The Debate Rages On (or The Validity of Online Lab Science Courses)

When you get your taxes done, do you really care whether or not your accountant has ever dissected a cat?

It’s late and I’m thinking.  Never a good combination, I suppose, but this has been running through my mind a lot since a session yesterday on the fully online lab science courses created and offered by SinclairOnline.

After the presentation, the discussion turned to the question of whether or not a fully online lab science course is TRULY equivalent to a face-to-face lab.  One person brought up the fact that no one would want to have a doctor who had only completed online science courses, and I would have to agree.  When I go to a surgeon, I trust that this individual has done a lot of work on a lot of real live bodies before he/she took the scalpel to my flesh.

But this misses the point.  No one is suggesting the development of a fully-online medical school.  No one is suggesting that real hands-on experience in a science lab should not be required for students who intend on working in scientific fields upon graduation.  However, for students who are majoring in subjects such as HRIM (Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management), Aviation, Dance or Digital Media Production (to name a few), why should such an emphasis be placed on the use of a real scalpel to cut the real flesh of a real dead cat.  Of what practical use will the hands-on examination of blood cells through a real microscope be to a student whose goal is be an historian?

Students who major in biology, chemistry, physics, nursing, and funeral service will have ample opportunities to get their hands dirty in a lab, and should, by all means, take as many hands-on traditional lab science courses as possible.  And in an ideal world, it would be wonderful if ALL students had the opportunity to participate and experience a full traditional lab science course.

But we don’t live in an ideal world.
Lab space is at a premium.
Budgets have been slashed.
We can’t hire more teachers.
We can’t build more science labs.
We can’t buy more equipment.
More than ever, community colleges are being asked to do more with less.

This is where the online lab science course is MOST needed.  With the online lab science course, students cover the same material, complete the same assignments, and meet the same outcomes.  The delivery method is different, yes.  But the end result remains the same.  Students learn the same concepts.  No, they don’t get to handle scalpels.  No, they don’t get to smell the formaldehyde.  But they DO get to master the concepts and understand the critical elements of the course.

By providing online lab science options to students, we free up valuable lab space for students who are pursuing degrees in the “hard sciences”.

Just my late night thoughts….

Comments, questions, concerns or (gentle) criticisms are always welcome.

~R

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3 thoughts on “The Debate Rages On (or The Validity of Online Lab Science Courses)

  1. Hi Rodney,

    Your remarks are almost entirely correct. Those who are not taking a laboratory major and whose future does not involve a lab should not have to spend hours in a school lab doing 19th-century experiments — in an ideal world.

    You do miss one important point of a **GOOD** lab experience. (Most are rather poor.)

    Decent lab experiences provide students with an understanding of the nature of science and develop scientific thinking skills. They also acquaint students with the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. THESE experiences help prepare everyone for life in our complicated and technical world.

    If you use an online lab such as the one you mention, you miss out on these crucial experiences. The data exist before you start. You might as well be watching a cartoon. A video of real science would teach you more about science.

    However, there is another way. You can do real experiments online instead of those fake experiments in most online labs. Then, you have the benefits you wish to have of being online PLUS the benefits of doing real experiments — except for the physical touching of equipment and the burning of fingers, the cutting of your own flesh on broken glass, the reaction to irritating gases in your sinuses, etc.

    You can have online hands-on labs. See http://www.smartscience.net for a system used by over half of our online high schools, many for AP courses that would work just as well in college. It’s too bad that so many people, like yourself, are unaware of this option.

  2. I see that much of what is being done by Sinclair is in astronomy. Here’s an area that can be done with a combination of simulations and actual telescope photography. Chemistry is a much more difficult topic and cannot be done with simulations unless you’re willing to give up the science. In that case, why not just drop the science requirement for graduation?

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