The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Pushing Ahead Are Virtual Labs the Next Step for MOOCs?

We’ve always been bullish on MOOCs here at TAI, but it’s clear that the format is better suited to some subjects than others. In their current state, at least, MOOCs function best when they take the place of traditional lectures, in which a professor addresses a large group of students. Humanities seminars, which rely heavily on class discussion and face-to-face interactions between professors and students, do not translate as well. STEM subjects typically fare better, with one major exception which we noted last week: lab science is difficult to perform remotely, for obvious reasons.

There are people looking to make it less difficult, however. The Boston Globe reports that one professor at Stanford University is already working on a digital lab that may soon allow students to perform experiments using a computer from the comfort of their own home:

Previously, Hesselink developed technology that allowed students to control real, physical lab equipment through the Internet—which worked remotely, but didn’t easily scale up. Now he has “digitized” a lab experiment in a way that lets any number of students try it on their own. It’s a simple light-diffraction experiment inside a box, involving two lasers, a diffraction grating, and several lenses. Hesselink used a specialized camera to take pictures of the experiment in every one of its possible configurations; MOOC students who log in can adjust the laser intensity or change the position of the diffraction grating, and instead of seeing real equipment move, they see a new prerecorded image appear on their computer screens. It’s something like a “choose your own adventure” version of a lab experiment.

Hesselink has applied this process to even more complex experiments, too, suggesting there’s a lot of room yet to make MOOCs more hands-on. On the other hand, some aspects of lab life will probably never reach MOOC scale: It will be much harder to digitize the thousands of possible ways a graduate student could correct your lab work, like patiently informing you that you’ve left the switch off.

What this tells us is that there is still considerable room for MOOCs to develop.

Published on January 6, 2014 11:45 am
  • Jim__L

    The experience of dealing with cranky lab equipment is absolutely essential to a proper appreciation of the practice (and limits) of empirical science.

    Brick-and-mortar universities will always have a role to play, where physicality is necessary. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Fat_Man

    Of course this should be done. Physics experiments are the easiest. Game consoles have been simulating physics for years. In biology, virtual reality may be better that pickled specimens because they can duplicate living tissue while specimens are usually much changed in color and form.

    Indeed computer based experiments may be better than many high school and even some college labs. Complaining that real scientists need to handle real experimental equipment misses the point. We need to get kids to the advanced level where that becomes relevant. It is not relevant in High School or college intro courses.