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Virtual lab simulations open new learning frontier for science and tech at MDX

Platforms increase learning flexibility, improve recall and boost engagement, say staff and students

MDX has built on a significant investment in virtual labs technology beginning long before Covid, to deliver compelling online science and technology teaching during the pandemic, as showcased in an episode of leading technology show BBC Click.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, MDX lecturers and students had already been using Labster’s award-winning lab simulations for around five years, and McGraw Hill’s Connect Virtual Labs for the past two years. These have been supplemented with the purchase of licenses for AD Instruments’ Lt LabStation/PowerLab, UK company Learning Science’s online assessments, and Open University’s virtual labs platform. MDX has also invested in creating bespoke home kits, with contents from a range of suppliers, for students taking Biology, Environmental Science or Biomedical Engineering.

Exploring Labster's computer graphics simulations through a VR headset at MDX last September - MDX students use the web version, as the programme pointed out - BBC Click presenter Lara Lewington told viewers, "Models like this can let students learn about dangerous subjects safely. Meanwhile, others let you bend the rules of reality".

BBC Click presenter Lara Lewington tries the Labster platform with a Google Daydream View headset at MDX

"A mini-study that showed us where the students interacted with these virtual lab simulations, that their recall of their subject matter was really improved,” Senior Lecturer in Biological and Biomedical Science Dr Sue Outram told the programme. “So when Covid came along, we wanted to bring the virtual lab into every student's home, in the context of an online seminar, where it's led by an academic and they're asked questions, they're checked on their knowledge as they go through the workshop".

“We see all of this as a partnership between MDX, the platforms and the students,” says Head of the Department of Natural Science Dr Alan Page. “No single provider could have provided everything and we spent a lot of time thinking about the most appropriate solution: each cohort got the right one for them”. Biomedical Science students have been learning through three different virtual lab platforms. Biomedical Engineering students are using McGraw Hill Connect, interactive home kits, plus Splashtop software to give them remote access to MDX Engineering Science Apps.

Contents of a MDX lab home kit 

The lack of academic silos at MDX has helped facilitate “a cascade across all our science provision” says Dr Page. While in most cases programme leaders feel virtual labs should complement requisite hours in a real life “wet lab”, in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, for instance, analytical number work will continue to be done in virtual learning environments post-pandemic.

Among the concepts Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science Dr Beata Burczynska is teaching this year is the use of PCR testing for Covid-19. She says Labster gives students a sense of deep involvement by showing them an animation of the reaction at molecular level. Other simulations bring alive Mendelian genetics without needing to do laboratory work on animals (which isn’t done at MDX).

Animation of the inside of a cell in Labster

“The students on the programme this year seem really engaged and excited” says Dr Helen Roberts, Module Leader for Human Sciences and Life Sciences on the Science & Technology Foundation programme.

Virtual lab platforms “help students keep a more active learning memory and give them more confidence” says Science & Technology Senior Graduate Academic Assistant Ivan Punev. “They come into the lab, they know how to behave as they’ve done a virtual lab before”.

“All these platforms have a dedicated person to help” Dr Burczynska says. “You feel safe because you can repeat if you make mistakes. With students with learning difficulties, it is a huge advantage being allowed to have a few attempts”.

“We’ve invested in a licence [for Lt LabStation] for every student, so they can access a whole load of learning approaches and data” says Head of the Psychology Department, David Westley.

“The things we’re doing now were always coming - what made us bite the bullet is the current situation. It massively increases flexibility for students about how they engage”.

MDX Science & Technology students and staff volunteering at the WorldSkills UK national exhibition 2019. 

“I found Labster very easy to use. It makes me feel like I haven’t missed out due to the pandemic” says Gesajda Asllani, who studies Biomedical Science.

“A great advantage of the learning platforms is you can complete them wherever you are,” says her coursemate Connor Groom, who has used McGraw Hill, Learning Science and Labster. “This allows you to practice your skills without the trouble of getting to the labs and asking to have more practice and arranging a time to complete this”.

Life Sciences student Trisha Lonergan, who has used McGraw Hill and Learning Science says: “McGraw-Hill is perfect for memorising by repetition. The Learning Science graphics are realistic enough for someone to be able to correctly identify and label equipment in a real-life laboratory setting.

“The main advantage and disadvantage of an online lab is the same – the lack of human error. An online lab is self-paced which gives you time to take in information. In a real lab, you wait for reactions to happen, or sometimes wait your turn on limited equipment. Online, you can click ‘fast forward.’ I think that this makes online labs a great supplemental tool, but physical interactions are still best”.

“The best part of Labster is that you’re able to repeat the experiment many times” says Biotechnology student Ana Beatriz Daneluzzi. “Studying at home has saved me lots of hours, giving me more time to focus and organise my work”.

Sports Science Technical Tutor Shyam Chavda says of the provision in his area: “MDX provides Splashtop which allows students to access analysis software from the comfort of their home. Additionally, within strength and conditioning, we use pre-recorded performance tests, supported by tutorials utilising simple annotation tools”.

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