5 Questions (and Answers!) About Online Labs


Dr. Lynn Foord, PhD, MEd, PT

Director of the Prerequisites for Health Professions Program MGH Institute of Health Professions.

One of the most common questions I get from students researching prerequisite courses to prepare for graduate school in Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Physician Assistant Studies, and Physical Therapy is:

“I know I can take my prerequisite courses online, but can I also take my labs online?”

Depending on their intended area of study, health professions students typically have to take one or more courses and labs in Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Anatomy & Physiology, or Physics. So of course this is a natural question for them to ask!

It may seem counter intuitive – when one thinks of the traditional science labs that he/she may have taken in high school or college — but online labs are becoming quite common and many graduate schools accept them for prerequisite credit. We’ve been successfully offering them here at the MGH institute of Health Professions as prerequisites for several  years, and during the Fall 2015 semester 12% of our prerequisite course credits were represented by online labs.

To help these students and others wondering about online labs, I decided to write this blog and attempt to answer some of the most common questions that I get about this type of learning. As science labs differ from one another, there are several types of labs that need to be considered. So let’s consider the 5 most common questions I get all the time. I’ll start with the first question today and then blog about the other four as the month progresses!

Question #1: What Are Some Common Types of Online Labs?

There are several varieties of “online,” “virtual,” or “alternative” laboratory learning experiences. The following three are very common.

Virtual Labs

This type of lab is what most people think of when they hear “online” lab. Usually step-by-step instructions on how to conduct lab activities and complete reports are incorporated into a learning management system. Actual lab work is completed via a graphical user interface through which learners conduct experiments in a virtual environment that resembles a physical lab. For example, online Anatomy & Physiology courses can employ virtual labs that provide a detailed dissection of all of the structures of the human body.

Kitchen Labs


A hands-on alternative, so-called “kitchen” labs, have learners use easily accessible materials to conduct experiments at home by following instructions provided by their instructor. Students in this type of lab often take pictures or videos of their experiments, send them to other students or their instructor for discussion and feedback, and submit them as part of their final lab report. Kitchen labs lend themselves quite well to many Physics experiments.

Pre-Packaged Labs


In this option, all the materials needed to complete the lab exercises and report are “boxed up” and delivered directly to the learner with instructions for completion. Just as they do in kitchen labs, students may use photos and video in pre-packaged labs to capture progress and document results. Pre-packaged labs are easily incorporated into most online science labs.

Question #2: How Do Online Labs Work?

Just like onsite labs! Students receive explicit instructions for the completion of an activity and are required to complete all of the steps just as they would in an onsite lab: conducting hands-on or virtual exploration; understanding connections to content in the course; following the lab manual to complete the learning activity; and composing a lab report. Instructors and lab managers are readily available via live chat rooms, discussion boards and by email or phone to answer questions and to provide virtual assistance and support.

Students often explore and discuss activities in online labs via asynchronous discussions with their instructor, lab manager, and other students. In addition, live discussions allow students to request real-time assistance or advice as they investigate and learn.

Question #3: How Are Online Labs Connected to the Health Professions?

Any lab should of course be designed so that students master the foundational concepts for the science course they are taking, e.g., Anatomy & Physiology, Biology, etc. In addition, instructors and lab managers teaching future health care professionals need to design online labs to best suit the objectives of their students.

Ultimately, the purpose of any active/laboratory learning for health professions students is to go beyond memorization of facts and achieve an understanding of the scientific principles that impact health, disease, injury, and care. As students conduct lab experiments, they are connected to the health professions by investigating problems and finding solutions fundamental to making decisions about health care.

“Most physics classes focus on engines, bridges, and machines, so it is very rare to find a physics professor with a strong medical background [who] can relate every principle of physics to biological functions and/or medical instruments and technology.”   - MGH IHP Online Lab Student

Question #4: How Is Quality Assured?

To maintain a high level of quality, instructors and online lab managers will continually explore the variety of options and alternatives available to encourage and motivate online learning. Also, when lab-related faculty hold PhDs in their respective fields and are active in research or clinical practice, they are ideally positioned to design online labs that best meet the needs of future health care professionals.

For example, at the MGH IHP to insure that all lab work attributed to a specific student is completed by that student, performance in each lab is directly correlated to an individual’s other coursework: quizzes, exams, writing assignments, and participation in weekly discussions.

“The online laboratory is extremely realistic. The need to come into a physical laboratory is simply not necessary, especially when I could access the virtual lab 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” - MGH IHP Online Lab Student

Finally, when students struggle with concepts or activities in an online lab, they can be given quick and easy access to synchronous or asynchronous communication with their instructor, lab manager, or even a tutor.

Question #5: How Effective Are Online Labs?

Finally, we are often asked how effective online labs are versus onsite labs. We see very good results and get mostly positive feedback from our online lab students. Other educators are also conducting studies of the effectiveness of online labs. Another blogger when mentioning a research study presented at the Online Learning Consortium’s 2014 International Conference noted:

“A comprehensive review of empirical studies suggests that virtual/remote labs are equally or more effective as/than hands-on labs at achieving laboratory learning objectives.”

Another researcher on the subject cites the same study when he discusses how online science labs are used at his university:

“By combining the advanced virtual simulations, hands-on kits, and digital instrumentation and data collection, APU is demonstrating that standards-based science education can be done online. This is a significant advancement, as it opens up science education to almost anyone, whereas previously, science degrees were really only available to those who could travel to a campus.”

Final Thoughts

I hope my attempt to answer these common questions about online labs has been helpful. I encourage you to comment and converse about your experiences with online labs. And I’d love to know what other questions you are getting about this topic! I invite anyone who is interested in this to download a nicely designed pdf version of this blog as well.


Lynn Foord

Lynn Foord is the Director of the Prerequisites for Health Professions Program, Associate Professor, Center for Interprofessional Studies and Innovation.

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Posted in Communication Sciences and Disorders, Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Physician Assistant Studies, Uncategorized

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