Virtual and Remote Laboratories for the Science of the Future
Effective teaching of science demands adequate resources for the learners to practise, ingrain the concepts and innovate. One of the major issues faced by schools and colleges that offer science courses is the lack of funds for proper lab infrastructure. A constant supply of beakers, test tubes and other glassware(which are easily breakable and hence, need to be replaced), chemicals, dissection kits etc. is required. All these supplies need to be bought in bulk to cater to a large number of students, and need to be maintained or replaced when necessary, and so on.
Setting up labs is expensive, let alone the rest of the school’s facilities. Labs also require frequent maintenance, making them an expensive investment for the school. I am sure school managements have often wondered if it is possible to have a damage-proof lab with reusable and durable equipment, which can be easily accessed anytime, anywhere.
The answer is yes, and they’re called virtual or remote laboratories.
How it Works in a Developing Nation Like India
With increasing emphasis on the universal access to education in developing nations and the need for sustainable education for the growing population, the online learning trend has been on an upward curve. India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has launched a National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NME-ICT) with the intention of popularising virtual laboratories that will enable facilitators as well as institutions to provide better STEM education at a lower cost. This move would ensure quality education in spite of limited resources.
The Advantages of Using Virtual or Remote Labs
- One-time investment: A virtual lab software needs to be purchased just once and can be used by a large number of students. Frequent maintenance is not required, as it is impossible to break or damage online equipment. This acts as a huge cost-saving option for schools and colleges.
- Safe environment: Due to the fact that all experiments are conducted online by the students in a carefully simulated environment, they are not at risk of accidentally burning things, setting chemicals on fire, dropping heavy objects on themselves, getting cut or hurt in any way, etc.
- Encourages self-learning: Virtual labs are available 24/7 and can be accessed anytime, from anywhere. They also have experiment templates that allow students to perform the same activity as many times as they like, without having to seek the school’s permission to enter a physical lab and use the supplies. This encourages interested students to conduct experiments in the virtual lab on their own and inculcates the habit of self-learning.
- Can be used as a guideline/tutorial: Virtual labs can be used as a guideline/tutorial before lab classes for teachers to refer to, and for students to understand the detailed procedure and the nature of results. Students need not depend on the teacher or struggle with the procedure for complicated experiments. This not only increases the efficiency and speed of the students but also helps them achieve a greater success rate when they perform the experiment in a physical lab.
- Ease of usage for disabled students: At times, physically disabled students may find it difficult to move around in the cramped spaces of a lab and handle glass steadily without breaking it. Virtual labs give them the comfort of accessing the lab online without moving an inch and make the process convenient by eliminating the need to physically handle heavy or breakable objects.
- Environment-friendly: Those who care for the environment need not worry–virtual labs enable students to perform dissections virtually, eliminating the need to experiment on animals. Also, there is no wastage of chemicals, plastics, and other supplies, as the experiments are conducted online.
Next Education’s Initiative
ScienceLab, a Next Education initiative, is one such example of a virtual lab. Designed following Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, it has simulations, interactive experiments and activities covering topics from Biology, Physics and Chemistry. Supplementary hands-on activity kits for each grade are also available.
As a new industry that caters to the growing educational needs of developing countries, virtual labs are a lucrative area with plenty of scope for progress. Being cost-effective and not requiring extensive infrastructure are huge points in its favour, making its implementation easy in most Indian schools. The relatively eco-friendly nature of these virtual labs makes them an attractive option. There is immense scope for the use of virtual labs in areas where setting up a physical lab and continuous purchase and maintenance of supplies may be a difficult task. In this age of online learning, virtual labs are bound to experience a boom in popularity.