Virtual laboratories (or virtual labs for short) are a great way for learners to practice in a safe, online environment. Through virtual science lab games and engineering simulation software, learners can interact with elements, machines, and interfaces before or instead of trying them out in real life.
Virtual labs have many applications in educational as well as business environments. In this article, we will shed light on them and help you determine when and how to use virtual laboratories in your eLearning courses.
What is a virtual lab?
A virtual laboratory is an on-screen simulator or calculator that helps test ideas and observe results. Learners use advanced technology to perform a series of experiments that yield authentic results.
For example, they can “tinker” with laboratory equipment that behaves in almost the same way as it would in a real environment. Or, they can run code, and, based on results, they can deduce a learning objective. This way, a virtual laboratory becomes a meaningful addition to your virtual class.
Virtual labs are not just about science
When we’re thinking about visual labs, our minds usually picture some type of a virtual chemistry lab game. But virtual laboratories are not limited to science and chemical reactions. They can be valuable tools in many industries.
How do you use a virtual lab?
Programming courses often use simulation tools to teach learners how to code. In this case, virtual labs have compilers and code editors embedded in HTML pages, which enable learners to write, edit, and run code easily, all within an eLearning course.
Web designers and developers can also benefit from such tools. They can apply major changes or create new features in a safe web environment, test them out, share feedback, and then move to the live version of their product or website. This way, they avoid disruptions to clients and product performance.
Other industries that use virtual labs for training are the mechanical engineering and construction fields. Simulations are particularly useful for junior employees, who might need additional training or new employees who need some onboarding until they’re comfortable enough to take on actual projects.
Virtual laboratories vs. physical laboratories
Here, nothing ever gets broken — so experiment away!
Traditional lab training can be dangerous, or even impossible in some cases. Let’s what the main challenges are when it comes to using physical labs for training:
Challenges with traditional lab training
- Limited or no access to physical laboratories. Students and employees don’t necessarily have access to a lab at any time (e.g. due to social distancing guidelines because of a pandemic due to limited capacity).
- Risk of accidents. Experimenting with equipment and hazardous substances is particularly dangerous when learners are inexperienced.
- Expensive lab equipment. Learners don’t get to experiment with modern, advanced machines as they’re often out of budget. Therefore, their learning experience is incomplete.
- Crowded labs. Equipment and materials are limited. Not every learner will have the chance to play around and conduct experiments first-hand.
- Low priority for learning. Few companies are able to afford equipment used specifically for training purposes. When machines and programs are used for actual work, little or no time is left for learning.
- Lack of engagement. Common limitations of physical labs (e.g. inadequate number of machines, outdated equipment, etc.) turn learners off. If they can’t practice what they’re learning in theory, it’s harder to understand complex concepts and stay motivated.
A virtual laboratory, though, can tackle those challenges, one by one, and virtual labs come with a bunch of benefits. Here are some of them:
Benefits of virtual labs
- Reduce costs. Purchasing a high-end simulator for training sounds — and is — expensive. But, in comparison, getting multiple devices so employees can get trained in a physical space is more costly. Besides, maintaining all this equipment will cost more than maintaining one platform.
- Guarantee safety. In a virtual laboratory, learners can try all kinds of experiments without the risk of damaging equipment or injuring themselves. They can also test different scenarios, compare, and determine which one is the most effective without having to try them out in real life.
- Create a true-to-life learning experience. Often learners have to make guesses about how a machine operates, what the outcome of a piece of code will be, etc. They may also ignore limitations or malfunctions that could happen in a real work environment. Virtual labs help build a realistic learning environment so that learners get complete training and are more prepared.
- Boost learners’ confidence. Working with hazardous substances or handling heavy machines can be intimidating, especially for less experienced employees. Give them the chance to practice in a virtual, interactive lab environment before they’re being exposed to real-life work conditions.
- Offer blended learning. Virtual training doesn’t necessarily replace traditional training; combined, they create an enhanced learning experience. In virtual laboratories, learners have the chance to apply what they learned in theory, experiment, and practice as many times as they want. Instructors can assign projects and then have follow-up sessions to discuss results.
- Engage learners. Lectures and presentations can be demotivating when it comes to hands-on jobs, like chemical experiments or construction projects. You can capture learners’ attention, though, by giving them the opportunity to test those procedures in a virtual lab.
- Give unlimited time to experiment. Learners can repeat experiments as many times as needed and practice at their own pace. Also, they can speed up training as they don’t have to wait before some equipment becomes available.
- Explain complex concepts and procedures. Theory can be too abstract when you can’t see how it applies in real-life. But in virtual laboratories, learners can play with orbits of planets, tinker with the global economy or create a crossbreed between two species. You can use virtual labs to simulate any level of scale, complexity, or abstraction.
How to use virtual laboratories in eLearning
Here are a few tips and ideas of how you can use virtual labs in eLearning courses:
- Instead of having learners make assumptions or memorize concepts and procedures, give them the joy of discovery. Ask them situational questions and then let them replicate those scenarios in the virtual lab. Any discrepancies between expectations and (virtual) reality could be the topic of the next lesson.
- Use virtual laboratory interfaces to help employees grow their skills. As learners master simple procedures, they can practice in more complex processes and more challenging tasks through the virtual lab software.
- Provide lab-style assignments that teach learners how to use a physical laboratory, step by step. You can include safety guidelines and tips for proper use of equipment.
- When building your virtual laboratory, opt for a responsive interface. Learners will be able to take their training from any device. Also, a rich and interactive user interface will deliver a smooth and flexible eLearning experience.
Virtual laboratories can help reach your eLearning objectives.
Use these best practices to decide if a learning situation requires a virtual laboratory, and implement this exciting technique into your courses to provide interactive learning experiences.