January/February 2000 // Case Studies
Integrating Laboratories into Online Distance Education Courses
by Deborah O'Bannon, Jill Scott, Margaret Gunderson, and James S. Noble
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Deborah O'Bannon, Jill Scott, Margaret Gunderson, and James S. Noble "Integrating Laboratories into Online Distance Education Courses" The Technology Source, January/February 2000. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

As demand for distance education increases, more educators are focusing their attention on the importance of course design. Course developers must take into account what students need to learn, determine the most efficient and effective manner of conveying knowledge, and design a course that meets the established criteria. For many courses, an important component of the design plan should be the incorporation of hands-on laboratory experiences. Educators at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) have integrated video materials, lab kits, field trips, local resources, and the World Wide Web into asynchronous learning network (ALN) courses in order to provide students with meaningful laboratory experiments and field explorations. This article details the challenges and rewards of that process.

Instructor Challenges

The challenge of including hands-on activities in Internet courses can be divided into two parts: selecting meaningful activities and managing those activities effectively. All instructors—not just those using ALN—must select activities that appropriately meet educational objectives. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, instructors focus on educational objectives, searching for creative methods for laboratory planning, and then find executable ways to incorporate these activities into online courses. Key to this entire process is the "team approach" to course design and development. The instructor collaborates with an instructional designer and a technology specialist, both of whom are specialists in distance education. Together, the team members evaluate the needs of the content, the needs of the instructor, the needs of the students, and the capabilities of available technology.

Managers of Internet laboratories must choose laboratory supplies, provide explicit directions for the execution of laboratory exercises, coordinate local human or equipment resources at the students' sites, and design reporting methods for these individually distributed laboratory exercises. This management enhances student understanding and retention by helping students to integrate their work in computer simulations with hands-on exploration.

Innovative Web-based Laboratories: The Colleges of Engineering and Nursing

Since 1996, the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia has produced ten graduate environmental engineering courses for Internet delivery, with several more in development. Nearly all of the activities required for these courses are completed on the computer. Most of our students hold a B.S. in engineering and are working on a master's degree. We utilize innovative, well-designed laboratory simulation programs modeling many aspects of traditional lab activities, to provide quality instruction in these "Web-centric" courses.

For example, in Introduction to Industrial Ecology, students are required to complete a product or facility assessment for the term project; but before they conduct assessments, they take a virtual factory tour on the course Web page. This virtual tour trains students to see the visual keys necessary for conducting a successful assessment. Students then make their own arrangements to tour, in person, a facility in their area (e.g., a battery plant, a newspaper publisher, a circuit breaker manufacturer). In the future, lab coordinators may ask each student to share his/her field experience with the entire class by providing digital photos or videos of his/her assessment tour.

In addition to providing online resources like the virtual factory tour, MU calls on human resources near remote students to assist those students with design projects and laboratory work. For example, the Sinclair School of Nursing has set up a network of local experts to help its students in central Missouri. Sinclair's distance education instruction takes place primarily through the Internet and interactive video units, which serve students from the Iowa to Arkansas borders. Nurses with RN licenses who are seeking baccalaureate or master's degrees interface with the school for didactic materials; they then seek opportunities in their local communities to meet the general education requirements. In addition, clinical enhancement opportunities are also facilitated close to home. To date, students have found clinical work in local health departments, schools, hospices, hospitals, and home health agencies. Students are thus able to partner with the school, with local community colleges, and with local health care organizations to support the health of their local communities.

MU's Online Microbiology Laboratories

One of the first Internet engineering courses produced by the MU College of Engineering was Sanitary Engineering Microbiology. In order to determine which labs should be included in the Internet course, educators carefully evaluated laboratory activities that are traditionally offered in a face-to-face setting. They deemed three activities essential to the curriculum: total coliform bacteria testing, algal identification, and Gram stain identifications. (Other, optional activities are included in the Internet class when they can be modified easily for self-directed use.)

One of the requirements for enrollment in Sanitary Engineering Microbiology is that each student have access to a specific type of light microscope, one with a 100x oil-immersion objective and 10x eyepiece. Because instructors limit microscope use to less than one hour per week, students are encouraged to locate microscopes available for use at water treatment plant laboratories, medical clinics, or other suitable locations. Students receive complete lab kits, course materials, and an instructional videotape through the mail. Their kits include a Millipore test, immersion oil, lens paper, yeast, and clean and prepared microscope slides and cover slips labeled Bacterial Spores, Bacterial Types, Mixed Blue-green Algae, Mixed Diatoms, or Mixed Green Algae. In the future, digitized instructions, linked to the course homepage, will replace the videotapes.

In the coliform laboratory assignment, students complete the coliform testing with the Millipore?Ç¬Æ Coli-Count Swab Test Kit, which includes directions for use and guidelines for the interpretation of cultures. Because test cultures are time-sensitive, perishable, and biohazardous, students cannot transmit their cultures by surface mail to the instructor for grading; instead they submit their cultures to a local examination proctor approved by the university. The proctor evaluates the students' cultures and compares them with photographs of acceptable samples supplied by the university. In the future, students may also take a digital photo of the culture and post it to the course page for the instructor's personal evaluation.

For the algal identification exercise, students must view a live algae sample that has not been stained or distorted with preservatives. The instructor provides several photomicrographic views of a live sample on the course Web page. Though different computer monitors produce minor color variations in these samples, these variations are negligible. Students use an extensive binary identification algae key, supplied in their course materials, and a photomicrograph which shows them how to identify algae using this key. After viewing the photomicrograph, students are required to complete four identifications, submitting the species and genus of the sample algae and relating the path they took through the binary key to identify it, just as they would in the traditional classroom. In the online course, however, students transmit this information to their instructor by e-mail.

For the Gram stain identification laboratory, students examine the three different Gram stain smears supplied on the slide labeled "Bacterial Types," identify the Gram type and cell shape, then report their findings by e-mail.

At the completion of the course, the students locate individuals in their local areas to serve as examination proctors (university extension agents, personnel directors, etc.) and submit their requests for proctors to the Director of Continuing Engineering Education for approval. The exams and exam specifications are transmitted directly from the instructor to the proctor, who verifies the students' identities and administers the exams. After the students have completed their exams, the proctor transmits their work directly to the instructor.


To create an effective distance education course, faculty and course designers must carefully select the technologies and educational techniques that will prove beneficial to students. Using multiple technologies and methods within a single course is the best way to meet the demands of the content, the needs of students, and the requirements of the instructor. We at MU believe that simulations, video demonstrations, tours, field trips, self-directed labs, and connections with local experts enable remote students to learn content in applied, concrete ways that enrich their diverse educational experiences. Students have unanimously reported that the hands-on activities in ALN classes and the easy-to-use lab kits enhance their learning, that field trips and laboratory experiments are worthwhile and, overall, that such exercises should be used in more ALN classes. These online laboratories force students to take an active role in their education, but the students are never left to learn in isolation; they utilize human resources in their local areas and share the results of their experiences with their fellow students. They enjoy the richness of peer support and assistance.

These successful demonstrations of hands-on activities in ALN classes have established a new benchmark for distance education. The inclusion of laboratories and field trips is as valid in distance delivery as it is in the classroom. Laboratory exercises need not be restricted to computer simulations. Critics can no longer say, "It can't be done." This challenges ALN instructors and institutions to use these tools to deliver the richest educational opportunity possible to their students.

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