The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
Online practical work is now established across the OU STEM curriculum, in many modules and programmes. As well as playing an integral function in bridging the gap between theoretical and practical knowledge (Brewer 2013), it provides students with an opportunity to develop both practical skills and general skills such as problem-solving (Reid 2007) important for employability.
Chemistry students, in particular, need to develop a range of practical skills as part of their studies. The four main types of practical skill include: (1) manipulation; (2) observation and recording; (3) processing and interpretation of data; and (4) ability to plan experiments (Johnstone 2001). Online study is especially suited to items (2) to (4). However, the teaching and learning of manipulative skills is far more challenging online, especially with regard to synthesis experiments which present greater challenges. To mitigate this the School of Life, Health and Chemical developed a range of residential lab schools to provide students with the opportunity to develop these skills and for those not attending the labschool, an online interactive (using Unity gaming software), where students carried out a synthesis in a ‘virtual laboratory’. Unfortunately, the latter was overtaken by changes in browser functionality and had to be withdrawn so a new activity was required.
In the process of exploring alternative experiences to hands-on laboratory work, the Stage 2 Chemistry (S215) module team decided to run a pilot of a ‘live-lab’, streamed directly from one of the labschools. In this set-up, it was the intention that volunteer students who had already carried out the experiment, would complete a synthetic procedure, live, over the course of a whole afternoon (Fig. 1). During the event remote students would watch the procedure unfold and interact via a chat facility that a tutor would monitor. This would then be followed by a ‘remote-experiment’ analysis of the compound synthesised, using IR spectroscopy. The experiment was intended as a direct illustration of some of the theoretical topics covered in S215. This idea was based on the perceived success of other live chemistry labcasts, generally held in the evening and lasting about an hour.
There is anecdotal evidence that students do not value virtual experiments as much as those based on real equipment in campus laboratories that can be run remotely, even if the ‘practical skills’ are the same. Work has also shown that use of webcams that place the student ‘in the laboratory where the instrument is situated increase the value of the experiment for students (Sauter 2013). So, the pilot also aimed to evaluate student perception and ‘value’ of the “live” experience.