The North American Council for Online Learning has published NACOL Goals, Guidelines, and Standards for Student Scientific Investigations. I am a member of NACOL and of the committee that produced this document.
You'd expect some pretty savvy thoughts about online science labs here. After all, these are the online learning people. You do get a strong pitch for online education and the potential to build really great science courses.
Their document relies heavily on America's Lab Report published by the National Research Council. Yet, it ignores the central message of the report. After lamenting the state of science labs in education and the state of research on this subject, the report begins with a definition of a science laboratory experience (called a student science investigation, which means the same thing, in the NACOL document). The report recommendations depend upon that definition.
“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”The parenthetical phrase allows the use of such virtual experiences as analysis of large online scientific databases despite the emphasis on "interact directly with the material world." As long as the data come from the material world, they might form the basis for valid "laboratory experiences." If not, they do not. It's really that simple, and the report explains why.
The NACOL document, by ignoring this basic premise of America's Lab Report, devalues its discussion of the other recommendations of the report. Someone could read the entire NACOL document quite carefully and come away with two inaccurate conclusions.
1. (NOT TRUE) The NACOL document is true to America's Lab Report.
2. (NOT TRUE) Simulated labs are an excellent substitute for traditional labs.
While NACOL Goals, Guidelines, and Standards for Student Scientific Investigations provides a vigorous argument in favor of online science instruction, it omits a critical factor required to make that instruction valid and opens the door to fake simulated labs. As its sole serious defect, I would like to see it corrected as soon as possible and have communicated my opinion to NACOL in all possible ways. So far, they have not responded.
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