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Teaching and Learning with Virtual and Remote Science Labs: Observations, Trends, and a Blended Future

Jim Brinson (American Military University, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 2:45pm
Technology and Emerging Learning Environments
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere IV
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 3
Virtual Session

Blending, publication media, nationality/culture, education level, accessibility, demography, science subject, and methodology could all impact perceived student learning outcome achievement in virtual/remote labs.

Extended Abstract

This presentation highlights supplemental observations related to a recent meta-analysis concerning the efficacy of non-traditional labs (NTL; virtual/remote) vs. traditional labs (TL; hands-on) for learning outcome achievement (Brinson, 2015; http://ow.ly/MRRW7). Nearly all studies (n=50, 89%) showed that NTL were found to yield equal or higher outcome achievement, and the supplemental observations below address factors that may impact this result, its interpretation/perception among researchers and educators, and future research.

(1) Blended/Hybrid Labs (BL). To eliminate confounding factors, BL were not addressed in the meta-analysis, but are discussed here. With a BL approach, TL and NTL are combined to capitalize on their respective benefits. The TL component typically utilizes lab kits, while the NTL component typically utilizes a remote or virtual lab. Classes using BL produced a higher measure of outcome achievement than TL alone. Nearly all studies were based on the K outcome as defined by the KIPPAS tool (Brinson, 2015; http://ow.ly/MRRW7). Likewise, data also supports BL being more effective than NTL alone, and the sequence of TL and NTL procedural components seems to make no difference. So a NTL component of some degree seems to be supportive of outcome achievement, and the empirical evidence for TL+NTL combination being most effective is growing. Student perception data is also supportive of BL. The results of BL studies are mixed, however, and no consensus exists regarding best practices, so this is an important avenue of further research.

(2) Publication Media. The methods for the meta-analysis resulted in a final pool of 56 relevant studies, of which 2% (n = 1) were government reports, 2% (n=1) were dissertations, 14% (n=8) were conference proceedings, and 82% (n=46) were journal articles. Studies spanned 33 different journals and 7 different conferences. Such a broad range is troublesome, since the implications of NTL efficacy have the potential to significantly impact educational policy, admissions, transfer agreements, etc., so a publication/repository that is focused on interdisciplinary science laboratory education and technology is perhaps important for future research.

(3) Nationality/Culture. Studies were conducted globally across 18 different countries, but most (n = 43, 77%) were conducted with Western subjects, 52% (n=29) of which occurred in the U.S. This research field is dynamic, global, and rapidly growing, and is likely linked to economic and geopolitical factors, and this warrants further investigation.

(4) Student Education Level. The educational level of the research subjects was diverse, but mostly focused on university undergraduates (n=34, 61%), followed by high school students (n=10, 18%) and graduate students (n=6, 11%), likely because laboratory cost/maintenance remains highest at these levels. In light of shrinking public education budgets at all levels, the scope of NTL efficacy and applicability warrants investigation at all levels.

(5) Lab Accessibility. The majority (n=32, 57%) of the NTL used in these studies are course-specific and proprietary, being neither open-source or commercially available to the public or other researchers. This poses several research problems, namely that without consistency and universal access, it is difficult to validate data claims and have meaningful discussion in the literature.

(6) Demography. Only 16% (n=9) of studies reviewed analyzed demography, in the form of gender, academic standing/achievement, prior knowledge/experience, and learning styles. Results were mixed, resulting in no agreement on the impact of demography on NTL vs. TL efficacy. As the scope of this research field continues to widen, it is imperative that more studies investigate demographic factors, especially those related to learning styles, as well as socioeconomic, gender, cultural, and generational differences.

(7) Science Discipline. Natural science (NS) disciplines comprised 82% (n=46) of the studies, with only 16% (n=9) of studies addressing the engineering/computer science domains. This contradicts previous findings, in which most studies were in applied science and engineering (ASE) fields. The majority of the NS studies occurred within physics (n=19, 34%), followed by biology (n=14, 25%) and chemistry (n=12, 21%). There was also one oceanography study. If labs categorized as general science (scientific thinking, elementary science, etc.) are grouped with NS studies, then at least 84% (n=47) of studies were outside the domain of ASE. More realistic and authentic virtual NS lab options likely explain the observed increase in empirical research in these disciplines. In addition, the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning has noted the importance of increased funding for research in this field, so more grants are becoming available for researchers in NS for investigating NTL efficacy.

(8) Methodology. Nearly all studies utilized quantitative methods of comparison (n=51, 91%), with 79% (n=44) of studies using them as the sole methodology. Only 20% (n = 11) of studies utilized qualitative methods, and only 9% (n = 5) of studies utilized them as the sole methodology. Given the global participation in this topic, international empirical studies are particularly important for national systems of education if countries wish to cooperate and evolve toward an international system of communication on this topic. The need for quantitative approaches results from their provision of clearer evidence in problems which would otherwise be very difficult or even impossible to analyze in strictly national studies. A qualitative component to the studies is also needed, however, in order to understand context and develop action plans and best practices for the problems identified from quantitative studies.

This presentation will be interactive/conversational, with charts, tables, graphs, and quantitative summaries (hard and e-copy). The presenter's background in instructional technology and science education will allow fielding of questions related to both virtual laboratory technology and science pedagogy.

The take-away is that many factors may influence the efficacy of NTL, and many avenues of future research have been made manifest from this study that can help direct future research.


Brinson, J.R. (2015). Learning outcome achievement in non-traditional (virtual, remote) versus traditional (hands-on) laboratories: A review of the empirical research. Computers & Education, 87, 218-237.

Lead Presenter

Jim Brinson is Assistant Professor in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at American Military University, where he teaches courses in biology and chemistry. He completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Indiana State University (Biology/Chemistry Education) and his post-graduate work at both the University of Nebraska (Biology) and the University of Maryland (Chemistry). His scientific background is in chemical ecology, but his current research interests are in science education, especially virtual laboratory technology and online learning.