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The prospects of virtual laboratories in schools: an overview

By G. Balasubramanian

Twenty years before in one of my published books titled “Mindscaping Education” I had authored a chapter on “Virtual schools” predicting the possibility of the onslaught of technology on the learning systems. Dr. Abdul Kalam, the former President having received a copy of the book, sent a letter to me giving the following comment “I liked the following two topics- Empowering Thinking in Schools and Virtual Schools.” On a later occasion, during one of the meetings with him, he discussed about the impact of digital technology on practical works in schools and colleges. One of the paragraphs of that topic referred to the possibility of Virtual laboratories as a future possibility, as a necessity to meet the challenges of the future.

Entering the digital age, when I heard a reference to the virtual laboratories in the budget today, I do see that the ball is now on the move. The reference in the budget quotes “virtual labs and skilling e-labs to promote critical thinking skills and stimulated learning environment.” The NEP 2020 had also made a reference to the idea of Virtual laboratories. But it is quite important to understand why we need them and what would we need to do with them, so that they do not become another showcasing platform in the schools.

1. Virtual Laboratories would help in enabling the reach of skills to everyone

In our school systems many schools do not have adequate instruments, tools, and appliances. In some cases, financial inadequacy poses the problem, and, in many others, they are under repair or not used appropriately. In many schools’ experiments are conducted with defective instruments, yet to obtain the correct and expected results, thus making a mockery of the experiential learning. This situation can largely be eliminated by providing virtual laboratories. Initial reservations on the part of the teachers needs to be overcome through appropriate training and confidence building exercises.

2. Virtual laboratories would help in enabling better understanding of abstract concepts

As there are better opportunities of playing with the instruments individually and collectively, this could help in enhancing peer discussions and thus help in building a better learning environment. Many of the concepts of science which cannot be understood can be watched transparently with the induction of artificial intelligence and augmented realities in the systems. A few invisible processes during experimentation could be seen, accessed, and witnessed with their help.

3. Virtual laboratories could help in personalization of learning

In several school laboratories experiments are conducted by groups. In many cases, a few students of the group become mute participants and just try to copy or replicate the observations of one of their peers. With virtual laboratories, experiments could be personalized to each learner in their digital equipment, and they can be made to report on their individual experiences by specification of varying experimental conditions. The personal interaction of the learner with the learning environment will scaffold effective learning.

4. Virtual laboratories could help in further learning and research

With opportunities for personal engagement, conditions can be set in which the learners could pursue further learning based on their experiences with the digital platform. With opportunities for repetition the skill sets could be built effectively, and learning could be made authentic. Design of proper challenging environments could help in using the virtual environment for further extended learning and for research-based learning.

5. Virtual laboratories can be used for empowering thinking skills

Many concepts can be articulated, modified, and re-engineered to provide many challenging learning opportunities to the learners. This could help in enhancing their thinking skills. Problems can be provided to solve that would trigger their analytical thinking, critical thinking, and creative thinking.

6. Virtual laboratories could help in experiential learning

A large number of concepts can be taught by the teachers through deductive approach using the virtual laboratories. Through proper design of the pedagogy, learning can be programmed to arrive at authentic concept learning. Learning situations can be easily modified to provide differentiated and multifold learning experiences. As such virtual platforms could be used for integrated learning by positioning pragmatic real time learning situations.

7. Virtual laboratories can support innovation in pedagogy

For a thoughtful and enthusiastic teacher, the virtual laboratories could help to redesign their pedagogy to provide innovative learning experiences which facilitate effective learning outcomes and thinking beyond the defined paradigms of learning. Further, they need not be done with the constraints of a school and can be carried forward to their own home learning spots with the help of technology.

8. Virtual laboratories can help in cutting costs and wastage

Many experiments are normally avoided in schools keeping in view the cost of chemicals or other appliances. In some cases, they are avoided for reasons of safety –both physical and environmental. Several experiments in Botany could not be conducted due to lack of samples. In zoology, existing laws do not permit an in-depth study of some animal systems at school level. All these challenges could be managed effectively. To add, the repetitive cost of many of the resources for experiments could be avoided simultaneously avoiding wastage of resources.

The future holds a lot of promise for virtual laboratories. But the following two precautions need to be taken:

a. It must be understood that wherever there is a feasibility of real time experimentation with ease and authenticity, they must be conducted. Virtual laboratories are not the panacea for all the inadequacies of experiential learning. They certainly provide equity, access and platform for quality learning.

b. Being a new digital intervention in school systems, the educators need to be careful in understanding and taking conscious decisions in selecting their virtual environment in an emerging explosive competitive market dynamics.