Virtual Labs vs Hands-on Labs: How to Know Which is Right for Your Online Science Lab 

Written by SI • December 14, 2023 •  9 min read
Virtual Labs vs Hands-on Labs: How to Know Which is Right for Your Online Science Lab  Featured Image

Think about the last lab you taught in person and how it went. Now imagine, if you had the opportunity to offer that experience to a broader group of students through online lab courses. You might be asking yourself: How will this work​? How can I conduct the lab effectively for my students? What changes do I need to make, and what should I keep the same? When it comes to the various online tools for teaching science​, colleges are getting creative. Programs are using technology as advanced as virtual reality to immerse students in laboratory simulations or virtual science labs. They’re also mailing hands-on lab kits to students’ homes, enabling them to dissect organisms right on their kitchen tables, complete with whole specimens of starfish, pigs, and fish. 

Traditional, hands-on experiments in science are generally considered a hallmark of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. But as online courses become increasingly prominent in STEM fields — in fact, more than 90% of students want to be able to take their science courses online — many instructors still struggle with how to conduct laboratory courses in an online environment. In this article, we’re exploring the different approaches you can take to deliver science labs effectively online.

The Approach: Virtual Science Labs 

Virtual science labs, also known as online lab simulations, offer a way to experience the experimental steps for a scientific experiment on a screen or interactively. In the context of an online science lab, simulations are digital presentations used to show you how something works. Simulations typically use graphics and animations to present specific topics.

Some simulations are like videos — students simply click play and watch the simulation take place — whereas others are interactive, allowing them to manipulate variables in the simulation to discover different outcomes. Still, other simulations use a game format. Some examples of simulations include representations or animations that demonstrate a law of physics, illustrate a chemical reaction, or explore the effects of gravity.

Example: Simulation of Science Interactive Content

The Benefits of Virtual Science Labs

Observing the Unobservable: An important benefit of virtual labs is that students can ‘conduct’ experiments on phenomena that would normally be unobservable or unsafe to observe (de Jong et al., 2013; Faulconer & Gruss, 2018). Virtual labs can portray abstract objects, such as light rays, that students cannot see in a physical lab. Representation of abstract objects helps students understand the lab’s content better, especially important for more complex abstract topics.

Climate change and evolution, for example, can be simulated using an online lab but would be difficult to teach physically. Many chemical reactions might also be unsafe to conduct in-person but could be easily simulated, so students can see the reactions and impact of those reactions in a potentially real-world scenario. As a result, virtual labs have been shown to increase students’ conceptual understanding of certain topics (Kollöffel & de Jong, 2013). 

Reduced Costs: With virtual labs, there is no need for costly equipment or materials. Students aren’t paying for access to large scientific apparatus or expensive equipment. They also aren’t paying for the shipping costs or materials required for hands-on labs. That said, depending on the kind of simulations and virtual lab experiences you want to provide, costs can start to add up. From virtual reality technology to high-fidelity simulators and digital modeling applications like Sketchfab, virtual lab tools can start to get pricey. 

Safety:  In a virtual lab, students can’t injure themselves or others, or break equipment, like they could in a campus lab or hands-on home setting. And the best virtual labs will still show students how equipment can be used properly—setting them up for safety and success when and if they ever find themselves in a more traditional lab setting.

Repeatability, Practice & Pre-Lab Preparation: Finally, virtual science labs provide a low stakes environment in which students can run a digital experiment as many times as needed to get the desired result. With each experiment, students can manipulate variables, run the experiment, and immediately see the results. With each run, students engage more deeply with the concept, which is helpful for struggling students or those who need to repeat activities for a deeper understanding. Similarly, using virtual pre-labs in preparation for on- campus labs can also be beneficial, allowing students to practice repeatedly before entering a physical lab. And students agree.

Student quote from Science Interactive's 2023 Annual Lab Report

The Drawbacks of Virtual Science Labs

Less Effective Student Learning: While virtual science labs work well to explore and understand unobservable phenomena, when used as the only form of learning in online science labs, they don’t provide a holistic and compelling learning experience. The actual risks of working with physical lab equipment are considered part of the learning process, and a student who wants to be a nurse, for instance, must handle the materials of a physical lab at some point. So despite their increasing levels of realism and fidelity to the physical world, virtual labs aren’t comparable to the experience of conducting physical labs, which has important implications when it comes to student performance and achievement

Students also recognize the limitations of virtual science labs. In the 2023 Annual Lab Report, which surveyed more than 1,200 students, one student said, “The best aspect of virtual simulations was that it taught me how to create, interpret, and present data in a scientific context. The worst aspect was that it did not prepare me for real-life lab scenarios. It familiarized me with the discipline, but ultimately did not equip me with the experience and full knowledge necessary to perform the actual experiments.”

In fact, 74% of students who only participated in virtual labs said they would feel more confident applying what they learned in real-world situations if their labs had a hands-on component. Further, a longitudinal study of more than 550 students who participated in online STEM courses over the last couple years showed that students were impacted by missed opportunities for hands-on experiences with science practices, such as collecting data, developing questions based on observations, and planning and carrying out physical investigations. Both in surveys and interviews, students emphasized a ‘loss of deep learning’, noting that while they received good grades, they felt their understanding in a purely virtual environment was much more superficial. 

Lacking Real-World Application: Virtual labs bridge theory and practice by providing a multimedia connection between abstract concepts and practical execution. Students use their laptop or phone to observe, click, drag and type in response to videos, questions and instructions. When you think about how to teach organic chemistry online, for example, consider the years of training it takes to become skilled in clinical and research laboratory techniques. Dealing with the frustrations of getting equipment to work and developing the muscle memory of performing experiments hands-on cannot be replicated in the virtual platforms. 

What’s more, only 58% of instructors using virtual labs felt confident their students could apply what they learned in real world situations—a sharp contrast to the 85% using hands-on labs who felt confident their students could apply what they learned in real-world situations. For students looking to pursue advanced courses or even secure jobs in any science-related field, real-world experience is essential to developing the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. 

Accessibility Concerns: Because virtual science labs rely on a variety of technologies, accessibility is particularly important. Before selecting a virtual lab, ensure that all students will be able to use the program easily. Some factors to consider include: 

  • Do all videos and audio have captions and transcripts? 
  • Will a screen reader correctly read all aspects of the program? 
  • Can the entire program be navigated with just a keyboard? 
  • Will the program work with low-quality or unreliable internet access? 
  • Can the lab be completed on a phone or tablet?

In general, virtual science labs can be an important element in institutional efforts to

expand access to lab-based courses to more and different groups of students. At the same time, a virtual lab can serve as an additional resource for topics that have traditionally been difficult for some students to comprehend — and they can be used effectively as a pre-lab to better prepare students before they arrive at an on-campus lab. However, virtual labs alone are often not a good substitute for sophisticated, highly complex lab activities, which brings us to the hands-on approach.

The Approach: Hands-On Science Labs

Hands-on online science labs allow students to physically conduct experiments at home or in their local environment (Faulconer & Gruss, 2018). These labs are completed with laboratory kits that are mailed to students or with everyday materials found at home or in local stores. The most effective hands-on labs use lab grade materials that are comparable to what is used in a campus laboratory. There are a few different ways to source the materials and equipment needed for your hands-on lab kits. Here, we examine the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Student-Sourced Lab Kits

For student-sourced kits, an instructor would typically give students a shopping list, and each student is responsible for securing the items needed for experiments. 

The Plus

  • This approach gives students the greatest flexibility to design their own experiments. Using readily available supplies or their local environment, students have more autonomy in how the experiment will happen. 

The Minuses

  • One thing to keep in mind is that students’ home lives and environments may differ significantly. For example, consider how challenging this might be for students living overseas or those serving in the military. Some items may not be readily available or easy to purchase, which also limits the kinds of experiments you can include in your course. Make sure you offer multiple options for possible experiments and supplies, and just know that there will be an element of inconsistency across each student’s experiment, which could impact outcomes.
  • Plus, students who are already balancing a lot of responsibilities now have to take on the responsibility of sourcing their own materials, which means they may not be able to devote the kind of time needed to put together a quality kit — or it could deter them from wanting to take the course altogether.
  • It’s difficult or cost prohibitive to source lab grade materials, and as a result, you may have to reduce the rigor of the course.
  • In the end, buying supplies individually vs. in bulk is often more expensive.

Institution-Sourced Lab Kits

For institution-sourced kits, you — the instructor — or someone from the institution sources all of the materials and then are responsible for shipping or getting materials to each student.

The Plus

  • This approach creates better consistency when it comes to the materials used, and you might be able to expand your options for the kinds of hands-on science experiments you make a part of your course. 

The Minuses

  • As you can imagine, this option presents a lot of logistical challenges. In addition to carefully planning all of your lessons and experiments in advance so you can let students plan for course costs, you’ll have to organize your time around securing materials for each experiment. 
  • You can have students pick up their kits — that is, if they live within a few miles; otherwise, coordinating the shipping efforts is another challenge.
  • With this option, you or a staff member(s) will need to spend a lot of time assembling materials into kits.
  • Finally, in addition to being very costly for institutions or instructors to store materials, the institution assumes ALL liability.

Vendor-Sourced Lab Kits

For vendor-sourced kits, an instructor partners with a company offering at-home lab kits designed for use in online college classes. These kits can be tailored to meet the needs of nearly any science curriculum and shipped to students before the class starts.

The Pluses

  • This approach creates complete consistency in materials for students, and you have the most flexibility in what kinds of experiments you use as a part of your lessons. 
  • You can be assured that all kits contain the highest quality materials, comparable to lab-grade materials.
  • At the same time, vendor-sourced kits are created specifically to be used safely at home without the direct supervision of an instructor. Mandatory lab safety lessons along with step-by-step instructions to guide students through each lab also make them safer than the other sourcing options. 
  • With PhD scientists developing each lab, rest assured quality and rigor is built into the curriculum, and that curriculum can be delivered through a lab management platform that integrates seamlessly into the LMS.
  • Students can purchase their kits direct or from their campus bookstores. The vendor handles shipping and takes on ALL liability, taking a load off your plate!

The Minus

  • This option does add some cost. However, because it’s similar to textbook and other course material purchases, students can see if scholarship or financial aid funds can be used for their hands-on science lab courses. There’s also other ways to offset the costs; for example, using free, openly licensed textbooks could be a way to bring the overall cost down and balance out the cost of hands-on kits. 

The Benefits of Hands-On Labs

More Authentic & Holistic Learning Experience

However you source the kits for your online labs, mirroring the quality and rigor of an in-person, campus lab experience as closely as you can by having your students physically conduct experiments will benefit them. Unlike virtual science labs, students gain the hands-on experience of using equipment and carrying out experiments, and comparative studies suggest that students learn just as much from these labs and in ways similar to those who attend in-person labs (Casanova et al., 2006; Reuter, 2009). Recent studies show that a hands-on component to learning helps students engage better with the material — gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts they are learning. 

According to data from the 2023 Annual Lab report, more than 70% of instructors using hands-on labs felt their labs were comparable to an in-person experience, while 68% using virtual simulations said this lab format was NOT comparable to an in-person lab experience. One of the most important elements instructors take into account when deciding to offer their courses online is quality and rigor—that is, being able to ensure the same level of quality as their in-person lab courses. Using hands-on labs at home proves to be the most effective way instructors can bring the same level of quality and rigor to their online courses. 

What’s more, researchers from the University of Chicago (2017) showed that college students who participated in hands-on science labs performed better on assessments. They studied a college-level physics class to see whether the benefits of action could be seen on quizzes and homework taken days later. Students were randomly assigned to either a physical action or observation role. Overall, the action group earned scores that were about 7 percent higher than the observation group, even though they had fairly matched grades otherwise during the quarter. Researchers also used brain scans, which interestingly showed that the hands-on science experiments activated sensory and motor-related parts of the brain in ways screen-based activities did not.

Their findings stress the importance of instructional practices that physically engage students in the learning process, especially critical for math and science. Still, further research out of Stephen F Austin State University focused on the effects of hands-on experiences related to student engagement and performance achievement in chemistry. These studies showed that student participation in hands-on laboratory experiences vs computer simulated experiences actually improved students’ attitudes and interest in the topic being taught, kept students more engaged, and led to new skill building and better performance.

Dr. Lori Frear, biology instructor at Richmond Community College, would agree. She engages her students in the process of observing biological phenomena, generating testable hypotheses, and collecting data using lab-grade materials that closely match the sophistication of a formal lab facility in order to give students a more enriching experience that she says demands a higher level of accountability and ownership over their learning. 

Instructor quote from Science Interactive's 2023 Annual Lab Report

The Drawbacks of Hands-On Labs

Cost of Hands-On Science Labs: One common drawback of any hands-on science lab is the cost. While hands-on labs are the preference for most instructors, many cite cost as one of the top reasons for not adopting them. However, both instructors and students are aligned when it comes to the value and effectiveness of doing hands-on lab experiments at home. In the latest research on online science labs, which included input from more than 1,600 students and instructors, both groups agree that students learn more when they have the opportunity to do hands-on labs at home AND the cost of doing those hands-on labs is worth the value received. Nearly ¾ of students participating in hands-on labs say the cost of the hands-on labs is aligned with the value received.

That said, costs for hands-on science labs can start to add up, depending on the number of experiments you do and the types of topics you cover — think topics like cell structure, blood typing, light refraction, or groundwater analysis.

For example, Dr. Effat Zeidan Hatoum, Associate Professor and the Director of Master’s in Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Baptist University, discusses choosing between virtual labs vs hands-on labs when it comes to equipment concerns and costs. If your lab requires large apparatuses or expensive high resolution lab-grade microscopes, it may be best to choose a virtual lab or simulation for that lesson. 

In some of her labs, she has students use a virtual scope — or simulated microscope activity — in order to be able to explore certain specimens up close. It’s a more practical option than shipping such equipment and reduces costs for students, which can start to add up the more advanced experiments become — think cell structure analyses or blood typing. 

Safety of Hands-On Science Labs: Unlike virtual labs, the other common objection to hands-on science labs conducted at home is safety. It’s true. Students don’t have the same direct supervision of their instructor as they would in a campus lab, which means instructors need to prepare resources for students to guide them through each step of an experiment — a heavy undertaking for those sourcing kits themselves. However, with vendor-sourced kits, these resources are already prepared. 

Whether hands-on activities are done in a formal academic school laboratory or out in the field or at home, the hands-on mode is a proven springboard for developing scientific concepts and methodology, which will inherently come with a certain level of risk. Knowing that, instructors using kits for hands-on science experiments are able to greatly reduce risks for students in the following ways.

  1. Before determining any hands-on work for a particular lesson, conduct an “AAA” activity for safety needs. This includes doing a hazard Analysis, a risk Assessment, and safety Actions to be taken based on legal safety standards and better professional safety practices. Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) can be a helpful resource for determining many of the hazards associated with chemicals. 
  2. Be sure to source your ready-made hands-on kits from an experienced company that includes these safety data sheets and prioritizes student safety in the making and design of each kit. 
  3. Require students to participate in mandatory safety lessons prior to each experiment. These lessons should cover what and how to wear personal protective equipment, preparing a safe lab space at home, and how to handle all lab equipment and chemicals.
  4. Consider making and posting videos throughout the duration of the course that remind students that safety is the number one priority, reviewing emergency protocols, and providing protocols to help students navigate potential issues.

Along with the proper lab equipment, PPE, small-scale chemicals, formalin-free materials, and non-virulent microbes that are safe to use at home — all provided in vendor-sourced kits — students should be provided with supporting visuals and resources that guide students through each step of an experiment — all of which drastically reduce the chance of incident. In the end, while hands on do come with some risk — albeit, a reasonable level of risk — they support a more authentic learning experience. For this reason, when it comes to the consideration of safety, you should feel comfortable choosing some hands on science labs for your lessons.

When to Choose Virtual Labs vs Hands-on Labs

Online learning is here to stay. And for the one third of all U.S. college-level students taking an online course (National Center for Education Statistics), we’d be doing them a grave disservice if we didn’t recognize the value each approach delivers. That’s why there are some important steps to think through when deciding your approach. Keep in mind what students will gain from the lab, how students will complete the lab successfully, and what technology tools might be useful in implementing either virtual or hands-on labs.

Learning Outcomes & Objectives: Reflect on the learning objectives for your course and how the lab supports those. Questions you might ask include:

  • Why are students completing this lab activity? 
  • What do you hope students will gain from this activity?  
  • What should students understand or know how to do once they’ve completed the activity?  

If you want students to learn the physical skills necessary to run this experiment AND/OR how to design experiments and think through the scientific process, consider a hands-on lab.

If you want students to learn the conceptual ideas behind the experiment, both hands-on and virtual science labs are options. A virtual simulation will strip away the distractions of setting up the experiment and learning how to do the physical skills, which might be helpful if the concept is most important. Students can spend the entire lab focusing on making predictions, observing patterns, and interpreting the results to better understand the lab’s core concepts. 

While hands-on labs are more impactful when it comes to providing students with an engaging and meaningful lab learning experience, some labs are better for digital simulation. In addition to identifying learning outcomes and topics when deciding which lessons to make hands-on vs. digital-only, be sure to always take heed of the following:

  • Equipment and/or safety concerns: If the size, cost, and safety concerns associated with certain equipment or materials are too high, consider a digital lab lesson.
  • Accessibility: Both hands-on and virtual labs have accessibility issues. If physical, ethical or religious concerns might be present, consider keeping labs as accessible as possible by presenting a digital lab lesson as an alternative for all hands-on science experiments.
  • Additional Topics: If you want to cover an interesting or different topic outside of your core curriculum or that does not directly align to your course objectives, consider introducing it through a virtual simulation.

The Different Approaches to Online Science Labs

In the end, the most effective courses will use a strategic blend of both virtual and hands-on science labs. Running through a lab on a computer is an excellent way to prepare for an in-person lab and identifying lessons that can be done virtually and others that can provide hands-on experience will keep course costs reasonable, as well as ensure student safety and content accessibility.

With hands on science labs, your students will be able to more easily connect course concepts to the real world and gain a deeper understanding of the concepts you intend to teach. On the flip side, incorporating virtual science labs can expose students to additional concepts outside of your main SLOs. The most successful instructors will be able to adapt to the way their students learn, introduce a variety of approaches throughout their course, and as a result, deliver an effective and meaningful experience from wherever their students sit. If you’re new to teaching your science labs online or want a fresh take on how to approach your labs, check out our guide: The Essential Guide to Increasing Student Engagement in Your Online Science Courses.

If you’re interested in bringing your science labs to life online, we can help.