July 20, 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.

More developments in online labs

Embry-Riddle's crash simulation

Embry-Riddle’s crash simulation

Zalaznik, M. (2014) Online labs evolve University Business, May

What’s happening

This article reports on the following developments in online labs:

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has created an online ‘crash lab’ for students taking a Master of Aeronautical Science program. Through the online lab, students can examine ‘all the procedures leading up and through [an] accident.’ The lab, developed in partnership with Unity, uses high quality graphics and elements of video-gaming, to develop a range of skills. The next project will be to develop a virtual robotics lab where students will design and fly unmanned aircraft
  • Arizona State University is offering a fully online Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering for approximately 200 students. Students will use low cost hardware kits that enable them to build and test circuits, in conjunction with software on their computers that enable measurements to be made on a simulated oscilloscope. Online students take the same exams as the students on campus. The online program is taken mainly by older, more experienced students.
  • Henderson Community College, Kentucky, combines home kits and real materials such as  sheep hearts and bacteria with a learning management system to do experiments remotely. The kits are produced by eScience Labs and Pearson provides a biology lab  that contains a virtual microscope
  • The NANSLO project, which was reported in detail here: Can you teach lab science via remote labs?

Why is the use of online labs increasing?

The article suggests the following reasons for the growth of online labs:

  • a shortage of real lab equipment and facilities, especially for general science students
  • online labs require fewer instructors and can make greater use f teaching assistants
  • its most suitable for non-science majors who don’t need to know how to run a lab or how to operate all the equipment in a lab
  • online labs give more leeway to design their own experiments
  • students can make and learn from mistakes in virtual labs
  • online labs are being used in conjunction with on campus facilities, enabling more productive use of limited physical resources.


The article provides a very useful set of links to these projects.


Important developments in online learning in India in 2012

Aakash users © Datawind Inc

In my e-Learning Outlook for 2012 published on January 2 in 2012 I wrote:

Watch India

…..there are several reasons behind this prediction:

  • the Indian government’s decision to subsidize 12 million Aakash tablets at US$35 per tablet will open up online learning to a vast number of Indians (800 million) who currently have no Internet access, but who do have mobile phones
  • the Aakash deal will also put great pressure on Indian higher education institutions, who in general have been highly resistant to e-learning, to move more quickly, if they are to access additional government funding for tablets.
  • this will also stimulate India’s already burgeoning e-learning industry to produce content, programs, degrees and learner support for such students. In 2009 Researchandmarkets estimated the market size to touch $603 million by the end of calendar year 2012. The Aakash deal is likely to inflate this figure by an order of magnitude.
  • up to now, most e-learning companies in India have been marketing externally, and have focused on corporate training and informal learning, but there are signs that in 2012, the focus will be on providing e-learning products, services and programs for Indian students.
  • English is widely used in Indian post-secondary education, and the move to OERs will enable Indian institutions to move quickly into online learning with what will be perceived as quality learning materials from reputable organizations (such as MIT).

Likely barriers:

  • institutional resistance to online learning
  • costs of Internet access
  • lack of bandwidth in many rural areas
  • lack of attention paid to instructional design and learner support leading to high drop-out

Here, I want to provide a short update, as there were several interesting developments during the year. This needs to be contextualized by recognizing that India is a huge sub-continent, with a great deal of online learning development, and I did not visit the country during 2012, so this is just a tiny glimpse of what is going on.

Very low cost tablets

Khedekar, N. (2012) All you need to know about Aakash 2, tech2, 12 December, 2012

First despite a great deal of controversy, a false start, and technical criticism, Datawind Inc. did finally win the bid to supply the Indian government with 100,000 (1 lakh) Aakash 2 tablets (officially known as the Ubislate 7Ci). This was really the second round of development, as the Aakash 1 was found to be lacking on a number of functions. The Aakash 2, with its 7″ touch screen, is, according to Naina Khedekar, a big improvement. The Aakash 2 tablets are designed and developed, and the touchscreen manufactured, in Canada, the components are sourced globally, and the tablet is conceived, assembled and programmed in India.

The Indian government will make the Aakash 2 available to schools and colleges at a subsidized price of CS$20 (1,130 rupees) per tablet – yes $20! Although intended only for the school and college market, it will also retail commercially for C$78 (4,500 rupees) in India. Datawind is offering 48 hour delivery times in India.

There is a great demonstration of the Aakash 2 that can be seen here from fone arena (click on the graphic above).


Mishra, A. (2012) Virtual laboratories to reach 500,000 students University World News, 1 March, 2012

It will now be up to the Indian e-learning content developers to ensure that there is sufficient high quality learning material for the tablet.

One major step towards the goal of providing high quality, free Indian-designed content is the establishment of the Indian Virtual Labs Project, funded by India’s federal government, and developed in partnership with many of the Indian Institutes of Technology. The objectives of this project are as follows:

  • To provide remote-access to Labs in various disciplines of Science and Engineering. These Virtual Labs would cater to students at the undergraduate level, post graduate level as well as to research scholars
  • To provide a complete Learning Management System around the Virtual Labs where the students can avail the various tools for learning, including additional web-resources, video-lectures, animated demonstrations and self evaluation.
  • To share costly equipment and resources, which are otherwise available to limited number of users due to constraints on time and geographical distances.

There are already over 100 detailed labs available, with lecture notes, simulations, experiments, theory and feedback, and hundreds more currently under development. This site is well worth visiting by anybody in any English-speaking country interested in teaching science or engineering online.

The government hopes to provide 500,000 students access to virtual laboratories and to thus bridge the digital divide between urban and rural teachers and learners, and empower those who have remained untouched by the digital revolution. With virtual labs, students across Indian institutions will be able to access physical laboratories hundreds of kilometres away. They will be able to visit the lab of their choice and study at any time convenient to them. Students will be able to book slots for remote-triggered labs. While theory can be prepared offline, students will conduct the experiment online.

The challenge

Nolen, S. (2012) India flush with cellphones, but few options when nature calls Globe and Mail, May 24

This article on the recent household census in India provides some interesting stats (figures refer to households, not people):

  • 67% have access to electricity
  • 63% now have a telephone connection (mainly cellphones, although no figures are given in this article)
  • 59% have access to banking services
  • 53% have access to a toilet in the home or in a shared toilet block: only 10% have a flush toilet in the home
  • 50% have television
  • 20% have radios
  • 9% have a computer (20% of urban dwellers and 5% of rural households)
  • less than 1% of households have computers and Internet access: but that’s still nearly seven million households.

However it should be remembered that 10 years ago less than 50% of Indians had any modes of communication – other than speech. While there is still a long way to go, thing are improving rapidly in India. The stats show why the Aakash 2 project is so significant as it enables wireless connectivity.

Nevertheless, lack of reliable internet access still poses a major challenge. However, the government plans to to provide high-speed internet and data transfer connectivity to 572 universities, 25,000 colleges and 2,000 polytechnics, benefiting almost 15 million college students.

Are MOOCs and OERs the answer?

There will certainly be opportunities to use open educational resources, but of course, the majority of OERs are also currently in English, a language spoken by a total of 125 million Indians (including those for whom English is a second or third language), or about 10% of the Indian population. OERs in other Indian languages such as Hindi will also be necessary.

It is hard to see how MOOCs developed from North American institutions are going to have a major impact in India. They are likely to be of value mainly to those already with a high level of education.

In the end, it will be Indian ingenuity, Indian solutions that will transform education for the majority of Indians, not imported material from other countries, as useful as that may be for a small minority.


As I said earlier, I have just touched on what is happening in India. I would really welcome comments, news and updates from the many readers I have in India (over 800 at the last count).


Home dissection kits and more

Molz, D. (2009) Home dissection kits and more Inside Higher Education, June 5

Another form of blended learning: online courses with home kits. The interesting question is the extent to which virtual labs can replace or more likely reduce the need for home kits. This is where course design becomes critical – what skills are we teaching and how do we measure those competencies? Which delivery medium is most suitable for which competence?

Note though that home kits are not new. The British OU’s first science foundation course opened in 1971 with an elaborate home kit sent to every student, and many courses still have home kits – not just in science. However, the OU supplemented home experiments with a one week residential summer school, where students could use more expensive equipment or do experiments that needed personal supervision.  The OU consistently is ranked in the top 10 universities in the UK (out of 180+) for both teaching and research – proof of the quality of distance teaching in science.

Technology-enabled physics labs

Morrison, J., and Long, P. (2009) The iCampus technology-enabled active learning project at MIT. Innovate Vol. No. 4