Repair and replacement of capital equipment takes money. So does replacing consumables. Sometimes, the experiments fail to work as planned. You get the idea. It's a lot of trouble.
Is the effort worth the results?
According to America's Lab Report, it often isn't. Unless teachers spend even more time integrating the labs into their courses and making sure that students aren't just doing cookbook procedures to find a result they've been told ahead of time, then the lab experience will be "poor."
Before deciding whether to use virtual labs, you should know why you're using any labs at all.
America's Lab Report sets up seven goals for science lab experiences. Three of these are definitely not limited to labs. They are (abbreviated) Mastery of Subject Matter, Teamwork, and Interest in Science. One is Practical Skills (of all sorts including the display and interpretation of data). The other three are more or less best learned in real experiences: Nature of Science, Scientific Reasoning, and Complexity and Ambiguity of Empirical Work. The last of these, according to America's Lab Report, can be learned only by true science lab experiences, which require data, objects, and phenomena from the material world. The other two, while not absolutely requiring true science lab experiences, also should have these experiences for best learning.
As long as we accept America's Lab Report, then the answers to the title questions become apparent.
We bother with science labs because they provide learning of some critical science understanding. Moreover, this understanding stands the students in good stead throughout their lives and even gives them, in Carl Sagan's words, a "baloney detection kit." Nearly a century ago, John Dewey pointed out that our citizens should have an understanding of science, that such understanding would improve our democracy.
Removing potentially good science labs, and replacing them with fake science such as simulations, makes a travesty of the entire science curriculum. Many online science courses do just that.
Just because you're online, does not mean that you're out of luck on true science lab experience. Take advantage of the alternatives to simulations, some virtual, some not, and some combined.
For more information, see www.smartscience.net.
© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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