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Since January, COVID-19 has forced a paradigm shift in higher education. Without the convenience of in-person instruction, professors have been challenged to reformat their teaching style to accommodate online learning. And while some pre-pandemic research suggests that STEM students are able to learn as well online as they are in the classroom (Sci. Adv., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aay5324), lab courses present a unique difficulty for remote instruction.

As universities embark on a new term, researchers at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, USA have posted a survey on arXiv that reports on how instructors transitioned their physics lab classes online last semester—and reveals insights into the benefits and challenges of remote labs.

Moving to a virtual classroom

Students enrolled in STEM classes usually dive into material with hands-on lab experiments, but now that intimate learning environment is much harder to achieve. The CU physics department has experimented for a number of years with tools and techniques that could help in keeping experiments and student learning effective as courses shift online.  

The school’s Physics Education Technology (PhET) web portal, for example, has allowed students to interact with physics simulations online since 2002. More recently, CU, along with several other universities, has also adopted the iOLab device, which acts as a small, portable online lab. The device allows students to perform physics experiments remotely and is equipped with sensors to measure acceleration, velocity, force, magnetic field, light, sound, and gravity as well as other data.

Survey insights

In an effort to understand the effectiveness of online lab instruction, CU researchers surveyed 106 instructors and more than 2,600 students from various higher-education institutions to see how they adapted to the new learning environment last semester.

The survey revealed that many professors had to shift their priorities in the classroom to ensure that students could learn successfully—such as incorporating mental-health check-ins into the daily syllabus. Other professors were motivated to ensure the courses were equitable for all students and to cover the same physics concepts virtually as they would in the lab.

However, the transition to online learning does have its challenges. The survey found that most professors had difficulty mirroring the experiences of an in-person lab for students, and faced technical issues. For students, the most common complaint was that they could not perform experiments with a partner or group. Unfortunately, being away from the classroom means that the sense of community created in a lab and the ability to easily collaborate may be lost.

Despite the challenges of online labs, students reported that remote labs allowed them to work at their own speed and have control over their learning. In particular, when labs were structured in an open-ended format, professors observed increased student engagement. At CU, for example, the PhET portal was used by professors as an open-ended lab to allow students to answer physics questions of their choice. This style of lab was found to be more effective because it provided students with the flexibility to perform tasks at their own pace.

Rising to the challenge

Ultimately, in this unusual time, everyone is having to adjust their normal routine and find new avenues to learn and work. For STEM labs, this can be quite the hurdle to overcome. But the authors of the CU survey concluded that “physics lab instructors rose to the occasion” during the early months of the pandemic by embracing creative opportunities “for students to access ‘lab-like’ learning online.”

That said, the survey authors forthrightly acknowledged the difficulties in remote lab instruction. Thus they ended the study with a list of suggestions for making these potentially fraught arrangements work—everything from being prepared for technical glitches, to considering the needs of a variety of students with respect to technology and lab materials, to allowing adequate time for preparation and coursework (as both prep and study time requirements can balloon when a lab is taught remotely).

Perhaps the best advice is the last item on the survey team’s recommendations list. “This was, and still is, a new situation for everyone,” the authors write, “so things will go wrong. That is okay.”