Including a lab component is common practice for on-campus courses, but universities are still shaping how to offer hands-on learning in online programs. That said, advances in virtualization software have enabled institutions to provide active learning experiences through cloud-based labs. Similar to physical lab environments, cloud-based labs allow students to perform tasks online, bringing complex textbook concepts to life.
From May 2018 to February 2019, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota studied the active learning experience that cloud-based labs provide to online students. Led by Bob Andersen, Assistant Professor and Director of Instructional Technology at Saint Mary’s, this study examined the benefits of partnering with an online lab provider, types of solutions available, and features that provide an optimal online lab experience. His analysis offers ideas for how universities can integrate cloud-based labs into a digital classroom.
Through this study, Andersen found that online lab companies offer advantages beyond providing remote access to experiential learning opportunities. By partnering with these providers, universities can:
- Avoid allocating capital to designing, constructing, outfitting, and servicing a physical lab
- Leverage a provider’s IT staff instead of expanding in-house resources and payroll
- Get remote access to leading-edge hardware and software
- Scale lab capacity to align with online enrollment trends
Online Lab Providers
Andersen noted that the market for cloud-based, online IT labs is emerging and fluid, as mergers and acquisitions are consolidating many companies. However, he sorted the market’s current providers into three categories:
- IT training companies: Vendors in this category serve corporate IT clients, training companies, and people who want to expand their skills or maintain certifications. Through their lab environments, people can prepare for performance tests and get hands-on access to hardware and software. Most vendors that Andersen surveyed were unfamiliar with the characteristics of adult learners in higher education, suggesting the education market offers growth opportunities for these providers. While these vendors may be suited to support computer science and software engineering programs, they may not support physics, chemistry, biology, and other specialties beyond their technology focus.
- Virtualization/SaaS platform providers: These providers offer configurable cloud-based environments using virtualization software from VMware, Citrix, Oracle, and other companies. These providers partner with training companies and publishers to provide content authoring platforms, consulting, migration assistance, help-desk services, and monitoring. While these providers host online labs in their data centers, some may migrate their platforms to Amazon Web Services. This move allows providers to offer high-quality, scalable lab environments without dedicating significant resources toward building and maintaining their infrastructure.
- Textbook publishers: Publishers offer online lab environments and other digital assets to enhance the value of printed textbooks. Online lab assignments are tightly integrated with text content, developed by subject matter experts, and extensively tested. Detailed instructions and help-desk services are provided for students, who can access an online lab using a unique code included with a textbook.
Virtualization, Seamless Access, and Other Essential Features
Based on his research of online lab vendors and his experience working on this grant project, Andersen identified key features for an online lab to include. One requirement is for vendors to use an interactive virtualization platform instead of one that follows a scripted simulation. Unlike virtual reality (VR)—which simulates an environment—virtualization allows students to access online resources that function the same way as resources accessed at a physical location, according to Network World. This advanced functionality creates a real-world lab environment in which students interact with the actual software they need to learn. As a result, students can experience deeper immersion than they would in a simulated environment that merely emulates a software platform.
Furthermore, universities should make sure an online lab platform offers:
- Seamless access via a web browser—no local software required
- Highly responsive performance
- User-friendly account management
- Comprehensive pricing that includes or explains software licensing costs
- Help-desk services
- A dashboard and reporting options for tracking student progress
- Integration with a school’s learning management system
- Ways for instructors to interact with students during assignments (known as “over the shoulder” visibility and support)
- A straightforward process for creating experiments, resetting experiments when students must retake assignments, and configuring the platform for a new student cohort
- The ability to create custom lab assignments and port them to other providers and in-house platforms
Ultimately, a program’s specific needs dictate which cloud-based lab provider a university should choose. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and each requires resources to implement and maintain. As a university evaluates online lab solutions, they should consider:
- Course content and the experiments that will be conducted in labs
- How an online lab will contribute to learning outcomes and goals
- The best way to integrate a lab into course materials and curricula
- Whether a vendor’s platform is compatible with a school’s current technology
- If faculty and support staff have the bandwidth to oversee the platform
Identifying an online lab solution can be a daunting task, especially since technology changes so quickly. To get started, a university should determine their needs and identify the technologies that best fit their existing infrastructure. From there, they can use these guidelines as a road map to find the ideal online lab provider for their programs.
To learn more about incorporating technology into higher education, including how artificial intelligence is affecting the field, go to our Resources page.