Trying to move the lab component of a class online is a difficult task. Often, labs use specialized machinery, are difficult to reproduce outside of a controlled environment, and require additional materials that cannot be found easily or are costly to procure on an individualized basis. Emergency closures add additional stress, as many times a lab experience needs significant prior planning to execute to its full extent.
Note: Labs are highly variable and often require individualized problem solving. It is helpful to talk to department leaders, colleagues and instructional designers to pool resources and ideas needed to make this drastic change more manageable. The guidance provided here is for the purpose of setting up remote labs in an emergency situation and should not be taken as general guidelines for planning online or virtual labs.
Step 1: Determine the purpose of your lab (the why)
The most foundational decision moving forward is to determine the purpose of the lab. Labs run for various different reasons, such as: experiencing and practicing a skill, observing a process, executing data analysis, and collaborating with peers. Taking a step back to determine the reason of the lab will guide you in deciding how best to pivot the lab online.
Step 2: Determine the best way for students to demonstrate the skill(s) or concept(s)
Consider how the lab can be modified so that students are still able to demonstrate that they have mastered a particular skill. For example, if the goal was data analysis, you could provide sets of data for analysis. If the goal was data collection, you could provide test conditions and results, and then require students to identify, collect and organize pertinent data. This is the hardest step because you may have to let go of important elements of your planned lab in order to focus on critical learning objectives and provide an effective learning experience for your students.
Step 3: Inventory the resources you have on hand and determine what new resources you need
Leverage existing textbooks, software tools and platforms (e.g., Panopto, Canvas, etc.) to save time and cost as well as to prevent duplicate efforts.
- On all UM system campuses, students have access to specialized programs through remote software applications that may be expensive for students to have on their own computers. Check with your instructional designers or campus technology specialist for a list of specific software that students can access remotely. For example, SPSS, M+, and others are available remotely and allow students to freely access their capabilities and perfect utilizing these tools.
- Communicate with your building coordinator and departmental office support staff if you need to mail physical resources to students.
- If you already have a list of materials and supplies you use to stock your lab each semester, consider the option of putting together either kits or online shopping lists for students; you could buy back the kits at the end of term. General safety rules should be followed; if something is not safe for a student to use without in-person guidance, this should not be an option you consider.
Pro tip: If something new is needed, consider using resources that are pre-made, such as publisher supplemental resources (of a textbook that you are already using), YouTube videos, and websites. We have curated a list of linked websites, organized by discipline, to help you begin evaluating options you could use in your labs.
When adopting something new, please factor in the time that students may need to learn the new tool, adjust your assignment as needed to incorporate training time, and consider this factor when grading. We highly recommend that you do not utilize a tool or platform that you do not know how to operate. You may be the only technical support for this tool available to your students.
Step 4: Determine how you will teach the lab
There are a number of options for teaching lab concepts or demonstrating a lab technique: text, third party resources (e.g., YouTube), prerecorded videos, live Zoom meetings, just to name a few. In most cases, there may be a need to use a combination of approaches. Our advice is to develop a pattern in your approach and maintain consistency as much as possible.
Pro tip: Walk your students through the process.
Whether you are analyzing data or demonstrating a virtual lab, it is essential that you explicitly describe what you are doing to the students. “Think out loud” so that the students can hear what an expert is thinking and doing as they work through the problem. As an example of this, review the visualized experiments and protocols on the Journal of Visualized Experiments. Note how every minor detail is explicitly discussed.
Pro tip: Use the Breakout Room concept.
If you are doing live lab sessions, consider stopping the experiment at key points—perhaps every 15 minutes as appropriate—and send students to a “Breakout Room” with their TA. This could be:
- A Zoom breakout room
- A Canvas Discussion Board
- An editable Canvas page (like a wiki, where everyone would need to contribute)
- A Canvas Quiz
You could have a set of prepared quiz questions, general discussion questions, prompts, etc., much like those you would expect to arise during the lab session itself. Allow students 5–10 minutes to discuss in the moderated discussion, and then bring them back into the live lab session.
Step 5: Communicate your new approach to students
Students and professors alike should know just what to expect from a remote lab (the good, the bad and the ugly).
- Walk students through your new approach for teaching labs; consider giving them a guided tour through the setup in Canvas and/or any outside resources you plan to use.
- Help students understand what their role and responsibilities will be and how they can get help.
- Communicate your schedule for when new content will become available and any changes to deadlines, etc.
- Consider doing a practice run with your students for no or low stakes, just to make sure everyone knows how to use the technology.
- Most of all, encourage your students to ask questions early and often and provide as many avenues as you can for doing this.
Step 6: Contact your Instructional Designer
When you have a clear idea of the purpose for the lab components you need to execute remotely, have trimmed it down to its essential elements that have to be included, and have explored what options may be available to lean on to accomplish this, you should reach out to our team of instructional designers. Make sure to include the phrase “Remote Labs” in your email subject line.