The Future of Education: How Small Colleges Can Build A Competitive Edge [Science]

Why online education? And how small colleges can give themselves a competitive edge

In the near future, with widely available technology and connectivity, students will demand and get convenience.  They will want courses that are available anywhere, any time, customized, self-paced, transfer, oriented to actionable skills etc.). In response to this increased demand for convenience, and the fact that it is not too difficult to offer online courses, there is likely to be a rush for most colleges to jump on the online course bandwagon.

Firmly established colleges with a brand name and reputation will have an easier time making the transition.  The College of 2020: Students, published by the Chronicle Research Service, somewhat ominously states that the colleges in the “middle”- the ones that are neither elite (national brand recognition) nor for-profit  – are not well positioned to succeed in this changed climate.

The Chronicle report notwithstanding, we believe that if the colleges in the middle start to position themselves now, they will be in a good position to build a competitive advantage in delivering relevant and quality education to the future’s highly connected, diverse and discerning consumers. In this seven part blog series we will explore the different ways that small to medium sized colleges can start to build an edge for the coming demand in online education.

Virtualizing Science Labs

In this first blog, we will explore how virtualization can help support online education.  Typically the natural sciences at many small colleges have a traditional bias towards brick and mortar labs, and virtual labs are seen as impractical.  We are likely to face the argument that online education lowers the quality of education in the natural sciences as science labs cannot be virtualized.  However, given the online resources available today, including course materials and virtual labs, virtualization may actually improve the quality of online education.  However, for us to counter this argument, they will need specific successful examples of science lab virtualization.

Virtualization can be a good match for the natural sciences.  Virtual courseware developed by the Virtual Courseware Project, produces interactive, online simulations for the life science laboratory or for earth science field studies.

The activities are designed to enhance an existing curriculum and include online assessments. They can be used by college students or high school students.  Of these, the Biology Labs On-Line, a commercial web site has received some recognition of late.  Funded partially by NSF, Biology Labs On-line offers a series of 12 interactive, inquiry-based biology simulations and exercises designed for college and AP high school biology students.

The Science magazine says:

Introductory genetics can be more interesting than laboriously working through crosses and filling in Punnett squares. At this online Drosophila lab, high school and beginning college students get the chance to run virtual experiments and test hypotheses about the inheritance of fly traits. The latest offering from the Virtual Courseware project at California State University, Los Angeles (NetWatch, 1 April 2005, p. 29), the site lets users pair up e-flies that vary in characteristics such as wing shape, eye color, and type of bristles on the thorax. After incubating and sorting the offspring, students statistically analyze the results of the crosses.

Other popular labs include Fly lab, Evolution lab, Mitochondria lab, Hemoglobin lab etc.  Besides Biology Labs On-line, other labs that are included on this site are Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Inquiry-based Science education.

The Genetic Science Learning Center is a science and health education program located in the midst of the bioscience research being carried out at the University of Utah. Their virtual labs include DNA extraction, PCR virtuallab, Gel Electrophoresis, and DNA Microarray to name a few.  Various other online labs include Mcgraw-hill a virtual PhysicsLab at Central Connecticut State University, and Virtual Lab resources from the Chem Collective’s Chemistry Lab developed and led by a group at Carnegie Mellon.  McGraw-Hill has a number of virtual resources including biology, anatomy, optics etc.

These are only a few of the virtual lab resources that are available for colleges that are making the leap to online education.  The ones discussed above are mostly free, but once the college has decided to take a bigger steps, administrators would need to assess the overall lab needs and then broaden the mix to consider paid providers of online materials and labs.

With the vast amount of stable educational resources available today, including some excellent virtual labs, the absence of brick and mortar labs can no longer be viewed as a constraint to bringing natural science courses online.

1 Comment

  1. knightEknight

    November 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Can you please define “virtual labs” in more detail. Are the experiments simulated via software? Or are the experiments actually conducted but at a distance, via the internet?