Are you Virtual or Not? That is the Question!
Student at computer

Photo by Tom Woodward via Flickr.

With the popularity of digital devices, there has also been a great interest in online coursework. Discussions and research are just now being done in relation to their effectiveness. Todays’ digital natives are naturally attracted to the opportunity to take courses digitally. The question is, “Is this the best way for students to learn?” especially in the area of science, which by its very nature lends itself to “hands-on” activities.

As a longtime educator in Texas, I have seen a push for schools to consider more digital textbooks and online learning resources. As a reviewer of some of these resources, I was somewhat disappointed in that some were nothing more than PDF’s of textbooks with very little interactivity for the student. Most will agree that just putting the pages of a textbook online is not the answer to engaging students. However, what about highly interactive open-ended electronic resources?

In the July 17 Journal of “NATURE”, M. Mitchell Waldrop discusses the explosive popularity of online learning in Education online: The virtual lab.  Waldrop mentions that this approach might be fine for lectures and the like but what about the hands on experience? Can that be taught online?

I have had the opportunity to try some virtual labs with mixed reviews. My experience as a high school science teacher allowed me to see both sides of this issue. As a Biology teacher, I did many hands-on labs including dissections. Over the years concerns about dissections have been expressed for a variety of reasons, the purpose of some of these dissections, cost, effects on the environment, and just personal preferences to not touch dead things. As a result of that I began to explore some of the virtual alternatives. As I tried some of these virtual dissections, something was always lacking. How can a student feel the texture or the depth required to cut? How can a student problem solve if another tissue is in the way? (While something like radioactivity and half life would not be appropriate to work with in a high school lab and would lend itself to a virtual environment for safety issues, I feel like there are just some things that are better suited to the real thing. If I am going to be operated on I want someone who has experienced working on human tissue, knows how deep to cut, knows what to do if there is a problem, and has not just worked on a “virtual” cadaver.

Is “hands on” the only way to learn a concept? Is there any value in “virtual labs”?

If you do a search online you will find several providers of virtual labs. Here are a few I found in relation to Frog dissection. Try some of these Virtual Frog dissections and let me know what you think in the comments below.

 You can also find virtual labs in the Archive in this Virtual Lab Collection

Do you have any virtual labs that you like to use? Share below.

5 thoughts on “Are you Virtual or Not? That is the Question!”

I would have to agree with you Charlie, there are certainly some labs that are better suited to virtual labs rather than hands on labs in a classroom setting. The option of having expensive or equipment heavy labs available for schools to use as an option to include labs is also a positive aspect of the growing number of virtual labs that are becoming available. But, if the goal on K-12 science education is to get kids excited about science as a future career I feel that hands on labs are the labs of choice.

Thanks for the input. It does look like it would create a lot of interest for High School Students.


I think that the answer to your question is, ” Sometimes…depending on the concept or competency being taught.” Virtual labs can allow us to explore questions that are impossible in the real lab due to cost, safety, or time needed. A three week set up for a 30 minute lab may simply not be worth the pay off if your students can get into a virtual environment and start exploring right away. But where we can, I am a firm believer in hands on. It is the reason I am a scientist. I vividly recall my amazement in 8th grade when we dissected a preserved earthworm. The complexity of even this simple organism left me in awe of living creatures. By the time I had dissected a shark and frog and heard an anesthesiologist talking about his career, I was firmly on a science career path. Not bad for a year with old science books, a basement “lab” room with little water in a soon-to-be condemned school building. But for me, I will always remember it as where I discovered the wonder of biology. I am a committed technophile but am convinced that both virtual AND hands on are needed in the science classroom.

The problem with almost all virtual labs is they are designed to always work and to always give the same answer. There is a lot to be said from failing or getting a result that requires you to think about why it happened in a way you didn’t expect. Failing teaches one the need to follow directions precisely or at least document each step carefully so you can conduct a post-mortem on the experiment. In a real lab setting, my experiments almost never work the first few times I do them and the result is different from what I expected at least half the time. That is what appeals to me as a scientist. Knowing I have to be totally focused on my game and that even then I will be scrambling to figure out what the result means since I will have discovered something no one could have predicted. Virtual labs might be good for learning how to interpret data or do modeling but the real excitement of science is playing with stuff on a benchtop.

Leave a Reply