4 Things Students Really Want from their Online Labs

Written by SI • October 30, 2023 •  5 min read
4 Things Students Really Want from their Online Labs Featured Image

Through the eyes of 1,200+ online science students 

Today, the road to graduation and a college degree look a lot different than it used to. No longer a rigid, straight line path, the learning journey for many of today’s students have starts and stops, bumps, roadblocks, and detours — and as a result, require a learning experience that isn’t limited by time constraints and a physical location. Online learning has opened the door to new opportunities for those who otherwise might not have been able to start or finish a degree at all.

Luckily, as demand continues to increase, more and more colleges are embracing online learning. In fact, according to the 8th installment of the Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report, data show student demand for online and hybrid learning steadily increasing. Institutions report strong growth for fully online programs (36%) and hybrid programs (20%), even in the face of stagnant or sharply declining enrollment in face-to-face programs. Yet, when it comes to STEM, some institutions hesitate to offer these courses online. So we set out to ask students who have taken an online lab course, was your experience worth it?

Survey Says…Yes, put lab courses online!

This is our inaugural year surveying online learners’ and instructors’ preferences and experiences when it comes to participating in online science courses. A sampling of findings from the student experience are shared here and are the result of survey responses from 1,293 students who participated in online labs during the 2022-2023 academic year.

Student Demand is High

  • 91% of students said it was very important to them to be able to take their science courses online.
  • This was consistent for majors, who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to pursue a degree in STEM.
  • 81% of students were satisfied with their online lab experience, regardless of the format of the lab.

The Takeaway: Online continues to grow, especially in STEM, because it supports student needs.

Over the past decade, online learning as well as students’ needs have evolved, which has resulted in increased demand. With a hefty body of scholarly research that now informs best practices and pedagogy for how to deliver high-quality online courses that support student success, higher ed should no longer hesitate to offer lab courses online. Many institutions have been able to deliver online STEM courses successfully, using proven strategies that directly address these challenges, while at the same time supporting student success. They’ve focused on and invested resources in the 4 areas that students from our survey said are paramount to their success and what they look for when choosing online science programs.

1. Better Opportunities to Put Theory into Practice

More than ever, today’s students are consumers. And a large portion of online students are seeking continuing education or to advance their careers, and looking to an increasingly diverse array of providers to help them fulfill those aspirations. That means they’re comparing options and evaluating the return on potential investments, which is why it’s important to provide an enriching learning experience comparable to that of the on-campus experience. To meet this need, institutions have been working to incorporate hands-on labs.

What Students Really Want 

  • 80% of students said they wanted a hands-on component, compared to only 20% who preferred virtual simulations only.
  • 71% of students felt the at-home hands-on labs were comparable to an in-person lab experience.

The Takeaway: Students are looking for an on-campus lab experience at home. 

As an increasing number of students continue to evaluate online programs and discern what kind of experience they’re looking for, lab format is a key consideration. While most students in our survey cited a positive overall experience, regardless of lab format, the majority were looking for courses with hands-on components. Students who engage in well-designed laboratory experiences have a greater opportunity to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, as well as gain exposure to reactions, materials, and equipment. This is particularly important for science majors. 

2. A Strategic Mix of Virtual & Hands-on Labs

While hands-on experiences are important, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for virtual simulations. In fact, virtual simulations can be beneficial for students. For example, they can serve to introduce basic concepts, prepare students as a pre-lab for on-campus courses, and provide a low stakes environment for students to repeat experiments to reinforce key concepts. 

One student underscored the opportunity to use virtual simulations to supplement in-person courses. “I benefited greatly from the hands-on labs done at home. This lab course helped me envision fulfilling lab safety and experimental procedures at home. Still, I highly recommend that my chemistry course add virtual simulations because, as an online student, it would prepare me and other students for the on-campus lab and make us more familiar with lab safety in reality, how to use equipment and instruments, and avoid chemical hazards.”

What Students Really Think of Online Science Labs

  • 81% said their labs were engaging regardless of format.
  • 84% said they learned valuable knowledge and skills.

Virtual simulations also provide students with the opportunity to experiment with things that wouldn’t be practical to do hands-on at home or in person. For example, consider an Anatomy & Physiology course where part of the curriculum includes exploring an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which records the electrical signal from the heart to check for different heart conditions. This piece of equipment is far too costly for both in-person or at-home hands-on labs. Similarly, it may not be feasible to expect students to perform certain hands-on labs that require large apparatus or high resolution lab-grade microscopes either at home or in person. In both cases, virtual simulations can work.

The Takeaway: Students benefit from an intentional mix of virtual & hands-on. 

While less effective when used alone, virtual simulations can be a helpful tool that can cover some topics effectively and work to make online courses engaging. Together with hands-on labs, they work to create an effective learning experience. The truth is, not every lab can be hands-on, so it’s important to use a mix. Here are some cases when virtual simulations make sense:

  • You want students to observe the unobservable. Virtual simulations can portray abstract objects, such as light rays, that students cannot see in a physical lab. 
  • You want to balance costs in your course and make it more practical. For example, use a virtual microscope or simulation to teach the periodic table — a concept that lends itself well to a simulation. 
  • You want to expose students to a concept that might be unsafe for an at-home hands-on lab. Keep students safe using a virtual simulation where materials might be too hazardous for use at home.
  • You determine that the learning outcomes for a particular lesson don’t require the physical skills of a hands-on component. 
  • You want to supplement learning and allow for repeatability. With each simulation, students can manipulate variables, run the experiment, and immediately see the results, especially important for struggling students.

3. Flexibility & Cost 

This one is probably a no-brainer, but if we’re talking about what students really think of online science labs, we have to mention flexibility and cost.

In fact, flexibility, and the convenience that accompanies it, is one of the most important deciding factors students use when choosing between online learning and traditional classroom instruction. An online learning or hybrid learning environment gives students more flexibility than a traditional classroom. Online courses allow students to watch a lecture from home and complete a test, assignment, or lab by a certain deadline — removing the need for both a location and time restriction. Because the work can be done asynchronously, students can complete the course material on their own time so they can have more time for other classes, their job, and family responsibilities.

What Students Really Think of Online Science Labs

  • While 22% of instructors say cost is a reason for why they don’t adopt hands-on labs, nearly 75% of students said the cost of doing hands-on labs was aligned with the value received.

The Takeaway: Enable a meaningful asynchronous lab experience that delivers more bang for the buck.

Many students are looking for online options that are more cost effective than on-campus courses, but that deliver a valuable learning experience. Yet, some contend that adding hands-on labs to an online course increases costs for students. Consider different options for offsetting those costs, including shifting to open source textbooks, seeing if the institution can cover some of that cost, or using a lab fee.

While issues of cost look different for everyone, it’s also important to take a fuller picture into account. When you consider the full cost of attending on-campus lab courses for both students (commuting, opportunity costs, child care, etc.) and programs (lab space cost, resources, and sourcing lab materials), hands-on labs done at home can prove to be more cost effective.

Many taking lab courses want to be able to do it from home because it offers a greater level of flexibility and convenience. That said, students still expect a high-quality lab experience and understand the cost — as long as it’s comparable to the on-campus experience and delivers on its value. Just keep in mind when you enable learning that is this flexible, you’ll need to plan ahead — students need resources, guidance, and clear deadlines in order to stay on track and feel supported.

4. Clear Guidance & Support

Even online, the basics still matter…and probably all the more for online students. Features that have always informed a traditional learning experience, such as timely content, course structure, and guidance are non-negotiable online. 

Student responses from our survey reinforce that. While both hands-on and virtual simulations are important tools that can offer an on-campus-like experience, don’t underestimate the role of support and guidance for students. Be sure courses are intentionally designed, and labs provide clear guidance at every step. Make sure the hands-on labs you use come with explicit instructions and indicate how long they take to complete. And encourage students to take advantage of instructor availability: Q&A sessions, virtual office hours, etc. 

What Students Really Think of Online Science Labs

“I would say that I didn’t have the best experience with the online labs because I wasn’t aware how long they’d take to complete. Some of the directions were confusing or didn’t make sense to me. I think I would have had a better experience if I did it in person. I don’t regret doing it online because it was a learning experience.”

“I loved how the class only met online to discuss the lab and procedure we would be doing, but the lab itself was performed at one’s own time. The meeting video was recorded and made available to rewatch for anyone who needed it and the professor was available for other questions. The lab handouts had all the directions and made it simple and easy to understand. I genuinely preferred my online lab experience to any in person lab experience.”

The Takeaway: Instructor’s guidance remains critical — just like in the classroom

Providing a clear roadmap for students can go a long way in making them feel supported and confident in taking an online science course. In fact, students in 16 of the 17 countries surveyed by McKinsey said that having a very well-organized online course with a clear path and a step-by-step guide to achieving their goals was among their five most important elements. Consider this an opportunity to set students up for success:

  • Remind students how and where to find course material, and explain how that material  aligns with the objectives of the course.
  • Keep due dates for important labs and assignments top of students’ minds and make sure a syllabus and online rubric tied to the course’s learning outcomes are highly visible.
  • Ensure lab kits include resources, safety protocols, and step-by-step instructions for each experiment, including how long each may take so they can plan accordingly at home.
  • Anticipate potential questions from students and prepare a quick FAQ resource for each experiment — especially helpful for students new to taking labs online.
  • Create windows of availability through chat, email, or virtual office hours — and actively invite each student to participate in a video check-in with you. 
  • Use tools to share ongoing feedback with students so they have an opportunity to improve for the next lesson.

A Preview of Our Full Annual Lab Report: State of the Online Science Lab in 2023

In the end, online learning is here to stay, and it’s time to fully embrace this within STEM-related disciplines. Doing so provides institutions with the opportunity to increase enrollment, expand access for students, and encourage scientific literacy among learners everywhere. But as some of these insights demonstrate, successfully developing or evolving an online science program often begins with finding out what students like about the courses they’ve taken and determining how you can best meet their needs. 

But that’s only half the story! For more insights on the student experience, and the instructor’s take, download a copy of our full report: Annual Lab Report: State of the Online Science Lab in 2023.