions that aren't 'hands-on', but simulated on a computer. There are some pretty sophisticated ones out there. At our last NZ Institute of Physics conference, David Sokoloff, one of our keynote speakers, talked about some of these. The computer software allows a student to do pretty-much whatever would be done in a laboratory, but without the university having to purchase, set-up and maintain the expensive equipment. (And, from the student's perspective, they are not constrained as to when they carry out the 'lab'). 

So, do they work? I don't mean does the software work, but does the virtual lab give the same benefit to the student as undertaking a real lab. In other words, do the students achieve the same learning outcomes? To test this, Darrah and her colleagues worked with 224 students at two universities. They were put into three groups – one group did the traditional hands-on labs in a laboratory, one group did the hands-on labs AND the virtual labs, and the third group did just the virtual labs. Their learning was tested with a quiz after the lab , an assessment of the student's written lab report, and  tests. 

So what was the result? They found no difference between the groups. One of the universities conveniently carried out a test assessment both before and after the lab sessions and found that all groups improved as a result of the labs, be they real or virtual. That is certainly an encouraging result for the likes of Sokoloff, and those budget-pressed universities with lots of students to push through first year university physics. The problem of doing laboratory work has been one of the reasons why MOOCs for science and engineering have been fairly slow to get going, However, it may be reasonable to do away with this, if good virtual labs can be prodcued. 

But, there is a but. It's a big but in my opinion, and one that, surprisingly, the authors fail to comment on. Their post-lab assessment of learning was based on a written test of the physics theory concepts that were covered in the lab. In other words, they were testing how well the laboratory (real or virtual) supplemented the teaching of physics theory done in lectures and elsewhere. What they weren't testing were practical laboratory skills (e.g. how to wire up a circuit, track down problems with the apparatus, carry out experiments in a controlled manner, etc.) These are all important skills for a physicist. If universities as a whole shifted towards virutal labs in first year, where does that leave students in learning these other skills? The paper doesn't comment. What I'd like to see is the same study done, but the students afterwards given a laboratory test – put them in a real lab and get them to do a real experiment, assessing some practical learning outcomes. Then what happens? It would be nice to try it out – but it will take a bit of organizing (not least acquiring some virtual labs and convincing my colleagues that it is a good idea.) So don't expect a response from me soon.

Darrah, M., Humbert, R., Finstein, J. Simon, M. & Hopkins, J. (2014). Are virtual labs as effective as hands-on labs for undergraduate physics? A comparitive study at two major universities. Journal of Science Education Technology 23:803-814. doi 10.1007/s10956-014-9513-9 


3 thoughts on “Virtual labs: Are they virtually as good as real ones?”

  • Marcus,
    Thank you for reading and commenting on our article. It is good to know someone actually read it.
    You make a very good point about the type education or training that will NOT be addressed in virtual labs (namely the physical techniques of setting up an experiment – wiring circuits, manipulating a mechanical apparatus, etc.). I think all of us involved in the study would agree with you on this! I think we see that the main benefits of the virtual labs are as a supplement to hands-on labs and also the ability to quickly reconfigure experiments to run them again with different parameters.
    As education moves from a physical classroom or lab to anytime and anywhere, I think virtual labs, like online classes, have their proper place. However, I agree that there is still great benefit for students in interaction with a person (teacher or mentor) and physical items (lab equipment).
    Thank you again for taking time to read and comment on our article.

  • Certainly if you are training a surgeon, you would want to practice those skills on cadavers to get experience. If we were training physicists then we would want to acquaint them with the actual equipment that is common in the field. However, in our case, we did the study in our Physics 250 course which is a physics course for bioscience majors not engineers or physicists. So our objectives were centered around conveying concepts and not training them to operate equipment that they would never see in their career. I don’t expect that over the course of a career in bioscience a student would ever encounter a spark tape timer.
    The virtual labs, I believe, did give them a “sense” for the manner in which data are collected while relieving them of the tediousness of equipment setup, operation, and tear down while simultaneously providing students with the ability to spend that additional time thinking about the data and the relationships that they illustrate.
    You make a good point about virtual labs lack the ability to train students to operate actual lab equipment. However, if there are no course objectives related to equipment operation then I see no reason to force such training in a course where it is not needed. It’s an issue of knowing what the course objectives are and how best to present them. The results were quite clear in this respect, virtual labs are just as effective in conveying physics concepts as are hands on labs.
    The statement he makes is an obvious one. If you want students to operate a hammer then you hand them a hammer. Pushing a button and watching a hammer hit something isn’t the same. We all would agree on that, I believe.

  • Marcus WIlson says:

    Thanks for your comments Marjorie. Yes, it depends on the learning outcomes. What do you want the students to get out of the course? I would love to carry out the study I suggested – give students virtual labs and then put them in a real lab and see how well they tackle it. Although one can speculate that they won’t cope well, the result may well be surprising.

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