What are Virtual Laboratories and how do they work in eLearning?
Instructional Design

What are Virtual Laboratories and how do they work in eLearning?

Virtual laboratories are a great way for learners to practice science and engineering experiments in a safe online environment. Educational Technology researchers have developed many virtual lab games and interfaces that enable learners to interact with elements and compounds to execute “reactions”. Virtual laboratories have many such applications. In this article, we will shed some light on them and determine when you can use virtual laboratories in your eLearning courses.

What is a virtual laboratory?

We’ve already talked about the importance of creating virtual classes. But a virtual laboratory is so much more.

A virtual laboratory is an on-screen simulator or calculator that learners use to test ideas and observe results. They allow the learner to “tinker” with laboratory equipment that behaves in almost the same way as it would in a real environment. Learners perform a series of experiments that yield authentic results. Towards the end, learners are able to generalize these results and deduce a learning objective.

It’s not just about science

Virtual laboratories are not limited to science and chemical reactions. Programming courses can easily employ these kinds of tools to help learners learn code. Such screens have compilers and code editors embedded in HTML pages, which enable learners to write, edit and run code easily, all within the eLearning course. Virtual laboratories in such scenarios provide more control over the learning than if the learning occurred independently.

Graphs and plotting papers have been used and wasted over the past decades. Learners can now plot and re-plot right from their web browsers to create the correct results without wasting paper! Learners simply drag and drop the dots to plot the graph on the virtual paper. This allows learners to observe the relationship between the different variables. The hints provided on the screen create an even friendlier and scaffolding learning environment.

Virtual laboratories in eLearning

Here nothing ever gets broken – so experiment away!

In a virtual laboratory, learners can try all kinds if experiments without the risk of damaging equipment or injuring themselves. Also, learners can conduct experiments that are almost impossible even in the most generously funded laboratories. Given the usability and feasibility of virtual laboratories, what could be the best situations that warrant the use of virtual laboratories in eLearning?

· Use a virtual laboratory interface instead of real laboratories. The development costs of an interactive interface that looks like a simulator are high, but once built, they are never crowded, they never blow up and they are never closed!

· Use virtual laboratory interfaces to prepare learners to use real laboratories. As learners master simple procedures, the interface can give way to complex processes to master.

· Virtual laboratories can also be used for abstract learning environments. Learners can play with orbits of planets, tinker with global economy or create a cross breed between two species. Use virtual labs to simulate any level of scale, complexity or abstraction.

· If the teaching objective deals with using a real laboratory, create a virtual version and embed it in your eLearning course. This creates a richer eLearning experience and serves as good preparation.

· Challenge your learners’ assumptions by providing them with a safe environment for discovery. This gives them room to correct their misconceptions and compare their assumptions with reality.

· Provide lab-style assignments that instruct learners on how to use the laboratory, step by step. Also encourage exploring and manipulating for variables in an independent way.

Try to create a simple laboratory that can be changed and used in multiple courses. Developing a rich and interactive user interface is a tough undertaking, but reusing it will improve the quality of the other remaining courses.
Creating interactive scenes using HTML5 is the best way to go. It enables you to create responsive interfaces that work on any device, and we all know that flexibility in using different devices are one of the most important factors that create a smooth eLearning experience.

Virtual laboratories in eLearning: the gist

Virtual laboratories are usually synonymous with inquiry-based learning. Learners are exposed to critical questions and they are left to their own devices to find the answer. An interactive interface will walk the learners through the problem scenario until a solution is determined. Think about virtual laboratories as applications of 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 rich interactivity in eLearning.

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