Virtual lab and fieldwork

To say that the coronavirus pandemic has caused significant disruption would be an understatement, with the entire education sector affected in one way or another. With any luck things will creep back to something approaching normality. However, the past months have highlighted the need to be prepared for disruptive events in the future, in whatever form they come.

As the pandemic started, we realised that physical lab and fieldwork would be a challenge, so we decided to do some research with staff at several institutions to find out more. The use of technology in both these areas had been around for many years, but we wanted to find out what was available on the market and what gaps might exist.

We found that commercial software to deliver virtual labs is further ahead than in virtual fieldwork. Vendors gaining traction include Labster (in the USA and UK), and LabBuddy (in Europe). However, institutions reported that virtual labs are not at the stage where they can fully replace physical lab work. Firstly, the peer support and social learning aspect of physical lab work where students gain confidence and encouragement from their peers is not currently supported. Secondly, even the best immersive simulations do not train the fine motor skills that students need to carry out lab-based research, which can begin as early as third-year dissertations.

Where institutions have found value in virtual labs is as a supplement, rather than a replacement to physical labs. Pre-lab activities are used to teach the protocol to all students and combined with a short test to assess the learning. This helps maximise the time spent doing the intended activity in physical labs, as students are more familiar with the equipment, the theory, and the expected outcomes. Virtual labs can simulate experiments that would not be feasible to carry out in a physical lab. Students can be safely exposed to dangerous reagents, conditions that are impossible to set up due to cost or location, or experiments that take days or longer. Post-lab activities like those provided by Learning Science reduce the marking burden on staff. They are also popular with students as feedback is instant and can be even be provided in real-time during the assessment. Finally, virtual labs can be a revision tool to refresh the skills learned in physical labs.

In the short-term the current disruption is the main driver for institutions looking into virtual fieldwork. However, there has been an increasing awareness of environmental concerns, accessibility, and costs as potential barriers to physical fieldwork. These barriers are drivers for some of the innovative solutions created over the past few years. Virtual fieldwork is some way behind virtual labs in terms of the range of vendors on the market. Homegrown solutions have emerged out of institutions, taking advantage of readily available software tools from electronic notebooks to video packages that are being used to support fieldwork. The 10th Enhanced Fieldwork Learning Showcase was held on 8th September 2020 and is a great resource for virtual fieldwork ideas and inspiration – a full recording of the event is available. Esri UK has published a collection of tutorials designed to help anyone create and run a virtual field course using ArcGIS. VR-Glaciers and Glaciated Landscapes is a collection of free virtual field trips put together by  The University of Worcester. InVEnTA is a University of Exeter Education Incubator project for developing interactive virtual environments using geospatial and visualisation technology. The SeriousGeoGames Lab from the University of Hull combines computer modelling and gamification to teach learners about environmental issues such as ocean acidification, flash flooding, and rising sea levels. Several institutions have been experimenting with remote field trips using data from previous trips, including Imperial College London and The University Centre in Svalbard.

Unlike with virtual labs, institutions have been able to improvise and innovate with existing tools. However, Jisc expects to see commercial vendors attempt to enter this space in greater numbers over the coming years. It will be interesting to see whether solutions emerge that allow students/researchers to gather and work with live data rather than relying on previously collected data. Recent advances in drone technology, robotics, and the exponential growth of IoT devices suggests this could be a reality in the coming years.

Like many in-person activities which have moved online at short notice, current digital solutions cannot adequately replace the peer support and social learning aspects of physical lab and fieldwork. Addressing this gap is a key challenge for the sector and any vendors looking to enter this space. Jisc will continue to monitor this interesting and fast-moving area for ways of supporting our members. We’ll be particularly looking out for growing adoption of virtual lab packages, innovative uses of new and emerging technologies, increased collaboration and sharing of data and resources in fieldwork, and any solutions with refreshing takes on ways of improving the social aspects of online practical work.

By Sam Thornton

Product Lead, Edtech & Co-Design

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