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What are Virtual Labs and How To Create Them

Louise Jones

Many ThingLink creators in the Higher Education sector have carried out research on the value, benefits and potential of ThingLink as a supplementary tool for learning. Their findings have been published in academic journals. We recently spoke to the lead author of the most recent of these papers, Dr Adam Jeffery, Curriculum Developer and Geologist at the Keele Institute for Innovation and Teaching Excellence, Keele University (UK). Dr Jeffery explained in more detail how he had created his Virtual Lab materials and how his study had introduced and assessed ThingLink as a teaching tool. He also summarised the wide range of benefits and potential applications he sees in its use – particularly in the sciences field. The full paper cited here is published in the Journal of Chemical Education, Issue 14, June 2022.

How the virtual lab worked

Dr Jeffery created two virtual laboratory learning environment resources in ThingLink. Resource 1 was an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF) and Resource 2 was an ion chromatography system (IC). They were both designed as complementary higher education tools for undergraduate, postgraduate (taught), and research students of physical sciences. The ThingLink content for each instrument provided a number of different areas to explore, including background theory, technical information on how the instruments operate, health and safety information (where appropriate), sample preparation, and calibration procedures. Both resources allowed students to analyze virtually a range of samples appropriate to their course. The instruments would undertake an “analysis” and then provide data extracted from a real life data set. 

Some images from Resource 1 – the X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF). Image copyright of Journal of Chemical Education.

How the materials were assessed

The materials were sent to teachers and learners, who provided feedback via questionnaires and interviews. The results showed extremely positive feedback. They were particularly excited about how ThingLink could improve accessibility and inclusivity for students thanks to the fact that material could be accessed at any time.

Quantitative results

For Resource 1 (XRF) quantitative results for student feedback: 96% of all feedback was positive, 3% was neutral, and only 1% was negative. Staff responses: 100% of the responses were positive. For resource 2 (IC) quantitative results for staff feedback on Resource 2 were entirely positive.

Results – Image copyright Journal of Chemical Education.

Improved resource management

Many of the main potential benefits of the ThingLink “virtual lab” learning resource can be described as efficient resource management

In many scientific fields, learning can rely heavily on access to extremely valuable instruments. However the purchase price and day-to-day running costs of these tools are high, meaning that sometimes there is just one single instrument available for students to use. In addition, high student numbers, limited laboratory space and limited staff time means that it can often be difficult to make the equipment available and accessible. Health and safety considerations can also mean that the instruments can’t be used unsupervised, which again requires more staff. In addition there can be limited awareness of the adjustments required for learners with specific educational needs, as well as limited ability to provide them. 

ThingLink goes some way to remove these issues, says Dr Jeffery. The asynchronous aspect of the ThingLink resources means that more students are able to acquire skills with these valuable instruments in a far shorter period – saving both student and staff time, and keeping both students and valuable equipment safe. It makes the instruments available for students to practice using at any time they need. It also opens up the lab space for many people who, for a wide range of reasons, are less able to access the real lab environment, but who nevertheless may have much to offer in their field.

“Users…highlighted their potential power to enhance accessibility and inclusivity, two themes that are recognized as vital for technology-based learning and are protected by the Equality Act in the U.K.”

Resource 2 – ion chromatography system (IC). Image copyright of Journal of Chemical Education.

Time-effective resource creation

One concern that educators may have about virtual laboratories is the time, effort, and expertise they may need to create them. However Dr Jeffery points out in the paper that the ease of use of ThingLink means that “educators could create unique and bespoke viable virtual laboratory resources with little expertise or training.”  In fact he created the entire Ion Chromatography resource from scratch himself in 2 weeks, using basic equipment such as a smartphone for the images, and PowerPoint to create the slides. However, he stresses that the average HE teaching professional would be able to create similar resources in ThingLink far more quickly using their existing teaching materials. “It’s a user-friendly interface – so straightforward and easy to figure out” he says.

“Overall, one of the greatest strengths of the Thinglink platform is its simplicity and user-friendliness, allowing users to easily create and disseminate immersive, interactive learning materials with very little training time. This permits the creation of bespoke digital learning resources that adhere to modern principles of curriculum design and, on an institutional level, educational vision and strategy.” 

Tips for creating similar content

When sketching out your learning resources, Dr Jeffery suggests “Ask yourself – what can I build out of pictures and videos?”. As the paper states:

There are no constraints on the user other than their own creativity.”

You can even think of the resource as a “Choose your own adventure” story (in fact Scenario Builder is the ThingLink version of this concept). 

However you could also add a link to a chat room function? Or an “emergency button” where students could email or message direct for help or with any questions. 

What’s Next?

Dr Jeffrey plans to use ThingLink’s Scenario Builder for future versions of the teaching resources.  He also plans to add: 

  • More video
  • More broad applicability – to encourage cross-institutional sharing and testing of resources
  • He will also be working with the Forensic Science Department at Keele who have already been using ThingLink to create virtual crime scenes. 

Interested in ThingLink for your university, college or school? Schedule a demo with the team and start creating virtual labs, tours, field trips and more!

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