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Virtual Labs are equivalent to Authentic Labs

Virtual Labs are equivalent to Authentic Labs (Pro)

John Olson, Secondary Education 625, October 11, 2006

Theory and Research in Teaching Secondary School Science

By its very design, a virtual lab cannot be identical or equal to an authentic wet lab.  However, by weighing the many benefits of a virtual lab against the traditional wet lab, an argument can be made that virtual labs are equivalent in value to the learner because they address different learning styles and offer a more flexible and open ended environment for inquiry.  The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that virtual labs are equivalent to authentic labs when all the benefits are compared.

In their study on the impact of the Virtual ChemLab Project, (Woodfield, et al, 2004, p. 1672), the authors worked from the premise that “…a significant fraction of students go through these (wet) laboratories with little thought about what they should learn, but narrowly follow the written directions for and experiment to get the expected results (affectionately called cookbooking).”  The study further suggested that “a prime factor behind this tendency to “cookbook” is the rigidity imposed upon instructional laboratories by severe time constraints, large numbers of students, costs, environmental considerations, and safety considerations.”  

The purpose of the virtual ChemLab Project is “not to teach laboratory technique…” but “…instead focus on the “what”, “when”, and “why” of experiments.” (Woodfield, et al, 2004, p.1672)  The article continues with the idea that in this virtual laboratory environment, the instructional focus is designed to “connect theory with practice and to teach cognitive thinking skills.”  Research for the ChemLab project was based on online interviews with 1400 students enrolled in freshman-level chemistry as well as think aloud interviews and observations of students in computer labs working on virtual assignments.  Further analysis of the data determined that “students who used the inorganic simulation believe that the program increases their ability to apply the principles and understanding they acquired in the classroom to a problem solving setting.” (p.1674)

Some of the most compelling support for the value of virtual labs comes from student feedback.  The study (Woodfield, et al, 2004, p.1675) cites that “75% of the students like the simulation program for many reasons: …it allowed them the freedom to explore, …to focus on underlying chemistry principles, …to repeat procedures, …and it was easy to use.”  One student surveyed stated that “I found that trial and error is a viable option, and I was much more apt to run several trial runs since they were easier to do than in a wet lab.”  Another stated that “…It also is interesting to try a bunch of experiments while they are all fresh in your mind and have them work out quick so you can fully analyze everything all at once and recognize the main point.”  Students also like the fact that virtual reactions were quick, and could be repeated multiple times, so they were more confident in their results.  The authors followed up with the observation that “For the first time, these students learned the value of trial and error and of gathering and analyzing multiple pieces of data… …to decide which experimental procedures will achieve the desired result.”  Many students also reported that the simulation “increased their understanding of the subject matter and improved their ability to think like chemists.” (p.1675)  If the students are observing so many benefits, it is a strong argument that the virtual lab is equivalent, if not superior to a wet lab in terms of learning.


D. Carnevale in his article about The Virtual Lab Experiment included commentary about an online microbiology lab that is offered by the University of Texas Medical branch in Galveston.  Spokeswoman Vickie Freeman, chairwoman of clinical laboratory sciences and the Medical Branch’s School of Allied Health Sciences commented about the effectiveness of virtual laboratories.  “Students don’t have to worry about ruining bacterial cultures—they are part of a computer simulation.” (Carnevale, D. 2003 p. 6)  Further, she stated that “We’re actually able to give them more variables than we would in a clinical laboratory.  Virtually we can re-create any circumstances we want.”  Carnevale goes on to address the high cost of creating bacterial cultures, how they are time consuming, and how professors have to closely monitor the students to make sure valuable material isn’t wasted.  “With the virtual lab, students don’t have to worry about messing up.”  Without fear of wasting time and materials, and with the ability to create multiple scenarios, this program supports virtual labs being as beneficial to students as a wet lab. 

Carnevale also highlighted a program run by Professor J. Reeves the University of North Carolina and Professor D. Kimbrough at the University of Colorado.  In their program, first year, distance students at a local community college perform remote chemistry experiments.  Professor Reeves commented that “…they are also learning at least as much as they would learn in an on-campus chemistry lab.”  (Carnevale, D. 2003 p. 9)  Carnevale went on to point out that “online students outperformed on-campus students on the final exams and on the in-lab practical exams that Reeves gave to some of the distance learners.”  This program and testing also supports the argument that virtual labs are equivalent to authentic wet labs.

In an article in the Journal of Engineering Technology, Tom Hall commented on a quantitative analysis of the effectiveness of simulated electronics lab experiments.  Hall’s findings are very supportive of the argument that virtual labs are equivalent to authentic labs.  The study compared electronic engineering students using computer aided simulation software with traditional hands on laboratory equipment.   (Hall, T. M., 2000, p, 1)   Students conducted a total of eight electronics labs, four using Electronics Workbench simulation software, (experimental group) and four in a hardware laboratory (which represented the control).  Each laboratory was followed up with a testing instrument designed to measure how well students learned the concepts and theory presented. (p. 3)   Mean scoring results showed no difference in the scores between the two groups.  This supports the argument that virtual labs are equivalent to authentic labs in terms of learning concepts and theories. Student responses to follow up to an attitudinal survey showed that “Overall, they did not believe that either of the two environments was significantly better for learning the objective of the lab or the relevant theory. (p. 5)   Perhaps the most compelling argument in Hall’s research were his comments on recent experiences with “the local and regional job market for Northwestern State’s EET graduates.  Employers are expecting more computer based design and problem-solving skills than ever before.”  Virtual labs may in this circumstance be preferable to hardware labs.  (p. 6)  


A study in Spain (Martinez-Jimenez, Pontes-Pedrajas, Polo, & Climent-Bellido, 2003) on virtual chemistry labs (VCL) reached this conclusion.  “The use of a VCL program is beneficial to students.  Students showed a better comprehension of the techniques and basic concepts used in their laboratory work.  Use of VCL especially contributed to improving the work of those students who have the greatest learning deficiencies.”  In summary, the studies in this paper have offered a great deal of support to virtual labs being equivalent if not preferable to traditional wet labs.  When one considers not only the technical manipulation of lab hardware and lab procedures, (a wet lab’s strongest attributes) but, also how well the activity supports diverse learning modalities, student involvement, inquiry, trial and error, discovery, and “the ability to think like chemists”, (Woodfield, et al, 2004, p.1675), virtual labs can be considered equivalent alternatives to the “authentic” lab.  

Reference List

Carnevale, D. (2003). The Virtual Lab Experiment. Chronicle of Higher Education, 49 (21), pA30, 1-13.  Retrieved Tuesday, September 26, 2006 from  HYPERLINK ""

Hall, T. M. (2000).  A Quantitative Analysis of the Effectiveness of Simulated Electronics Laboratory Experiments. Journal of Engineering Technology, Fall 2000, 1-8.  Retrieved Thursday, September 28, 2006 from  HYPERLINK ""

Martinez-Jimenez, P., Pontes-Pedrajas, A., Polo, J., & Climent-Bellido, M. S. (2003). Learning in Chemistry with Virtual Laboratories.  Journal of Chemical Education, 80, 346-352

Woodfield, B. F., Catlin, H. R., Waddoups, G. L., Moore, M. S., Swan, R., Allen, R., & Bodily, G  (2004). The Virtual ChemLab Project:  A Realistic and Sophisticated Simulation of Inorganic Qualitative Analysis. Journal of Chemical Education, 81, 1672-1678

John Olson S ED 625 

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