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A virtual education?

(My apologies to those that saw the early version of this - I hit publish by mistake...)

The New York Times recently published an article on virtual science classes - in particular virtual science labs. The motivation for the discussion was the College Board's investigation into whether high school classes that use virtual labs can be AP classes.

The argument for accepting AP virtual lab classes is emotionally pulling: it gives students -- in rural high schools that don't have access to advanced lab equipment or that are taking classes online because their local high school doesn't offer them -- the opportunity to take AP classes. In addition, the article points out, students in online schools often earn high scores on the AP exam.

But I'm not sold on their argument. After all, the issue is not really about equal opportunities, but about how prepared students are for college classes. And college classes have physical labs. I think that half of the learning in science takes place because you had the chance (and took it) in the lab to do something WRONG the first time (or second...or third...).

I admit that I've never taken an online lab, but even if you can make mistakes and mess up virtual labs, I bet you can't break the voltmeter or throw the resistor across the room - both of which helped prepare me for college courses! In addition, students doing labs from home don't have the chance to build the group work skills that are often essential to hands-on lab success.

I'm not saying that students don't profit from and shouldn't take online lab classes; I just know that it would have been a lot harder for me to jump into to an advanced science class with no previous lab experience.


  1. Would your comments be different for students who are not science majors and for whom a college degree program contains only a single science course?

    You make much of physical contact with equipment. Having taken and given a very large number of labs, I can say that, in most cases, the lab experience adds little to education.

    A well-designed lab experience provides the opportunity to experience, first-hand, scientific thinking. That experience does not require hands-on activities.

    If you're concerned that simulations don't really give you a good science experience, I agree.

    However, virtual science need not be simulations as the Mars rover program so publicly demonstrates. Those scientists are not on Mars; they do not touch the rovers. Is their science somehow less than yours with the voltmeter and resistor?

    Good virtual labs emulate (not simulate) robotic experimentation.

    When mixed in appropriate proportions with hands-on experiences, good virtual labs can be equal or better than your labs were.


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