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Are Virtual Labs Pedagogically Equivalent to

Traditional Hands-on Labs?


Chris Clarke
ETEC 533
Introduction

With the continued addition of new technological options in science classrooms, it can be
easy to assume there is pedagogical benefit to using them. In particular, virtual labs appear to be
a commonly accepted alternative to traditional hands-on experiments in the classroom. In many
ways, this appears to be due to ease of accessibility, ethics, costs, or time constraints. While
these are practical considerations for teachers, they do not take into account the pedagogical
value of the virtual lab. My current assumption is that the virtual lab technology provides at best
the same level of educational value as a comparable hands-on lab. In many instances, technology
can, at the very least, be used to increase student engagement. This is often true for subjects like
social studies and language arts, but it may not be the case with science. The traditional labs
provided in science, such as a fetal pig dissection, already engage students, so it’s questionable
whether technology would be an improvement from that perspective.
Students often come into science classrooms with previously created and strongly held
scientific misconceptions. Traditional labs have been a strong way of breaking down these
misconceptions through hands-on interactions and observations. It is unclear to me whether
virtual labs have the same power to improve conceptual understanding. It seems like traditional
labs provide an advantage in developing physical skills through the data collection process.
Virtual labs on the other hand provide more technological experience and allow for more in
depth time with the results, analysis and conclusions. Both skill sets are relevant to career paths
outside of school, so it may be appropriate to use a combination of the two types of lab delivery
methods.

Methodology

There have been three articles selected to help investigate the pedagogical benefits of
virtual lab use in science classrooms. All of the articles were selected using the UBC Library
Online Catalog. In particular, the Education Source Database found under the Education
Research Guide was utilised. All searches were restricted to publications no older than 2011.
This was done in an attempt to keep the research current, though with the continual rapid
development of educational technologies, 2011 is bordering on irrelevant. Additionally, the
search focused solely on academic journals. The articles written by Ambusaidi, Musawi,
Al-Balushi, & Al-Balushi (2018) and Finstein, Darrah, & Humbert (2013) were found using the
keywords: “virtual lab” and “science”. The remaining article written by Pyatt & Sims (2012) was
found using the keywords: “simulation”, “virtual lab” and “science”. None of the journals
selected were literature reviews. They all collected and analysed raw data to form their
conclusions. All of the papers conducted their research using high school science students,
though the specific science subject did vary. The focus on high school students was done
purposefully to better reflect my personal career path. Since the focus of the initial question was
the pedagogical soundness of virtual labs and how they compare to traditional, hands-on labs,
articles were selected based off of focuses on student achievement and attitude.
Annotated Bibliography

1. Ambusaidi, A., Musawi, A., Al-Balushi, S., & Al-Balushi, K. (2018). The Impact of Virtual
Lab Learning Experiences on 9th Grade Students' Achievement and Their Attitudes
Towards Science and Learning by Virtual Lab. ​Journal of Turkish Science Education,
15​(2), p13-29. DOI: 10.12973/tused.10227a

This paper focused on investigating how the use of virtual labs in science affected student
achievement, student attitude towards science, and student attitude towards virtual labs. It was a
quasi-experimental study involving grade 9 female chemistry students in Oman that were split
equally into an experimental class, which would use virtual labs, and a control class, which
would use traditional hands-on labs and teacher led demonstrations. Results were based on
pretests and posttests administered to both classes to measure knowledge and attitude towards
science, as well as a posttest on attitudes towards virtual labs administered solely to the
experimental class. All tests were checked prior to the study by experts and members of the
Ministry of Education, though at no point does the study elaborate on their definition of experts.
Using Cronbach’s alpha, all three tests were shown to have a high level of internal consistency
and scale reliability. It should be noted that a three point scale was used for the virtual lab’s
attitude test, while a five point scale was used for the other two tests. There was no reason given
for the difference in ratings, though the authors do state that their experts approved the rating
schemes.
There were significant differences in the posttest for achievement between the
experimental and control groups, which favoured the control groups. The study determined that
this meant that using virtual labs had no effect on students’ achievement, though it is unclear if it
should then be expected for students to perform more poorly on virtual labs. An independent
t-test showed no significant difference when comparing students’ attitude towards science. In
fact, the means and standard deviations for both groups were identical. When focusing on the
individual questions of the virtual lab attitude test, the most significant means aligned with
questions supporting higher student independence and confidence. This paper does suffer from a
short sampling period of less than 12 weeks and the two classes were taught by two different
teachers. Additionally, there is no information on the prior skills and experience of the students,
especially in regards to technology and virtual labs. The background and socioeconomic status of
the students was not accounted for, and as this was conducted in an all girls’ school, the results
provide no information on boys.

2. Finstein, J., Darrah, M., & Humbert, R. (2013). Do Students in General High School Physics
Classes Learn as Much From Virtual Labs as from Hands-On Labs? ​National Teacher
Education Journal, 6​(3), p61-70.

This study’s main question was: “Do students who complete the virtual labs learn as
much as students who complete the traditional hands-on labs?” (pg. 63). The data was collected
through classroom observations, analysis of recorded video clips, prelab and post lab quizzes,
timing of lab length, survey of student experiences and teacher interviews. To reduce
transcription bias, the virtual labs were reviewed by experts. Unlike the previous source, this
paper does a good job of describing the vetting process of the virtual labs and explaining exactly
who the expert groups were. To add to the broader focus of the effectiveness of virtual labs in
STEM, it’s beneficial that this study was focused on physics, instead of chemistry like the last
source.
The study focused specifically on comparing virtual and traditional labs. To do this, it
compared student achievement between the two media. Achievement was measured by
comparing quiz results to determine the knowledge gained from the labs in relation to a baseline
physics knowledge. A pretest administered before the labs set down a knowledge baseline for the
students and a posttest administered afterwards allowed for the researchers to measure the
knowledge gained. Using this method, the knowledge gained was deemed to be statistically
significant, which would be expected over the course of a lesson and shows neither delivery
method caused any harm to the learning process.. The methodology used should be considered
strong in regards to removing possible biases. It took into account demographics, numbers, and
prior knowledge and skill. It was determined that the virtual labs provided similar learning
outcomes to hands-on. Once again, the research did not provide results that showed virtual labs
performed better than traditional labs. An interesting aspect to this study is a supplemental group
that used both traditional and virtual labs. There were further increases there that hint at the
possibility that using both types of labs would create the biggest gain. More research needs to be
conducted on this as it’s possible the sheer repetition of the material through both types of labs
simply reinforced the knowledge better than a single time through one of the labs.

3. Pyatt, K., & Sims, R. (2012). Virtual and Physical Experimentation in Inquiry-Based Science
Labs: Attitudes, Performance and Access.​ Journal of Science Education & Technology,
21​(1), p133-147. DOI: 10.1007/s10956-011-9291-6

This study focused on the instructional value of both types of labs in regards to student
performance and student attitude in a grade nine chemistry class. It differed from the previous
two studies in that it had an additional focus on the effectiveness of virtual and traditional labs in
inquiry-based science. This experimental study used a crossover design in which students were
randomly assigned to either a control or treatment group. Students completed two different
independent labs, where they experienced each type of lab once. As in the other studies, this
allowed for comparisons to be made between virtual and traditional labs in regards to groups of
students. The added benefit of the crossover study is that it allowed for comparisons of
performance and attitude for each individual student. Over the course of the two year study, 190
students and one teacher participated. Maintaining the same instructor for all classes helped
control bias, but like the first study, there is no mention of student demographics.
There were some interesting results from this study. Due to the crossover design of the
study, there were two different lab experiments completed by each group. In one lab experiment
it was found that there was no significant difference in student performance between virtual and
traditional labs. However, in the second experiment, the students that completed the virtual lab
outperformed the traditional lab students, though there was a high standard deviation with those
results. The second experiment seemed to require increased attention to data collection, so errors
in that process were more likely to occur in the traditional lab. This would have resulted in
students building their conceptual framework around inaccurate data. This suggests that
traditional labs should help with skill development, while virtual labs have the possibility of
providing an improved environment for conceptual learning in specific circumstances. In regards
to student attitude, 73% believed that computers were useful in labs and 64% had little or no
anxiety towards using computers in labs. When looking specifically at open-endedness and
equipment usability, students preferred virtual labs.

Conclusion

The vast majority of the results from the three studies suggest that virtual labs are no
more effective than traditional hands-on labs in regards to student achievement. Student attitudes
remained the same for both lab delivery methods, with neither method outperforming the other.
There was shown to be a general belief amongst students that computers should be used in a lab
setting, though they were not a requirement. While one study only focused on girls, the other two
studies used a mix of both boys and girls. However, the latter two studies did not provide any
significant breakdown on the demographics of their students, so no specific information
regarding gender can be evaluated or reported on. The research did not show that virtual labs
should be used instead of traditional labs, but it also didn’t say they were a poor substitute. The
research suggests that either method can be used in regards to student achievement and attitude.
An interesting question that arose from the research is whether a mixed method lab usage, where
both virtual and traditional labs are used, could result in higher student achievement than either
of the lab delivery methods on their own. Since there is no pedagogical reason for one type of lab
to be used over another, practical considerations such as cost, time, and ethics can still help
inform which type of lab is most applicable to the teaching situation. If both types of labs target
different skill sets, it is the prerogative of the teacher to set learning goals before the lab and
determine which type has a better possibility of achieving those goals.