Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Blending Virtual and Physical Experiments
One complaint about virtual labs, no matter how good, is that they miss important learning experiences. While I believe that this complaint is exaggerated, it does have some merit. Mostly, virtual labs lose the kinesthetic experiences: weight, smell, texture, and so on.
With current technology, doing open-ended experimental design in a virtual setting is quite difficult if not impossible. You come much closer to this goal with "hands-on" labs - if properly designed and implemented.
For these two reasons, a full set of science lab experiences during a course should include some traditional (hands-on) labs. The open question remains: what fraction of lab experience should be virtual and what should be traditional? Note that by virtual I do not mean simulated. Simulated "labs" should be an oxymoron. You should never see "simulated" as an adjective for "lab" because simulations are not science and are not valid substitutes for science investigations.
The Smart Science(R) team has taken the approach of integrating (or "blending") virtual and "hands-on" experiments into single lab when it makes sense to do so. We have plenty of purely virtual labs as well as purely "hands-on" labs as well as the blended labs, which we refer to a hybrid labs.
We aim for a total science investigation experience that includes as much hands-on work as is reasonable for someone working at home. Teachers, schools, and districts may make changes to this system so that it more closely matches their requirements.
The resulting hybrid labs may be viewed in two ways. Either they have hands-on lab that is extended with virtual experiments, or they have a virtual lab that is extended with hands-on experiments. Remember that the virtual experiments are real. They're just prerecorded. Students take their own personal data.
In this manner, we fill the hands-on experiment gap. Due to time, safety, cost, space, and other considerations, students don't investigate fully. They may do a single experiment, for example. By providing a rich set of virtual (but real) experiments, we allow students to investigate more completely.
We also, as indicated above, fill the virtual lab gap by allowing students the opportunity to have a kinesthetic experience and to do experimental design to a greater extent than allowed within the virtual framework.
The resulting hybrid lab potentially provides a far superior learning experience to even a well-designed traditional lab. It beats typical traditional labs and simulations by a mile!
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