Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Book Review: Teaching Lab Science Courses Online

This book basically is a very long advertisement. You will find some useful information here if you ignore the blatant bias toward the company that the authors founded.

I am a scientist with a B.S. from Caltech and a PhD from Columbia university. I was chair of the Northeastern Section (3,500 members) of the American Chemical Society and an assistant professor at Northeastern University. This topic is very important to me as I believe that online education is our future.

This book makes many excellent arguments for online science labs but fails to consider more recent innovations than lab kits.

It also focuses on just college students when a discussion of K-12 education would fall within the title's purvey, "Teaching Lab Science Courses Online."

At the end of this review, I'll briefly discuss real alternatives to this book's conclusion that you must pay dearly for lab kits in online education.

College students fall into two groups with very different education requirements. The science majors should have every opportunity to experience real laboratory situations. The majority are non-science majors who must be exposed to scientific reasoning and the nature of science as much as possible at the least cost. Lab kits are very expensive, often well over $200 per student. Lab kits limit the range of experimentation because of the liability issues discussed in the book. Our students deserve better. Students can find ways to game the system and not even open up their lab kits at all. Pictures of the experiments can provide some proof, but the student can "photoshop" their own image into the pictures and so avoid having to do any real science at all. At the end of this review, I'll mention alternatives not in the book.

The book discusses simulations and virtual labs and explains some of their shortcomings. It does not mention that such experiences, when presented as labs, completely misrepresent the nature of science. Nevertheless, the book clearly explains that simulations are not authentic science investigation experiences and won't be until long in the future if ever.

Next, it discusses Remote Access Laboratories (RAL). It misses the essential point that students are not collecting their own data using their own judgment and care. These labs are distant and disconnected from the student experience. Only the more sophisticated students will benefit from this sort of experience.

The hybrid lab experience also comes under analysis. This "straw man" lab is readily shot down as being expensive, not timely, and still quite costly.

Kitchen labs also come under criticism with the focus on science majors. For the non-science major, they can readily be an excellent part of science instruction. The problem faced by education institutions is how to provide the remainder of the instruction. The book also decries the high cost of kitchen science labs, a false charge, especially when compared with the cost of lab kits.

The book then discusses the "commercially assembled lab kits." It mentions three suppliers and specifically recommends one, Hands-On Labs. I have personally interacted with all three suppliers. Is this book really a very long commercial?

Very importantly, this book completely ignores an important and viable alternative to lab kits, while emphasizing the kit positives and downplaying their negatives. For over a decade, prerecorded real experiments have been available at much lower cost and much greater science learning capability.

The book goes on to list the rather obvious requirements for an online science course. This list may be useful to the novice but should be well known to any experienced instructor.

Much of the book is devoted to running an online science course, including how to avoid cheating on lab reports. That's a difficult proposition that would be made easier were the data not capable of being copied. Even hands-on, in-school labs have this problem.

"Possession of a lab kit does not guarantee that students will actually perform their lab work, but because lab kits are not cheap, it is likely that students who purchase them will actually perform their own lab work and not waste such an expensive investment." This statement is utterly untrue. Students spend much more money on tuition yet constantly seek ways to "game" the system to get better grades. If a student can buy a grade by purchasing a lab kit and doing nothing more, you can be certain that many will.

The book mentions "access dates." Yet, lab kits have no built-in method of tracking actual usage.

The remainder of the book retraces the discussion of various approaches to online science education, again leaving out the one real alternative, prerecorded real experiments. It constantly harps on LabPaq as if you had no other choice.

Let's face it. Online education is the future. We don't know exactly how that future will play out, but it must happen. Science happens to be a particularly difficult part of that future. If you're willing to pay for them, lab kits can play a role. However, they have their problems. The cost is one problem. Another is monitoring students. There's also the rather cookbook nature of most kits, the included manual with strict step-by-step instructions, as they must be for liability concerns.

This book is very correct in its condemnation of simulations. They have their place in learning, but it's not as lab replacements. Furthermore, this entire book places little emphasis on middle school high school, and non-science major college science instruction. But that's where our nation's primary problems lie.

For those who are not majoring in science, all of the equipment manipulation and detailed procedures are unimportant. What must remain after the course is not how to operate a burette but how to think as scientists do, understanding the nature of science, and appreciating the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Long after students forget the stages of mitosis, they will be able to use their newly developed thinking powers to improve their lives. They'll have Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" well in hand.

How can this all be accomplished by middle schools, high schools, and colleges (for non-science majors)? Reduce the number of hands-on labs. Use kitchen labs for kinesthetic experience if the course is online. Add in the excellent learning experience of prerecorded real experiments. They come with highly interactive software that has students taking their own individual data from real experiments while using their own care and judgment. The data are not predetermined. The experience truly is authentic.

Importantly, this experience can improve the educational experience while reducing costs and raising achievement.

This approach is unique, patented, and a decade old. Over 100,000 students have already experienced this approach with great success. Colleges, high schools, and middle schools, both online and traditional, are using it today. Don't be pushed into spending big bucks on lab kits until you've analyzed the alternatives. This book left one out, and the HOL people know about it. Ask why they don't want you to know.

© 2011 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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Harry said...

There are companies who provide materials and equipment for lab experiments at low cost. Home Science Tools is one that I've used. If you have sufficient volume, they will produce a "kit" for your students exactly tailored to your specifications.

You have to supply your own "lab manual" for your course.

The materials for doing experiments at home should cost less than $100 if you also use online real science experiments with student measurements stored on the server for review. Simply, you can have it all for half the price of typical lab kits.

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