Tailoring Learning Science resources for online lab teaching during the pandemic
Dr Aga Kosinska and Dr Deborah Gater share their experience of using tailored online Learning Science resources to facilitate remote laboratory learning and assessment in a UG Chemistry programme.
4 September 2020
Dr Aga Kosinska and Dr Deborah Gater, from the Centre for Languages and International Education at UCL Institute of Education, describe how they used tailored online resources from Learning Science to facilitate learning and assessment in a laboratory component of the Chemistry module on the Undergraduate Preparatory Certificate (UPC) programme. The resources particularly helped international students in the unprecedented transition to online learning in Spring term of 2020.
Their experience is that this approach:
- limits the marking workload for staff;
- better prepares students for hands-on experimentation whilst increasing awareness of the safety and hazards associated with work in chemical laboratories; and
- generally enhances students’ experience of online teaching and learning.
Pre-pandemic lab practice
In 2016-17, we initiated a project to use Learning Science resources as part of the UPC programme’s Chemistry module in 2016-17. Students were granted access, via Moodle, to experimental simulations, videos and calculation guides that supported specific practical sessions and some theoretical concepts. In the following academic year, we introduced custom-made on-line pre-laboratory assessments for 15 sessions, and 10 of the practical sessions were also assessed via tailored on-line lab reports.
We originally introduced Learning Science resources for a number of reasons:
- A projected increase in student numbers, combined with a desire to provide rapid and personalised feedback made the use of online, auto-graded lab reports an attractive proposition.
- The introduction of on-line pre-lab assessments encouraged students to prepare more thoroughly before the scheduled session and saved time during the session itself, making novel experiments more enjoyable. Again, the instant, auto-graded feedback was also helpful to both students and tutors.
- The library resources, including simulations, videos and guides, allowed students to engage with practical details both before and after scheduled sessions. It was hoped that these would be particularly helpful for international students who had minimal practical chemistry experience prior to this course, or who needed to practice relevant terminology and vocabulary in context.
Students used their lab manuals to prepare for the lab session and complete the pre-lab, which included a range of multiple choice questions and experimental simulations, before coming to the lab. Both tutors and students could immediately see the results of this activity.
Following the lab session, students would use their notes to complete the post-lab activity, which typically guided them through a structured analysis of their experimental outcomes including calculations, graphing and qualitative observations. Again, feedback was detailed and immediate, with some adaptive comments and support during the activity itself.
Responding to Covid-19 context: the pivot to ‘dry’ labs
During the early days of the pandemic in Spring 2020, it was decided at the programme level that the UPCSE course should continue to offer both teaching and assessment remotely, with individual decisions about implementation left to module leaders.
We incorporated the Learning Science resources into a completely virtual setting, and expanded their use to create meaningful online education.
The two remaining practical sessions in Term 3, 2020 (for which there were pre- and post-lab activities) were converted into dry labs. One session focused on a technique that students had already encountered in the lab (titration). In the other dry-lab, where the methodology was potentially new to students, an online guide, simulation and video was provided for students to experience in some way the practical details of the work.
To complete the post-lab, the UCL tutors provided students with a realistic set of data and observations based on student data from previous years. This was shared with students, along with the usual background and experimental details in the laboratory manual, to allow students to complete the online activities.
For the custom-made pre-lab and post-lab worksheets, we commissioned Learning Science to develop the online material. We provided detailed files to Learning Science, describing the experiments and the format of the assessment in an agreed format. We have since exchanged and implemented smaller updates and corrections.
These activities in the Learning Science library also needed to be embedded into Moodle as external resources. Learning Science provided us Tool URLs for the different activities, which could be embedded into Moodle.
The availability of the Learning Science resources made the transition from traditional laboratory experience to a dry lab experience relatively straightforward. In addition, we did not have to drop the laboratory topics covered by Learning Science resources, while another laboratory for which there was no equivalent online support had to be dropped from the course at the end of Term 2.
Importance of online pre-labs
Over the years, the access to hands-on experimentation has been decreasing, making the actual time in the laboratory more precious. Therefore, educational institutions at different levels (high schools, colleges and universities) have started to introduce on-line pre-labs as a way of better preparing students for practical sessions. Using tailored pre-labs limits the time one would otherwise spend on briefings before the labs,familiarising students with new techniques, glassware and equipment.
“The Learning Science resources are likely to become an increasingly important support to our laboratory teaching while online teaching forms a larger part of our interaction with students in the coming months. The interactive nature of both the library resources and the assessed work seems to help students engage with the practical aspects of the experiments, while also encouraging them to make links with theoretical concepts. – Deborah Gater (UPCSE Chemistry Teaching Fellow)
International students come from diverse prior education systems where practical experimentation is not always part of the high school curriculum. Our aim has been to minimise the stress related to the unknown experience, but also to introduce technical terminology in a joyful and interactive way.
Initially, the simulations allowing students to investigate various techniques in the virtual mode were not part of the pre-labs. However, informal feedback received from students indicated that they appreciated opportunities of making mistakes without practical consequences. Therefore, we asked Learning Science at beginning of the 2017/18 academic year to incorporate the simulations (some of them designed to match real-life experiments) in the actual pre-labs. Since then, other HE institutions incorporated similar approach in their teaching practice.
UCL negotiated a reasonable price with Learning Science from the outset, with the UPCSE Chemistry Module and the Chemistry Department working together to split the costs.
Several companies provide online or virtual laboratory simulations, videos and activities for students at all levels of education. Some material is available free (for example from the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK in collaboration with Learning Science and University of Bristol), and others are proprietary (example Learning Science, Labster, LabTutor.). As far as we know, the UCL UPCSE program was the first one for UCL to collaborate with Learning Science in order to design tailored interactive activities available on Moodle.
Outcomes and student response
The auto graded pre-labs and post-labs made a huge difference in decreasing a weekly marking load, so staff could focus instead onthe development of new teaching and learning resources.
Equally, it was a positive experience for students who were able to see the immediate feedback and grades in case of the assessed activities. In addition, they could keep revisiting the library resources as way of reinforcing knowledge and preparing themselves for tests and exams.
How would you rate online pre-labs as a tool preparing you for the practical work in the lab?
I felt the pre-labs were useful, as they ensured I read and understood the information in the lab book regarding the experiment. The apparatus simulations were especially helpful, as they allowed me to familiarise myself with the equipment and its correct usage, making me feel more confident when I encountered the equipment in the lab. These simulations, along with the post-labs which required us to understand, manipulate and reflect on the data we had collected, although useful and important throughout the year, were of particular help in Term III, as they managed to provide me with some of the skills taught by lab work when classes moved online. – Diniz Costa, Maria, Chemistry UPCSE 2019-2020
It's actually very helpful because I had no idea how to use a pH probe before pre-lab. I didn't quite understand the concept of buffer either before prelab, but the video of explaining buffers by Lego bricks, the pre-lab and the ChemStar do help me with this topic.(*The “ChemStar” refers to the Learning Science library resources) – Anonymous student
I could not perform the experiments in term 3, I still gained the benefits from the assessments. Pre-labs helped me understand how to do the labs and the underlying principles. Also, I could practise analysing and interpreting the provided data, which is another way to visualise the theories I studied from classes.” Limpsapapkasiphol, Khunakorn, Chemistry UPCSE 2019-2020
I think the Learning Science resources (pre-labs) were appropriate, interactive and were able to let the students understand what he will face during the lab sessions as in esterification practical in Term-II. Considering post-labs in term-III, they were relevant and give the student a chance to compensate his wrong answers. However, considering resources about spectroscopy I think there should be more complex examples than the ones mentioned to let the students understand IR and NMR spectroscopy. – Haidar El Moussaoui, Chemistry UPCSE 2019-2020
Pre-labs: Being able to simulate the experiment visually beforehand was extremely helpful in the sense that we were able to know what to expect more vividly than we can solely do based on the reading from the lab manual. In term 3, the pre-labs were still helpful since we were able to know what we were supposed to do visually, and I personally think that that compensated for at least half the lab experience. Post-labs: Post-labs were hard even in terms 1 and 2 since the instructions were very specific and strict (though I believe that is exactly how things should be in chemistry). In term 3 it did not change much since we were used to do dry labs as well. Overall, they were still hard…– Ryo Kuno, Chemistry UPCSE 2019-2020
Pre-labs were a very useful tool for me to prepare for each of the laboratories I had during the UPCSE Chemistry course. It gave me an 'outline' of the most important things I had to keep in mind before going into the laboratory as well as motivated me to do further reading about the topic studied in the experiment.” Post-labs were not only beneficial for my understanding of the experiment but also very interesting to do. It was a great tool to analyse the obtained data (usually by filling in the table to which student would refer to when doing the questions related to the practical), see patterns (if a range of experiment is carried out or a graph is plotted) and come to an understanding of what the experiment meant. The last point is crucial because very often I found myself not understanding the meaning of the data/observations obtained during the laboratory. However, the post-labs made everything clearer through the questions, which were well phrased and relevant to a specific experiment (note: only a few times this year students had a problem with the phrasing of the question).Of course, to complete the post-lab, a student also had to do some extra reading and know the topic well, since the questions were not always as easy as they looked. Even if the student did not get their question(s) correctly, they usually had another chance to learn from their mistake, think about the question more thoroughly and answer it differently. By the end of the post-lab, I always had a clear understanding of my results. – Shcherbakova, Anastasiia, Chemistry UPCSE 2019-2020
I would say that prelabs and postlabs are quite useful especially the detailed questions related to lab operations. The simulations are excellent! And the only problem may be the fact that without really doing these experiments, the expected results and answers are provided and it makes me feel like something is missing. (i.e. we can analyze the results but don’t know why they might be these). – Yuhan Zhao, Chemistry UPCSE 2019-2020
Our plans for the future centre around improving and developing those resources in the light of a remote delivery this year. We need to select the labs that would be the most appropriate for conversion into dry labs as well as ways of generating randomised set of data.
We are also considering incorporating UCL made videos of experiments into the pre- and post-labs.
Our top five tips on how to successfully move lab activities online
- Investigate both free and proprietary resources – you may be able to find what you want without paying for it, or there may be a variety of paid resources with variations in price, quality and ease of integration with Moodle (or whatever platform is being used). You may also want to speak to colleagues with similar teaching needs in other departments – collaboration in purchasing can help to reduce costs and/or increase access.
- Consider learning how to develop your own interactive material on Moodle or another platform – even if you do choose to purchase a solution, your understanding of the mechanics of such resources will help you to design and/or select the best solution for your course and aims.
- Look for existing expertise and experience among your subject colleagues, at UCL and in the academic community more broadly. Realistic recommendations of resources or their providers from colleagues who have used them can be very useful. You may also find journals or blogs on developments in academic education helpful, for example the Journal of Chemical Education or Chemistry Education Research and Practice.
- Take a look at this review summarising different pre lab activities and approaches.
- Be prepared for moving three steps forward and two steps backwards during a process of designing those activities!
We would like to thank all those colleagues in the Chemistry Department who worked with us on this project, especially Professor Katherine Holt, Dr Stephen Potts and Dr Peter Bowman.