Adaptemy (IRELAND)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2017 Proceedings
Publication year: 2017
Pages: 6082-6091
ISBN: 978-84-617-8491-2
ISSN: 2340-1079
doi: 10.21125/inted.2017.1422
Conference name: 11th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 6-8 March, 2017
Location: Valencia, Spain
Laboratory experience is a key factor in technical and scientific education, but traditional laboratories are costly to maintain, limiting possibilities for practical exercises. Virtual laboratories have been proposed to reduce cost and simplify maintenance of lab facilities, while offering students a safe environment to build up experience and enthusiasm for STEM (Science, Technologies, Engineering and Maths) subjects. Virtual labs enable students to participate in inquiry-based classes where they can implement and analyse their own experiments. Students can interact with each other, learn by using virtual objects and apparatus, and repeat their experiments without the added cost of using real equipment.

Modern STEM education has a heavy emphasis on inquiry-based learning, and utilising virtual labs provides students with the chance to develop critical thinking, innovative and team working skills, all of which are highly valued in today’s job market. Furthermore, virtual labs remove limitations due to geography while enabling sharing of ideas and resources between a wide range of users and institutions.

Due to the recent advances in technology, virtual labs have gained popularity as a central part of practical training in sciences and engineering. The possibilities in virtual labs have extended from basic e-learning exercises to gamification, augmented and virtual reality and interaction between users using avatars. Numerous virtual labs have been developed by different organizations and large-scale international projects, and many of these are available as open source software. Some examples of virtual labs included in this review are Library of Labs, The Go-Lab Project, Project VccSSe, Second Life, Random, Open Source Physics and eBiolabs, to name but a few.

Students have a positive view on virtual labs, as they enjoy the instant feedback, flexible access and repeatability of the exercises. They find themselves more focused on the learning rather than the risk factors of traditional labs, and have reportedly performed better in virtual than traditional labs. Moreover, virtual labs make possible experiments than would otherwise be too dangerous, such as studying the functions of a nuclear reactor.

However, virtual labs have become under criticism from their lack of real-life feel and not teaching about health and safety to students. This first challenge has been overcome with the development of augmented reality and multi-sensorial learning; the latter can be tackled with the right education. Educators on the other hand benefit from automated marking, which reduces their workload remarkably, and access to cutting-edge technology that might not otherwise be available. Virtual worlds offer science educators an interesting new platform for faculty, and the opportunity to share resources and keep all records in one place.

Virtual labs have the potential to revolutionise the teaching of STEM subjects, but gaps in its recognised potential and the actual applications still exist. Here, we discuss the latest advances in technology, advantages of virtual labs and how NEWTON, a large-scale H2020 project, tries to overcome the existing limitations and revolutionise STEM education with virtual labs.
Virtual labs, personalised learning, review, STEM education.