September 22, 2018

More developments in teaching science online

Screen shot from A101’s Virtual Reality of Human Anatomy (YouTube)

Matthews, D. (2018) Scepticism over Google plan to replace labs with virtual reality, Times Higher Education, June 7

The Harvard Gazette (2018) Virtual lab to extend reach of science education Harvard Gazette, June 6

It was interesting that I came across these two completely separate news announcements on the same day.

Google and Labster

The THE article is about a partnership between Google and the Danish virtual reality company, Labster. Among the 30 ‘virtual reality’ labs planned are ones allowing training in confocal microscopy, gene therapy and cytogenetics.

Arizona State University, one of the major online providers in the USA, will be the first institution to use the labs in VR this autumn, launching an online-only biological sciences degree. It has worked with Labster to develop the VR labs. Students will require access to their own VR headsets such as Google’s Daydream View, which costs US$99, used in combination with specific brands of smartphones. 

Harvard and Amgen

The second article from the Harvard Gazette announces a partnership between the Amgen Foundation and edX at Harvard University to establish a platform called LabXchange, ‘an online platform for global science education that integrates digital instruction and virtual lab experiences, while also connecting students, teachers, and researchers in a learning community based on sharing and collaboration.’ 

The term ‘virtual lab’ is used differently from the Google/Labster sense. Amgen, a major biotechnology company in the USA, is investing $6.5 million in grant funding to Harvard University to develop, launch and grow the LabXchange platform for teachers and students globally. LabXchange will include a variety of science content, such as simulated experiments, but more importantly it will provide an online network to connect students, researchers and instructors to enable ‘learning pathways’ to be built around the online materials.


It is interesting and perhaps somewhat unnerving to see commercial companies in the USA moving so strongly into online science teaching in partnership with leading universities.

Of course, the THE had to choose a snarky headline suggesting that you can’t teach science wholly online, rather than have the headline focus on the innovation itself. As with all innovation, the first steps are likely to be limited to certain kinds of online teaching or experiments, and in the end it will come down as much to economic factors as to academic validity. Can virtual labs and online science teaching scale economically better than campus-based courses and at the same quality or better?

More importantly I would expect that the technology will lead to new and exciting approaches not only to science teaching, but also to science research. Already some researchers are using virtual reality and mathematical modelling to explore variations in DNA sequences, for instance. Virtual and augmented reality in particular will lead to science being taught differently online than in physical labs, for different purposes.

At the same time, the two developments are very different. The Google/Labster/ASU partnership is pushing hard the technology boundaries in teaching science, using proprietal VR, whereas the Harvard/Amgen/edX partnership is more of a networked open educational resource, providing access to a wide range of online resources in science. Both these developments in turn are different from remote labs, which provide online access to controlling ‘real’ experimental equipment.

Lastly, both new developments are what I call ‘We’re gonna’ projects. They are announcements of projects that have yet to be delivered. It will be interesting to see how much the reality matches the hype in two year’s time. In the meantime, it’s good to see online learning being taken seriously in science teaching. The potential is fascinating.

Harvard joins the MITx project

Lavoie, D. (2012) EdX Online Learning Project Announced By Harvard, MIT Huffington Post, May 2

Harvard University has joined the MITx project, now renamed edEX, supported by $60 million invested jointly by both institutions. As with the earlier MITx courses, students who ‘pass’ the courses will be given certificates.


Good. Free open courses from top universities are welcome.

However, this will not cause a revolution in higher education until:

  • full degrees are awarded by the institutions
  • other institutions can find $30 million each to ‘invest’ in such programs
  • the MITx courses use effective pedagogy so that most of the those attempting the course can successfully complete.

In the meantime, though, this will present an increasing challenge to traditional Continuing Education departments, who have often relied on fee-based online programs as a major source of revenue.

Examples of technology-based learner-centered teaching

Villano, M. (2009) Expanding the cannon Campus Technology, October 1

An article on three projects where undergraduate students at ‘Duke University (NC), Coastal Carolina University (SC), Arkansas State University, and Harvard University (MA)– incorporate interactive technologies to enable undergrads to research local and far-off worlds and create meaningful, original content that furthers the study of their discipline for other students and researchers alike. The content that springs from this research takes the form of high-tech simulations, interactive lesson plans, and history-rich websites for the public.’


Although these are very interesting learner-centered projects, they seem very complex, use advanced technologies that will normally be out of the reach of many students, and appear time consuming for the instructors. It should be possible to design simpler, more reproducible learner centered teaching projects that make use of more readily available technology, such as mobile phones and cameras, combined with e-portfolio or content management software (such as WordPress), that allow students to collect and analyse digitally original material for projects.

I’d be interested if any of you have done anything like this – a collection of examples would be really useful.