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Will Science Labs Go Virtual? The Revolution Is Just Round The Corner!

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For many decades, working in a laboratory has been an essential part of middle school, high school and college science curriculum. We are used to thinking that science learning starts with chemical-resistant tables, burners and beakers. However today, with online learning becoming more popular and more accessible than ever, educational experts, scientists and online course designers are handling a serious challenge of how to move the traditional hands-on learning experience from brick-and-mortar science labs into the virtual dimension.

There has been an on-off-going debate about this question for some time now. Most experts believe teaching science online-only will never come close the real thing. Online lectures work just fine when it comes to delivering facts, figures, formulas and concepts but they are not enough to teach a student how to plan a real lab experiment, how to analyze data they collect or how to operate a microscope. Nor will online lectures give you the sense of working in a real science team or practicing any other social skills that are of great use in science.

Immersive gaming software, smartphones and rapidly evolving technology have definitely brought us closer to recreating the hands-on science lab experience, allowing its users to practice skills they would normally practice in a real lab.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are immensely popular now have adopted another approach to learning science without spending time at the bench. They offer thousands of lab-based videos and interactive exercises for students to watch and practice online. Still this is hardly a good substitute, for students have little or no chance at all to practice the skills and knowledge they acquired in theory.

The Open University, which is considered to be the pioneer of online learning, has gone further than any other school and found its own way of teaching students science distantly. Thus, all the lab work now is available online through the so-called OpenScience Laboratory. Remotely controlled instruments and tools such as a telescope in Majorca or a γ-ray spectrometer for identifying elements and isotopes, allow students to collect real data without having to be physically present in the lab. Besides, students can also get an idea of what it feels like to be working in a real lab by using various simulated instruments like virtual microscopes.

Coursera, which is one of the biggest and most popular MOOCs contributors is said to be closely watching the success of OU Science Courses and learning from the experience. So, hopefully, soon the same kind of practical software will become available to all its students.



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