As an alternative to tutorials, virtual laboratory simulations represent a new way of preparing students for hands on exercises, such as laboratory work, and various computer based technologies are now being recognized as enabling reform of laboratory teaching practice. The aim of this paper was to investigate if a virtual laboratory can be used to replace a face to face tutorial to prepare students for a laboratory exercise – more specifically, if a group of students who prepare for a laboratory exercise in microbiology by using a virtual laboratory have comparable outcomes to a group who are given a face to face tutorial by an experienced teacher.
Virtual Simulations as Preparation for Lab Exercises: Assessing Learning of Key Laboratory Skills in Microbiology and Improvement of Essential Non-Cognitive Skills. (2016) PLoS ONE 11(6): e0155895. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155895
A total of 189 students who were participating in an undergraduate biology course were randomly selected into a vLAB or demonstration condition. In the vLAB condition students could use a vLAB at home to ‘practice’ streaking out bacteria on agar plates in a virtual environment. In the demonstration condition students were given a live demonstration from a lab tutor showing them how to streak out bacteria on agar plates. All students were blindly assessed on their ability to perform the streaking technique in the physical lab, and were administered a pre and post-test to determine their knowledge of microbiology, intrinsic motivation to study microbiology, and self-efficacy in the field of microbiology prior to, and after the experiment.The results showed that there were no significant differences between the two groups on their lab scores, and both groups had similar increases in knowledge of microbiology, intrinsic motivation to study microbiology, as well as self-efficacy in the field of microbiology. Our data show that vLABs function just as well as face to face tutorials in preparing students for a physical lab activity in microbiology. The results imply that vLABs could be used instead of face to face tutorials, and a combination of virtual and physical lab exercises could be the future of science education.