Virtual science education?

Should science education go virtual? To a limited extent, I think it’s a good thing. But it’s a horrible idea to rush headlong into digitizing entire science courses or replacing hands-on activities with virtual lessons. Unfortunately, a potentially bad trend is developing as politicians and businesses push for more and more online classes and digital education resources. An approach that might work just fine for a virtual math or language arts course doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work in a science course. Do virtual education advocates understand that? The signs aren’t looking good.

There are definitely positives to be gained from incorporating interactive apps and computer programs into the science classroom. They are potentially valuable tools that can differentiate instruction and appeal to segments of learners who might not be engaged by textbooks and lectures. And teachers are really missing out if they aren’t tapping into the worldwide reach of the Internet for resources and ideas. It’s a pity when some schools have blanket restrictions on certain websites, such as one school I’ve worked in that blocked all access to Youtube. There are tons of interesting and free videos there demonstrating science concepts that would be difficult to show any other way.

But can students get quality science education with nothing but a computer? State Rep. Will Weatherford is advocating for an entirely online university (article behind a pay wall and so I can’t read it). Paul Cottle at Bridge to Tomorrow bluntly opines that science education can’t be properly done in such a setting. He points out that students aren’t grasping the deeper understanding that they really need. He also wrote a lengthy and detailed examination of how modern technology should and shouldn’t be used in the science classroom.

I completely agree with Paul. It seems that non-educators have this vision full of fancy computer programs that will magically impart knowledge with a few taps on the touch screen. Wiz! Bang! Learn! No classroom needed! That’s entirely unrealistic.

My son took a few math courses through the popular and highly-touted Florida Virtual School. He was flat out failing his remedial math courses in school, primarily due to constant classroom disruptions by way too many discipline problems. Frustrated by the school’s miserable responses to our concerns, we dropped his math courses and went online. The virtual classes were well structured and featured moderate interactive exercises and animations coupled with lots of standard practice problems. We had weekly phone conferences with the FVS teacher and I believe there were two or three assignments my son had to do live online with the teacher and other students all together.

If my son was turned loose on this by himself with no help from his mom or me, he would have failed. Period. If there was a concept that he just wasn’t grasping – and there were plenty of those – there would have been nothing he could do about it other than schedule an appointment with the FVS teacher. In the meantime, he would’ve just wasted time waiting to talk with her. However, his mom and I sat with him during every lesson and taught him the concepts using the FVS material as a guide. There were quite a few times when we, the adults, were stuck, too! Fortunately, I had a few college textbooks and a couple of non-FVS online resources to reference. The bottom line is that my son absolutely needed an instructor, not a mindless computer program that couldn’t answer his questions.

Online education is not for everyone. You absolutely must be self-motivated and resourceful. My bachelor of arts in science education (biology 6-12) was earned through Western Governors University, a fully accredited online school. I had spent about a year at a regular community college and then transferred to the online college when I realized that there was no way I could attain a bachelors due to scheduling conflicts with my full time job.

But even WGU wasn’t entirely online, which was a good thing from a science education perspective. My science courses came with big lab packs shipped to my house. For instance, my biochemistry lab contained a decent microscope, safety equipment, basic lab equipment such as test tubes and petri dishes, and the variety of chemicals/growing mediums and such that I needed to perform full experiments in my basement. I also had to use a few online lab programs, which I felt were OK but didn’t quite measure up to the real thing. The downside, though, was that I had no one to talk to and ask questions of while I was doing the work. There were a few times when things weren’t working the way they should and I didn’t know why until much later when I could finally schedule a call with an instructor. Overall, I do feel that I got a quality education through WGU, but I have to admit that I would have likely got better hands-on experiences in a physical school environment. I was incredibly grateful when I did my teacher internship at a local high school and was there during pig dissection time as well as lots of other lab exercises. The experiences were invaluable. But speaking of dissections …

Highlands County is going to all virtual dissections in biology courses next year. No hands-on dissections will be allowed at all. Apparently, the decision was made without input from the district’s science teachers who were not happy! I’ve written about virtual versus real dissections before and personally came down solidly on the side of real dissections.

I understand that this post is full of anecdotal evidence. If I have the time I may try to poke around and see if there is any solid information or studies concerning virtual science education. And I welcome any such tips that you folks can send my way. If I round up anything useful, I’ll write a follow up post.

However, I think that the stampede toward all-virtual education needs to be slowed down and controlled. Each academic subject needs to be evaluated separately. Can quality art education be done online? What does that look like? Is the course structured differently than a literature course? What about history and Spanish and geometry? And, of course, what about science and chemistry and physics? In other words, virtual education is not one size fits all. Politicians and other decision makers need to be educated on this before they cause more problems than they solve!

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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5 Responses to Virtual science education?

  1. Jonathan Smith says:

    I think learning to be a scientist is much like an apprenticeship, you can’t learn to be a serious mechanical engineer if you never set foot in a machine shop, even though that simulation might help you learn the concepts involved. Experimental science requires something like a green thumb, a hard to describe ability to use your tools with just the right touch. Many experiments are technically challenging, and require dexterity and experience to do them well, that is. The ‘kitchen chemistry’ which FVS describe is no substitute. Kitchen chemistry is usually just a bunch of magic tricks; it doesn’t come close to teaching kids what real experiments are like. I think they may be some benefits to it at some levels, but not for AP classes.

  2. cope says:

    Another aspect of the virtual education movement is that it is one of the de facto facets (along with charter schools, voucher programs, etc.) of the privatization of education. Though students or their parents may not pay directly for courses at Florida Virtual School, the DOE is. Also, virtual school is self-selecting in the sense of favoring the families of students who have good parental support and internet access.

    It can be the answer in some cases for some subject areas but certainly not all.

  3. cope says:

    I hate making grammatical errors (almost an English major, ya know). It should read “…DOE does.”

  4. Teresa G. says:

    I am a virtual high school science teacher. I think virtual school is another tool in the belt for educators to reach all students. It is not for everyone nor is brick and mortar for everyone anymore. Each have pros and cons. I have students who are Olympic athletes as well as those with serious family issues making it hard to focus on any type of learning. The bottom line is that virtual education is growing and will continue to grow due largely to our current economic situation. The cost to build, maintain, and populate a brick and mortar school is huge compared to outfitting a home with materials for virtual school. District teachers here are losing jobs rather than a freeze on pay so classrooms are crazy huge. Our virtual school hires more teachers every year because we grow. This is a train we can’t and shouldn’t stop. I think we just need to equip ourselves to be the best educators in this new environment.

  5. Harry Keller says:

    The article and the responses make many excellent points. But, they miss important aspects of this entire issue. I go into these aspects in my blog at I’ll touch on a few here.

    The assumption that we’re training scientists in K-12 (the target of NAEP) misses the mark. Scientists can get all of the lab practical training necessary in college. That’s the time for apprenticeship. I’m a scientist with a B.S. in chemistry from Caltech and a PhD from Columbia University. I was the chair of the 3,500-member Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society and a university professor. I know about this topic.

    K-12 schools must have physical campuses but can use virtual tools in them. Some students can, at a sufficiently advanced age, go entirely virtual, of course. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

    It will be long, if ever, before computers can substitute for good teachers. However, teachers must have more support than ever in their quest to provide good learning. That support must include computer technology but not the bad examples that too many have experienced.

    Science should be learned properly by K-12 students, and it is not so today. It was seven years ago that the National Research Council published “America’s Lab Report” castigating our science classes for their mismanagement of science lab experiences. Their statements go against the usual virtual lab too because they require that students take real data from the real (they call it “material”) world.

    I go a step further and suggest that students at lower sophistication levels should take their own data point by point. That approach argues against using technology such as probeware where students do not take data but rather have it presented to them.

    Dissections aren’t really science labs. A science lab has a prediction (or even an hypothesis) that will be supported or refuted by data collected. All of the hue and cry over dissections is misplaced. Operating a microscope is not a crucial life skill for most students. And so it goes. Understand what a lab is for so that you don’t waste all of that valuable time and money.

    On kitchen labs, I agree that many are like magic tricks. Even lab kits, which are way too expensive, have a sort of cookbook aspect to them. They have to in order to ensure success by students who are often alone and left to their own devices. However, this need not be so. I’ve seen kitchen lab plans by teachers who managed to avoid this pitfall and were very excellent investigation experiences.

    Some people, most notably MIT with their iLabs, have created remote robotic labs to aid in learning science and engineering. IMO, this idea mostly helps the latter. The range of science experiments possible in this mode is quite limited, and the experience comes out much like probeware. There has to be a better way.

    1. There’s not enough time, money, space, or safety to do the lab investigations that would provide a complete science learning experience particularly in grades 6-12. Really good classroom labs and field labs are great but have their limits.

    2. Animated simulations have improved in the last 30 years, but they’re still not substitute for the real thing and even can detract from learning science if substituted for classroom labs. Use them for visualization or for model comparison with real data (but only for more sophisticated students).

    3. Technology can help us solve many of our education problems but not if implemented blindly or without understanding the technology, the subject, and the pedagogy involved. You cannot simply bend, fold, and stretch business software into great educational software. Also, amateur programmers build amateur software that should not be allowed in classrooms.

    You can get a good science education in K-12 and even in college if you’re not a science major with a combination of online hands-on labs and so-called kitchen labs. Science majors must get in the lab in college. To me, a kitchen lab is one that uses ordinary materials that are relatively inexpensive and safe.

    What’s an online hands-on lab? It uses prerecorded real experiments, lots of them, to comprise a lab along with software that enables tight interaction with the videos to collect data from them point by point, much as in a classroom lab.

    Furthermore, students should have the opportunity to perform extended investigations into the real world once or twice a semester in secondary schools. These would not be virtual — at least until the technology has advanced considerably. Sometimes these are called projects, but beware the projects that are just engineering build-its and are not science investigations. Engineering is great but is not science.

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