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Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology

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The purpose of this study was to examine the impact on learning, attitudes, and costs in a redesigned general education undergraduate biology course that implemented web-based virtual labs (VLs) to replace traditional physical labs (PLs). Over an academic year, two new modes of VL instruction were compared to the traditional PL offering: (1) all VL with an in-person help center (VL-A) and (2) a hybrid flipped VL model where online labs alternated with in-person labs every week (VL-H). All three lab types included a face-to-face lecture with the same materials. Engaging inquiry-based exercises were developed for each VL activity in which students were provided background information, guided through a series of basic experiments, encouraged to design their own experiments, and required to produce a simple scientific report that was delivered for evaluation electronically. The VL-A group had the highest proportion of repeatable grades (below a C, 2.0 grade points). Students in the VL-H group achieved significantly better grades compared to the other lab instruction groups. The VL-H group also experienced statistically significant favorable shifts in their self-reported attitudes towards biology. The personnel costs for the VL-A and VL-H models were 29% and 63% of the PL model, respectively, allowing more sections to be offered. These results suggest that carefully designed online lab opportunities can result in higher student grades and more favorable attitudes towards science while reducing costs compared to traditional labs.
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Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped
Labs for General Education Biology
Ji Y. Son
Department of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles
Paul Narguizian, Dwight Beltz, and Robert A. Desharnais
Department of Biology, California State University, Los Angeles
Authors Note
This research was supported by grants from the California State University (Course Redesign with
Technology Initiative) and U.S. National Science Foundation (DMS-1225529). Correspondence
concerning this article should be addressed to Ji Y. Son of Psychology, California State University, 5151
State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032. Email: json2@calstatela.edu
Abstract
The purpose of this study was to examine the impact on learning, attitudes, and costs in a redesigned
general education undergraduate biology course that implemented web-based virtual labs (VLs) to replace
traditional physical labs (PLs). Over an academic year, two new modes of VL instruction were compared
to the traditional PL offering: (1) all VL with an in-person help center (VL-A) and (2) a hybrid flipped
VL model where online labs alternated with in-person labs every week (VL-H). All three lab types
included a face-to-face lecture with the same materials. Engaging inquiry-based exercises were developed
for each VL activity in which students were provided background information, guided through a series of
basic experiments, encouraged to design their own experiments, and required to produce a simple
scientific report that was delivered for evaluation electronically. The VL-A group had the highest
proportion of repeatable grades (below a C, 2.0 grade points). Students in the VL-H group achieved
significantly better grades compared to the other lab instruction groups. The VL-H group also
experienced statistically significant favorable shifts in their self-reported attitudes towards biology. The
personnel costs for the VL-A and VL-H models were 29% and 63% of the PL model, respectively,
allowing more sections to be offered. These results suggest that carefully designed online lab
opportunities can result in higher student grades and more favorable attitudes towards science while
reducing costs compared to traditional labs.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Introduction
General education (GE) science requirements are designed to provide students with intellectual
tools for growth and a broad base of knowledge about the natural sciences. Part of that mission is fulfilled
by the inclusion of laboratory work generally assumed to provide experience with the process and
methods of science (National Research Council, 2006). Laboratory work is supposed to simulate
scientific inquiry, broadly defined as the way scientists study the natural world, propose ideas, justify
assertions, and derive explanations based on evidence. Given the goals of GE science, some have argued
that the principal focus of laboratory activities should not be devoted to mastery of particular laboratory
techniques (see Hodson, 1993). Instead, the lab component should encourage students to investigate
phenomena, solve problems, and pursue inquiry and interests in science. It follows from these
assumptions that any investigation regarding laboratory pedagogy should measure students’ learning as
well as their attitudes towards science. The purpose of this study was to compare learning and attitude
outcomes alongside cost considerations in three different implementations of the lab component of a GE
biology course: a physical lab (PL), an all virtual lab (VL-A), and a hybrid “flipped” lab (VL-H). Can a
GE science course designed with a virtual lab (VL) experience fulfill the vision of encouraging students
to pursue inquiry and interest in science?
Part of the motivation for this study comes from the practical problem of offering high quality PL
experience to every student. At Cal State LA, as is commonly the case in many institutions of higher
education, a science course with a laboratory activity is required of every student. For practical reasons,
the enrollment in each lab section must be limited in size (20-24 students) and staffed by an instructor or
graduate teaching assistant. Lab sections must be taught in specialized facilities that are limited in number
and availability. VLs could potentially address this resource bottleneck by removing some of the barriers
to enrollments, such as the availability of laboratory space and instructors, allowing more students to be
served.
Moreover, many GE students struggle with science classes and so the rates of repeatable grades
are often high. Thus GE laboratory courses represent a pedagogical bottleneck for students’ progress to
graduation. Given that many students come from K-12 education with a less than adequate conception of
the nature of science and often view science as a static body of facts (Lederman, 1992; Welch, Klopfer,
Aikenhead, & Robinson, 1981), GE science courses that emphasize the process of scientific inquiry pose
a particular challenge for non-science majors. Although labs are intended to be the solution to this
problem by involving students in the scientific process, there are not enough resources to allow students
to explore phenomena and try a variety of experiments. Even though laboratory work has great potential
to provide learners with opportunities to manipulate materials and construct their knowledge of
phenomena and related scientific concepts (Linn et al., 2006), some have questioned whether these are
implemented widely given the lack of evidence that such critical thinking opportunities were offered in
school versions of many lab activities (Roth, 1994; Tobin, 1990). Most PLs (also called wet labsin
biology) are “cookbook” activities in which students follow specific directions and take measurements
(National Research Council, 2006, 2007). These formulaic activities offer limited opportunities for
creativity, which may be one reason why some students perform poorly and are less engaged in these
courses.
There are undoubtedly characteristics of PLs that cannot be imitated in a virtual environment,
such as experience working with specialized equipment, troubleshooting machinery, and engaging in
careful set-up of studies. Even so, VLs offer two advantages to novice science learners. The first
advantage is that VLs provide relatively risk-free environments for students to explore scientific concepts
in inquiry-based fashion (Zacharia, Olympiou, & Papaevripidou, 2008). Using VLs, students can
formulate hypotheses and carry out experiments. Mistakes are of no consequence, since modified
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
experiments can be redesigned with little additional effort. Students can also design and carry out more
experiments and gather more information relative to the PL version of the same experiment (Klahr,
Triona, & Williams, 2007). These efficiencies tend to emphasize the higher order skills required to plan
experiments and to appreciate the scientific method (de Jong, 2006; Wieman, Adams, & Perkins, 2008).
The second advantage of VLs is that reality can be augmented in the service of pedagogy.
Especially for novice learners, those that are new to a domain and may be easily influenced by irrelevant
information, highlighting important features and stripping out unnecessary details can help direct their
learning (Finkelstein et al., 2005; Goldstone & Son, 2005). For instance, novices are more likely to be
misled by the noise in PLs, such as the slight displacement of an internal organ in a dissection lab or a
worn battery in an electrical circuit. The idealized models present in VLs can help focus their attention on
the relevant relationships between variables. Furthermore, virtual simulations can make invisible
phenomena visible (e.g., depicting movements of electrons) or link observable phenomena with symbolic
representations (e.g., show how variables such as heat or kinetic energy change with a reaction)
(Finkelstein et al., 2005; Jacobsen & Wilensky, 2006).
Unfortunately, many of the advantages of VLs have either been theoretically proposed or
narrowly tested in an experimental setting. The most rigorous experiments have compared physical and
virtual versions of a single laboratory activity with a tight focus on a particular concept. Some of these
experiments have shown that there are no significant differences between learning from PL and VL
versions (Klahr, Triona, & Williams, 2007; Triona & Klahr, 2003; Zacharia, 2007) although students
perceive PLs to be more effective than VLs (Stuckey-Mickell & Stuckey-Danner, 2007). Also, a growing
body of research indicates that both PLs and VLs are most successful when students are provided
sufficient guidance and opportunities for reflection (Linn et al., 2006; de Jong, 2006, 2010; Windschitl &
Andre, 1998). A number of studies have also gone beyond testing PLs and VLs against each other;
combining components of PLs and VLs often promotes better learning than each modality on its own
(Bellido, Martinez-Jimenez, Pontes-Pedrajas & Polo, 2003; Olympiou & Zacharia, 2012; Zacharia & de
Jong, 2014).
Missing from the literature are investigations comparing large-scale implementations where an
entire course is comprised of PLs or VLs (Stuckey-Mickell & Stuckey-Danner, 2007, a notable exception,
focused on students’ perception of learning). Also there is little research examining how to integrate VLs
through an entire course and provide adequate guidance for students. One reason for the lack of research
on course-wide implementations is that PL and VL assignments are typically designed to emphasize their
own affordances and minimize their limitations. Thus, courses in these experimental settings have wholly
different sets of laboratory formats, topics, and exercises, meaning that setting up accurate comparisons
would be difficult. Also, it is impossible to randomly assign students to courses because of practical
limitations such as space availability (e.g., large lecture halls, laboratories) and scheduling. Despite the
problems in methodology (e.g., incomparability of experiences, inability to randomize), comparisons of
learning and attitude change from PL and VL courses are necessary for departments and administrators to
decide whether to adopt VLs on a large scale. This kind of large-scale implementation research should be
viewed in conjunction with well-controlled laboratory examinations of differences between individual
PLs and VLs.
Our research program compared a PL course and two different VL courses, each designed with
experiments/assignments that take advantage of their own contexts. Because the assignments, skills
practiced, and, in some cases, subject matter differed as a result of the format of the labs, the goal was not
to control for specific content learning. Instead, the goal of this research was to compare PLs to VLs in
terms of their ability to promote inquiry-based learning and foster positive attitudes towards science at our
institution. Another goal was to compare two different methods of providing student guidance in learning
from VLs. The final goal was to compare the financial commitments of PLs and VLs.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
To achieve these goals, we redesigned a general education biology course by using existing web-
based software to replace traditional wet labs. Two new modes of VL instruction were compared to the
traditional PL offering: (1) all online VL with an in-person help center (VL-A) and (2) a hybrid flipped
VL model with two tracks of online VL and in-person labs alternating every week (VL-H). In VL-A and
VL-H, engaging inquiry-based exercises were developed around each VL activity where students were
provided background information, guided through a series of basic experiments, encouraged to design
their own experiments, and required to produce a simple scientific report that was delivered
electronically. The second mode of VL is considered hybrid because students only attended in-person
every other week; however, they worked on VL group assignments (not PL assignments) when they did
meet together face-to-face. The flipped label refers to the idea that students complete guided VL
experiments first on their own and then, in a supervised group setting, design and carry out their own
experiments. So the hybrid flipped VL model incorporated alternating weeks, students doing virtual
experiments on their own in one week, and the next week attending an in-person lab where, under the
guidance of an instructor, student discussed their results with peers, and, as a group project, planned,
implemented, and analyzed their own experiments. It should be noted that the VL-H group was designed
to cover fewer topics in more depth than the VL-A group because the VL-H group had an opportunity to
conduct experiments alone and in a group setting. The VL-A group conducted more experiments on their
own and covered more topics.
The PL differed from the VL-A and VL-H in that it followed a traditional wet lab format. Each
week, students worked in small groups that physically met together. They followed instructions from a
written lab manual (available online) and manipulated materials provided for each group. They recorded
their observations and answered questions, turning in their lab assignment at the end of the period. There
was one experiment (chronobiology) where students shared data collected at home over the course of a
week and wrote a scientific report, turning in section drafts over the course of the term that were returned
to the students with comments.
In all three laboratory modes (PL, VL-A, and VL-H), students engaged with questions that would
typically be covered in a traditional scientific report (design, methods, results, discussion). However, PL
assignments never required students to design their own experiments; instead they followed directions for
a prescribed experiment. VL-A and VL-H included exercises that promoted designing experiments to
address a particular issue. Also, for the PL and VL-A modes, the laboratory exercise often followed a
related lecture (within a week or two). For example, after a lecture on the circulatory system, students
would be assigned a lab about the cardiovascular system within one week. Because the VL-H mode had
fewer topics which were covered in more depth and there were two asynchronous groups of lab sections,
there was sometimes a 2-3 week delay between the lecture and the related lab topic; however, the lecture
and VL-H lab topics were presented in the same order.
All versions of this GE course included a face-to-face lecture covering the same course material.
These lectures were taught by three different instructors (one instructor taught the PL version, one
instructor taught both VL-A and VL-H versions, and one instructor taught the VL-H version) but used the
same PowerPoint slides. Although it would have been ideal to have the same instructor teaching all three
modes, this was not possible because of the logistics of scheduling and hiring. Instead, the different
instructors conferred regularly and used the same materials during lecture, but deviations due to style,
temperament, and so forth, were not controlled. In all three versions of the course (PL, VL-A, and VL-H)
there was no textbook. Instead relevant readings were provided online before the lecture. These readings
were the same across courses. We verified that the patterns of data reported in this manuscript were
consistent with a narrower comparison of the VL-H and VL-A versions of the course taught by the same
instructor.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Students’ attitudes and conceptual learning were assessed online both pre- and post-instruction.
We also analyzed student achievement through grades, enrollment, and passing rates. Finally, we also
examined the fiscal impact of VL implementation.
Method
Participants
Cal State LA has one of the most diverse student populations in the nation. In 2013, the students
were 55.8% Hispanic, 16% Asian American, 9.9% White, and 4.7% African American. Among
undergraduates, 59% of the students are female. Many students are older and have families; the average
undergraduate is 23.4 years of age. Because the course was a general education course, student enrollment
reflected this diversity. Three versions of this course were offered in AY 2013-14: PL model (N = 186,
one section), VL-A model (N = 186, one section), and VL-H model (N = 376, two sections).
Procedure and Materials
Course background. The re-designed course was a non-majors GE science course at Cal State
LA called Animal Biology (BIOL 155). This four-unit, quarter-based course is one of only three courses
that satisfy the GE requirement for a life science course with a laboratory component. Most science
majors require a non-GE biology course as part of their programs, so this course is usually taken by non-
science majors. There are no prerequisites for the course. It is normally taught with two 75-minute
lectures and one 150-minute laboratory session per week. The Department of Biological Sciences at Cal
State LA usually offers this course 2-3 times per year with 6-8 PL sections of 24 students each in
specialized laboratory facilities. The lecture is always offered in a large lecture hall (144-192 students
total). The lectures are given by a tenured/tenure track or adjunct faculty member and the PL sections are
most often staffed by adjunct faculty or graduate teaching assistants. Tenure/tenure track faculty may
occasionally teach a few of the lab sections.
Cal State LA is on the quarter schedule so the PL and VL-A models were offered in Winter
quarter (one section each) and the VL-H model (two sections) were offered in the Spring quarter. These
sections were taught by experienced faculty members who had previously taught this course. The PL
section was taught by an instructor who had previously taught the course with PLs only. The students in
the VL-A section and one of the VL-H sections (N = 184) were taught by a different instructor who had
taught PL and VL-A versions of the course. The remaining VL-H section (N = 192) was taught by an
instructor who had previous experience teaching the course with PLs only. All of the lecture portions of
the three models used the same syllabus and PowerPoint slides. The main differences between the
offerings were the format and content of the lab sections.
PL model. In the traditional PL mode of the course, students met in person weekly to conduct
exercises as outlined in a laboratory manual delivered as handouts available online. Most of these
exercises required the completion of a laboratory exercise that was turned in at the end of the lab period.
For example, in the exercise on digestion, students followed instructions to combine egg white (protein),
canned milk (fat), and potato (starch) with various enzymes or distilled water (control) and observe what
happens. Students worked in groups for every lab exercise. They also answered questions and turned their
paper-based answer sheets for grading. Students were also required to submit one longer laboratory report
in the format of a scientific paper with drafts due over the course of the quarter. Students generally do not
have the opportunity to formulate hypotheses and design experiments on their own in these exercises.
Summaries of all PL assignments are provided in Table 1.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
VL-A model. In this model, all labs were offered online (summarized in Table 1). Nine VLs were
employed, one for each week of the academic quarter excluding the first week when labs do not meet.
Students were provided with a handout, delivered through the online course management system, with an
introduction on how to use the activity and step-by-step instructions that led students through a series of
experiments or activities designed around important concepts from the course. Students also answered
multiple-choice questions about the VL assignment in the online course management system. For three of
the nine labs, students were given an additional assignment where a problem was posed and then students
had to propose a formal hypothesis, design experiments to test the hypothesis, carry out the experiments,
analyze the results, and present all of this information in the format of a brief scientific report. A report
template was provided with instructions for each of the following sections: introduction, experimental
design, results, discussion and conclusions. A grading rubric was provided to the students to guide them
in the writing of their reports.
Graduate assistants staffed a drop-in center for students with questions about the lab assignments.
The help center was open for 30 hours/week. The number of student visits to the help center varied from
approximately 25-100 per week, with the highest number of visits occurring at the beginning of the
academic term. Questions divided equally between technology-related problems (e.g. “how do I get this
applet to run on my laptop?”) and content-related inquiries (e.g. “how do I design a dihybrid genetic
cross?”).
VL-H model. In this model, students met in the physical laboratory every other week. On days
they met in the laboratory, students worked on group exercises under the guidance of a laboratory
instructor. During alternating weeks when they were not meeting in person, each student worked on
individual VL assignments. The lecture class was divided into two tracks. Students in track A met in the
laboratory on even weeks of the quarter and worked on individual assignments on odd weeks. Students in
track B met in the laboratory on odd weeks of the quarter and worked on individual assignments on even
weeks. This process is illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1: The Alternating Structure of the Hybrid Flipped VL Model
Week
Track A
Track B
1
Intro to virtual lab
No lab
2
Individual online exercises
Intro to virtual lab
3
Group report in lab
Individual online exercises
4
Individual online exercises
Group report in lab
5
Group report in lab
Individual online exercises
6
Individual online exercises
Group report in lab
7
Group report in lab
Individual online exercises
8
Individual online exercises
Group report in lab
9
Group report in lab
Individual online exercises
10
No lab
Group report in lab
Lab instructors alternated face-to-face meetings with students from Tracks A and B. Thus, the
same laboratory facility and number of instructors accommodated twice as many students, addressing
some of the resource limitations at the institution.
During the first in-person meeting, the lab instructor explained the organization of the labs and
introduced the first virtual lab activity. The following week, students individually worked on a set of step-
by-step instructions that led them through a series of experiments or activities designed around important
concepts from the course. These were a subset of the VL-A exercises (see Table 1). Like students in the
VL-A group, VL-H students also answered multiple-choice questions online. When they came together in
the next face-to-face meeting, students discussed their answers to the online exercises and then were
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
given a second attempt to answer the multiple choice questions. The highest grade on the two attempts
counted towards their course grade. Additionally, students worked together to formulate hypotheses,
design and carry out experiments to test their hypotheses, organize their results, and submit a report in the
format of a scientific paper. The lab instructor also introduced the next activity during these meetings.
This pattern of individual online activities followed by in-person group work was repeated until the end of
the quarter.
VL Assignments. Nine virtual labs were employed during the VL-A model (see Table 1). Six
were from Biology Labs OnLine (BLOL) and the remaining three were from SmartScience Labs (SSL).
BLOL are simulations of experimental situations such as the genetics of inheritance or evolution.
Students can vary several inputs in order to design a large variety of experiments. Tabular and graphical
outputs were provided as well as the ability to transfer and export data their experimental data. SSL
provides videos of real experiments that the students can view and pause to collect data. Videos of
experiments conducted under different conditions are provided. The software has integrated introductory
information.
A subset of four labs (all Biology Labs Online) was employed for the VL-H model. These labs
were chosen because they offered more flexibility in terms of designing experiments. As part of the in-
person activities, students were required to formulate hypotheses and design and carry out experiments to
test their hypotheses. Table 1 describes the virtual labs that were employed in the VL-A and VL-H
models. Copies of the lab handouts are available at http://tinyurl.com/vlab-eport.
Table 2: Lab Activities in All Virtual (VL-A), Hybrid Virtual (VL-H), and Physical Labs (PL)
Activity or
Topic
Description
Usage
Biology Labs OnLine
Cardio lab
Addressed homeostasis using arterial blood pressure as an example. The
interaction of variables related to heart rate, vessel radius, blood viscosity, and
stroke volume are examined.
VL-A
Demography
lab
Investigated differences in population size, age-structure, and age-specific
fertility and mortality rates affect human population growth.
VL-A
Evolution lab
Modeled adaptation by natural selection by manipulating various parameters of
a bird species and its habitat,
such as initial mean beak size, variability,
heritability, population size, precipitation and island size.
VL-A,
VL-H
Fly lab
Taught genetic inheritance by designing mating between female and male fruit
flies carrying one or more genetic mutations.
VL-A,
VL-H
PopEco lab
Provided an example of population ecology by manipulating the life history
attributes of three bird species: two competing sparrows and a hawk predator.
VL-A,
VL-H
Translation lab
Featured characteristics of the genetic code by creating and translating simple
RNA sequences into polypeptides.
VL-A,
VL-H
Smart Science Labs
Animal
behavior
Profiled behavior of pill bugs in different situations to determine how these
particular animals respond to their environment.
VL-A
Enzymes & pH
Harnessed effect of pH on enzyme reactions. They explore how the rate of
reaction changes as a function of pH.
VL-A
Frog dissection
Provided videos of a frog dissection and learn to identify different organs and
their functions.
VL-A
Physical Labs
Scientific
method
Overviewed the scientific method to investigate the length of appendages
versus total body length in humans.
PL
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Chronobiology
Captured student circadian rhythms at specified times throughout the day by
measuring their pulse rate, eye-
hand coordination and adding speed. Students
pool their data and write a scientific report.
PL
Movement
through
membranes
Assigned four simple experiments that demonstrated diffusion, dialysis,
osmosis, and plasmolysis.
PL
Digestion
Assigned three simple experiments that demonstrate the role of enzymes in
digestion. Students examined
the breakdown of protein by pepsin, fat by
pancreatic lipase, and starch by amylase.
PL
Nervous
system
Examined principles of feedback and reflex physiology. Students observed
how a thermostat regulates the temperature of a water bath. Students also
examine human knee-jerk and pupil dilation reflexes.
PL
Respiration
and circulation
Collected students’ respiratory volumes, breathing rates, blood pressures, and
heart rates under various conditions.
PL
Natural
selection
Simulated natural selection by playing the role of a predator selecting various
colored paper dots from a colored background. Surviving dots “reproduce” and
“predation” was repeated. Students observed
the change in frequencies of
colored paper dots over several generations.
PL
Taxonomy
Reviewed taxonomic rules of classification to identify several unlabeled animal
specimens by phylum and class.
PL
Animal
behavior
Required to students to record the behavior of beta fish under various
conditions.
PL
Assessments. There were two sources of assessment data for this project: course grades were
tabulated for every offering of the course and student surveys were administered at the beginning and end
of each quarter. Students took the pre- and post-course surveys through the online course management
system and bonus points were offered to students who completed these surveys. The surveys were
designed to address: (1) attitudes about the study of biology; (2) knowledge of central concepts (i.e., the
process of evolution); and (3) their ability to design and carry out experiments. A copy of the full student
survey is available here: http://tinyurl.com/vlab-eport.
To measure shifts in attitudes, we employed the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science
Survey for Biology (CLASS-Bio, Semsar, Knight, Birol, & Smith, 2011) designed to measure novice-to-
expert-like perceptions about biology. Students rated their agreement on a five-point Likert scale
(“strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”) to statements such as “Learning biology changes my ideas about
how the natural world works.” CLASS-Bio is graded by comparing the shifts in student responses to
expert consensus (responses from biology PhDs detailed in Semsar, Knight, Birol, & Smith, 2011). There
are seven sub-categories of the CLASS-Bio statements revealed through iterative reduced-basis factor
analysis (described in Adams et al., 2006): problem-solving difficulty, problem-solving effort, problem-
solving strategies, conceptual connections, real world connections, reasoning, and enjoyment.
In order to measure students’ conceptual learning, we chose evolution as a domain because it is
covered in all three types of laboratory assignments (PL, VL-A, and VL-H). Students read a short vignette
(about lizards or canaries) and were asked seven questions about the process of evolution in the given
scenario. The vignette and questions were adapted from the Natural Selection Concept Inventory
(Anderson, Fisher, & Norman 2002). Students received one vignette for pre-test and a different vignette
for the post-test (they were randomly assigned to one of two vignette orders).
To measure students’ abilities to carry out research methods, four questions were adapted from
the Biological Concepts Instrument (Klymkowsky, Underwood, & Garvin-Doxas 2010). Two questions
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
were multiple choice and two questions were open-ended questions. Open-ended answers were graded by
research assistants who were blind to which type of lab experience the respondent had.
The post-instruction survey also included a few questions regarding how the student accessed the
labs and their opinions on various aspects of the laboratory portion of the course. Students in the PL
group were queried about group work. Students in the VL-A group were asked to rate their experience
with Smart Science Labs (SSL) and Biology Labs On-Line (BLOL). The VL-H group was queried about
BLOL and group work. Students provided ratings (on a slider survey item from 0 to 99) of how much
they though a particular component of their lab experience (group work, SSL, or BLOL) contributed to
their (1) overall understanding of biology, (2) understanding of science experiments and lab work, and (3)
appreciation of biology as an interesting and relevant discipline. Students also provided an overall rating
of how much they liked that component by assigning a rating of 1-5 stars.
Results
Final Course Grades
As shown in Figure 1, there were statistically significant differences in the student course grades
for the three types of laboratory formats, F(2, 712) = 55.64, p < .001. Fisher’s LSD corrected post-hoc
analyses showed that the students taking the courses with VL-H achieved significantly better grades than
PL, p < .001, and VL-A courses, p < .001. There were no significant differences between PL and VL-A
grades, p = .28.
We also examined the proportions of repeatable grades (defined as a grade below C or a
withdrawal from the course) and the results are depicted in Figure 2. As a complement to the VL-H
group’s higher GPA, there were significantly fewer repeatable grades in the VL-H course, χ2(2, N = 748)
= 27.59, p < .001. Interestingly, the VL-A group showed the highest proportion of repeatable grades,
although the mean course GPA was not different from the PL group.
Figure 1. Mean grade point average (and standard error) for each of the three types of lab experience.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Figure 2. Proportion of repeatable grades for each of the three types of lab experience.
Survey Completion
Because it is difficult to control how seriously students take online assessments, it is important to
examine the rates of survey completion across the three types of laboratory formats. In general, pre-
instruction survey completion rate (85%) was higher than post-instruction (58%). A chi-square test of
homogeneity revealed this ratio did not differ significantly across the three lab types, χ2(2, N = 1075) =
1.72, p = .58. We then excluded responses where students were unlikely to be reading the prompts
(modeled after Semsar, Knight, Birol, & Smith, 2011). Responses were excluded for one of the following
reasons: (1) providing the same Likert-scale response (e.g., all “strongly agree”) for more than 90% of
statements, (2) incorrectly responding to a statement embedded in the survey (“We use this statement to
discard the survey of people who are not reading the questions. Please select ‘agree’ (not ‘strongly agree’)
for this question to preserve your answers.”), and (3) for not responding to both pre- and post-instruction
surveys. If a student submitted more than one set of acceptable responses, only the first completed
response was included in the analysis. There were 343 participants who met all of these criteria and
comprised the set of data analyzed for the following survey results.
Student Attitudes toward Biology
The pre-/post- surveys allowed an assessment of the changes in studentsattitudes toward biology
for the three types of laboratory formats. For each statement, a student’s shift in response was designated
as favorable (agreeing with the expert consensusnot necessarily agreeing with statement), unfavorable,
or neutral as detailed in Semsar, Knight, Birol, and Smith (2011). An ANOVA revealed significant
differences among the laboratory groups, F(2, 340) = 4.2, p = .016. In Fisher’s LSD post-hoc analyses,
only the VL-H group showed a statistically significant positive increase in the percentage of favorable
responses compared to PL, p = .008, and VL-A, p = .003. The small negative changes for the PL and VL-
A groups were not significantly different from zero, p = .65. Table 3 shows the changes in student
attitudes towards biology overall as well as broken down by sub-category. These results suggest that the
VL-H format has the potential for increasing students’ attitudes towards problem solving and their
enjoyment of biology.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Table 3: Mean and Standard Errors for the Change in Percent of Favorable Responses
PL
(n=92)
VL-A
(n=95)
VL-H
(n=156)
-0.26% ± 1.99%
-1.22% ± 1.55%
+4.57% ± 1.36%*
-0.02% ± 2.69%
+0.74% ± 2.97%
+4.28% ± 2.14%*
+0.08% ± 2.38%
+1.32% ± 2.97%
+6.97% ± 2.39%*
-0.26% ± 2.38%
+4.17% ± 3.59%
+8.39% ± 2.91%*
-4.04% ± 2.58%
+1.02% ± 2.74%
+3.21% ± 2.12%
-0.24% ± 2.62%
-2.43% ± 2.82%
+5.25% ± 2.03%*
-6.68% ± 2.80%°
-4.41% ± 3.59%
+2.44% ± 2.29%
+0.97% ± 2.15%
+1.33% ± 2.62%
+6.30% ± 1.95%*
* statistically significant positive change
° statistically significant negative change
Knowledge of Evolution and Research Methodology
The assessment of content knowledge in the pre/post surveys focused on evolution by natural
selectiona topic covered in PL as well as the VL-A and VL-H assignments. None of the three lab
formats exhibited significantly different changes in knowledge of evolution, F(2, 380) = .47, p = .62.
Furthermore, these changes did not significantly differ from zero, p-values > .4. We examined
performance on the research methodology questions on the pre-post surveys and found a similarly
disappointing result. There were no significant differences across the three lab formats, F(2, 271) = .37, p
= .69, nor any significant differences from zero, p-values > .2. It does not appear that the laboratory
exercises (nor lecture material) had a long-term positive impact of the students’ knowledge of evolution
nor research methodology as measured by these questions.
Student Opinions
Because students were queried about specific aspects of the lab section and these components
were confounded with lab modality, there were no measures comparing all three groups. Table 4
summarizes student ratings of how much their respective lab sections contributed to their (1) overall
understanding of biology, (2) understanding of science experiments and lab work, and (3) appreciation of
biology as an interesting and relevant discipline (ratings ranged from 1-99). Their overall rating of that
component is summarized as well (ratings ranged from 1-5 stars). We can make a few pairwise
comparisons to aid future designs of virtual labs.
The lab section of the VL-A course was comprised of two different kinds of VLs: SSL and
BLOL. All of their ratings of SSL were significantly lower than their ratings of BLOL, t-values > 6.6, p-
values < .001. Students believed that the BLOLs made a more significant contribution to their learning
and gave it an overall higher rating.
The VL-H version of the course rated the BLOLs and group work. Student reports of the
contribution of these two components to their overall learning of biology, understanding of science, and
appreciation of biology were not significantly different from one another, t-values < 1.6, p-values > .1.
But the VL-H students gave BLOL an overall higher rating than group work, t(197) = 3.35, p = .001.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Table 4: The Means (and Standard Deviations) for Students’ Ratings
Lab Modality
SSL
BLOL
Group Work
PL (n=92)
Biological understanding
61.96 (23.71)
Scientific understanding
67.07 (24.81)
Appreciation for biology
64.22 (25.36)
Overall rating
3.70 (.97)
VL-A (n=95)
Biological understanding
44.2 (36.68)
68.33 (24.13)
Scientific understanding
47.36 (38.3)
69.66 (24.57)
Appreciation for biology
45.33 (37.29)
66.6 (26.21)
Overall rating
2.66 (1.66)
4.02 (1.1)
VL-H (n=156)
Biological understanding
65.95 (27.19)
64.97 (27.78)
Scientific understanding
67.65 (28.26)
66.1 (28.56)
Appreciation for biology
66.4 (28.62)
64.57 (29.56)
Overall rating
4.03 (1.09)
3.71 (1.24)
Costs Comparison
The final goal was to conduct a cost comparison between lab types. Each PL section
accommodates 20-25 students and requires an instructor. At Cal State LA (quarter system), the PL
version of this course is typically a large lecture offered with 8 lab sections of 24 students each. Personnel
needs are 22 units for instruction (6 units for large lecture and lab coordination, 16 units for labs) and 5
hours of graduate assistance (GA). Using a rate of $1105/unit instruction and $14.80/hr./GA, the total cost
is $25,050 to run and teach the course. A course of the same size with VL-A, assuming 30 hours of GA
help for drop-in assistance and grading, costs $11,070. Thus a course taught with VL-A could be offered
at 44% of the PL cost with no impact on physical lab facilities. A similar calculation for VL-H would be
71% of the traditional cost and would double the throughput capacity of the physical lab facilities. A
comparison of these costs divided by number of students served is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Per student costs for the three lab formats assuming a PL course with 8 labs sections of 24
students per section.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
Discussion and Conclusion
This study was designed to explore VLs as a solution to both pedagogical and resource
bottlenecks in providing undergraduates with a broad science education. The flipped VL-H model
resulted in better grades and more positive attitudes towards biology. Without the alternating in-person
labs, the VL-A model resulted in more repeatable grades. In general, the three lab implementations did
not foster measurable changes in learning concepts on course-independent concept inventories. The
integration of VLs reduced costs and allowed more than twice as many students to enroll compared to the
previous PL only year.
These results show some signs of the potential of VLs for improving the GE biology experience
when implemented with a longer time devoted to each topic, fewer lab topics, and an equal amount of
time in-person. By providing a few, targeted opportunities to actively engage in the conduct of science
(formulating hypotheses, designing and carrying out experiments, analyzing and interpreting results) and
to meet together to work out any misunderstandings, students seemed to gain a better appreciation of
biological science as a process for investigating the natural world. These changes in attitudes may be
potentially important for engaging students in further scientific inquiry. The lower grades in the VL-A
model could serve as a warning: large-scale implementation without adequate support may lead to worse
outcomes for achievement.
The two different implementations of VLs illustrate that the particular labs and how these labs are
implemented may make a difference in student attitudes and grades. Student opinions from the VL-A
group revealed a preference for one of the types of VLs used in our study (Biology Online Labs). As
instructors and departments grapple with the use of VLs, they must grapple with the pedagogical benefits
and limitations of different VLs. Our results suggest that these differences in the quality of VLs could be
related to student’s perceptions of learning and grades. As VL environments continue to be developed,
practitioners and decision-makers require data to inform which of these should be adopted in classrooms.
Limitations
A number of caveats limit the generalizability of these data. This was not a randomized controlled
trial, the different implementations were taught by different instructors and offered in different quarters
and thus the findings cannot be generalized to other contexts. However, when we analyzed the subset of
VL students that were taught by the same instructor (VL-A versus one of the VL-H sections), we
predominantly obtained the same results as in the larger analyses1. Also, the PL and VL assignments
largely differed in their content and focus because the assignments highlighted different affordances
present in the two lab environments. For instance, VL assignments tended to emphasize designing
experiments (and often conducting multiple experiments) while PL assignments tended to emphasize
1 For the following analyses we only focused on the VL-A (N = 181) and VL-H (N=172) taught by the same instructor. Only 184 students
completed all measures (94 from the VL-A group and 90 from the VL-H group) and there were no statistical differences between the groups in
terms of their rates of completion, χ2(1, N = 353) = .01, p = .94. There were no significant differences in knowledge of natural selection/research
methods, F(1,182) = 1.4, MSE = .06, p = .24. In terms of course GPA, there was a significant difference that matched the pattern found in the
larger sample where the VL-H group had higher average grade (M = 3.36, SD = .82) than the VL-A group (M = 2.64, SD = 1.04), F(1, 344) =
51.46, MSE = .88, p < .001. Attitudes in this smaller sample shifted in a qualitatively similar manner to the greater sample. In the VL-A group,
there were no statistically significant changes in any of the CLASS-BIO subscales. In the VL-H group, there were significant positive changes in
attitude overall, as well as in problem solving difficulty, problem solving effort, and enjoyment. The only significant pattern that was not
replicated in this smaller sample was the significant positive shift in problem solving strategies (p = .2). This subgroup also rated SmartScience
Labs as significantly worse (both in overall ratings and contributions to learning) than Biology Labs Online and group work. They did not show
any significant differences in opinion between Biology Labs Online and group work. All other patterns found in the main analyses were
confirmed in this subgroup that had the same lecture instructor with different lab modes.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
measurement and other lab skills that can be easily implemented in a physical environment. In doing so,
this study compared lab implementations that would make the most sense in each lab environment.
Part of the benefit of the VL-H model may have been that there were fewer topics covered and
more time was devoted to each topic. This more focused approach may have contributed to students’
shifts in attitude. Future research may want to address whether focusing on fewer topics in a PL setting
would foster similar improvements in attitude and grades.
Disappointingly, students from all three models showed no measurable differences in their
competence on the concepts questions. Given that these quizzes were not tied to their grade in any way,
students may not have been motivated on the online assessment. Also, because these concept inventories
were designed to be only analogous to the situations they encountered in class, the questions were
superficially different from questions they may have answered in class. Much of the research in cognitive
science suggests that, especially for novice learners, superficial differences (e.g., an evolution question
about canaries versus lizards; in class versus online) prevent students from transferring their knowledge
from one situation to another (see Barnett & Ceci, 2002 for a review). Students also answered post-
instruction questions several weeks after the relevant lab assignment so the delay may have also
influenced their ability to demonstrate learning. Although we knew that these superficial differences and
the time delay would presumably lower students’ transfer of their learning from the course to the quiz,
such “far transfer” questions are considered the gold standard in many studies of learning. If the objective
of a GE course is to impart flexible use of biology concepts when encountering other real life situations,
these superficially different questions would be able to detect an effect on that type of ideal generalizable
learning.
Ideally, one might propose a version of this study that would be more controlled in terms of the
content of the lab assignments. However, this would be a difficult and potentially invalid test of what
departments and professors would normally do when designing a lab course. Typically, when
instructors/departments are charged with teaching a lab course, they would look for the best materials to
meet their teaching goals that would also meet the demands of resources (e.g., physical space, budgets). If
the focus of a course were to improve students’ skills with laboratory equipment or measurement, it
would be difficult to find a VL equivalent of PL experience. If the teaching goals emphasize conducting
experiments that would provide evidence for natural selection or ecological population dynamics, it
would be difficult to implement the PL equivalent of a VL experience. However, we hope that studies like
ours will motivate other research groups to collect more refined evidence in large scale implementations
of PLs and VLs in science courses. Also, as the technology of VLs improves, we may be able to conduct
more closely aligned comparisons of VL and PL courses.
Replacing traditional labs with VLs may seem like a pedagogical risk. But “traditional” does not
necessarily mean that the model is best for learning and changing student attitudes. Studies like this one
are intended to spur instructors on in the process of improving pedagogy rather than conclude that one
model is the best. Given that universities and departments struggle with resource limitations, these large-
scale comparisons provide useful data about the benefits and limitations of VL implementation. But the
results of this implementation show that there is much work still left to do.
Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education Biology
Beltz, D., Desharnais, R., Narguizian, P., & Son, J. (2016). Comparing Physical, Virtual, and Hybrid Flipped Labs for General Education
Biology. Online Learning 20 (3) 228 - 243.
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Background: Engineering courses often complement lectures with laboratory classes to optimise student learning outcomes and further develop valuable skills for future employment. Computer simulated experiments for conducting laboratory exercises have become increasingly popular in higher education and vocational training institutions to replace traditional hands-on laboratories. Reasons for this include for example, cost efficiency and repeatability. Research question: There has been a wide array of discussion on the efficacy of the two laboratory modes in teaching, both in general and for students in engineering fields (for example, chemical engineering or electrical engineering). However, many previous studies on this question did not reach a universally valid conclusion. The used methodologies mixed other influences with the impact of the investigated learning modes. These influences include for example accompanying lectures, experimental instructions, teachers, learning objectives, tests, working teams, and many more. Thus, the differences in results of these studies cannot be attributed to the laboratory mode only. The study conducted for this thesis investigated differences in learning outcomes of students in higher education when comparing two laboratory modes in the local domain: 1. In-person hands-on laboratories allow students to directly interact with the subject at hand, although this interaction might be mediated through technology or a user interface. 2. In-person simulated laboratories moderate all student interactions through a user interface. The properties of the investigated effect are simulated by computer software. The students work in a classroom equipped with computers on which the simulations are running. Since this study was focused solely on comparing different learning modes, all other aspects were held as constant as possible. Improvements that were theoretically possible in only one of the teaching methods (e.g. time-lapse in simulations) were not implemented in order to keep the surrounding conditions as equal as possible. Thus, the aim of the research was not to determine which of the investigated laboratory modes would be best for teaching a specific topic, but rather to investigate whether or not there are discernible differences in teaching success when conducting the same experiment in hands-on and simulated laboratories. The ultimate goal was to establish more reliable and generalisable insights into the influence of a particular laboratory mode on learning. The study did not include a remote laboratory condition; the comparison was only made between in-person laboratory teaching with proper laboratory equipment and simulations conducted in the local domain. An important note on demographics: a third of students at universities of applied sciences have completed apprenticeships in the German vocational education and training programs (VET) before enrolment. These VET programs mainly consist of practical on-the-job learning and aim to directly prepare apprentices for entering the job market. Due to the large size of this demographic and their previous experiences mostly with hands-on learning, it was of additional interest to see if VET-participants’ results differed significantly from those of their peers when confronted with the two laboratory modes. It was also of interest to see if the perception of the learning modes influenced the outcome. Methodology: This study was conducted in two consecutive phases on the example of a practical course teaching the basics of batteries (not related to physical manipulation of the batteries). A counterbalanced within-subject methodology was employed with German and international participants in nine study runs. The laboratory modes alternated, while the learning objectives and the experimental approach of laboratory exercises remained practically identical. In the first phase, the objective was to compare students’ learning success when working with hands-on laboratories and with overt computer simulations, respectively. The second phase was conceptualised to give insight into possible subjective influences of students’ perception of the two laboratory modes. In this phase, the simulation condition was hidden. Participants used hands-on equipment in both conditions. In the first condition, real measurements were shown; in the second condition, hands-on devices displayed simulated battery behaviour to investigate the influence of students’ perception. The participants were not aware of the differences in data sources. Besides the comparison of knowledge test results, questionnaires were employed to correlate prior, specifically technical, practical experience and previous apprenticeship training with the success of the knowledge transfer in both of the compared modes. Well-known personality tests were also employed in order to provide further insight into the subjects. The study collected subjective opinions regarding the laboratory modes in two ways: 1. Participants of the main study were asked to provide feedback after conducting a laboratory experiment. This method allowed for the indirect gathering of information about the difference in perception towards the two modes. 2. Persons who had either not yet started the laboratory or weren’t participating in the laboratory were asked to fill out a general questionnaire distributed amongst different universities in different countries. This method asked directly for subjective opinions regarding the learning modes. Finally, the THI university database was analysed to extract objective information about students with and without vocational training degree to gain broad background information about the compared groups. Outcomes: In the first phase, it was found that there were statistically significant differences in learning outcomes favouring the hands-on mode. When the simulation condition was overt, students with a background in vocational training before enrolment showed statistically significant trends towards better learning with hands-on experiments. Students in the international runs and Germans without a VET background performed similarly in both modes. In the second phase, when students were not aware that they were using simulations, both modes showed similar student learning across all student groups. Generally, simulations were reported as less relevant and their authenticity was called into question. A VET background seems to determine whether or not students had different levels of success in hands-on and simulated laboratories. As hidden differences in the simulations could be excluded from having been the reason for inferior learning results, psychological effects needed to be considered to comprehend the different laboratory modes’ effectiveness. The study outcomes lead to the conclusion that students’ personal perception of the laboratory modes, particular simulations, can have a significant impact on laboratory learning.
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