There are wide-reaching benefits of adopting a systematic approach to the integration of e-learning and e-assessment into practical sciences. The Dynamic Lab Manuals (DLMs) developed by Learning Science for the University of Bristol have had a huge impact; enhancing the quality of science laboratory learning for students and reducing the marking and administrative burden for staff. Students are much better prepared at the start of the laboratory session and therefore more confident, with the result that they enjoy the laboratory experience to a much greater extent. The DLMs also provide the means to assess the students on their understanding and provide them with immediate feedback.
The success of the DLMs at Bristol has not gone unnoticed, winning the Times Higher Education Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year Award and receiving the runner-up prize in the Guardian University Award for Teaching Excellence.
Investing in the integration of e-learning and e-assessment ensures that the benefits and opportunities new technologies offer in enhancing the learning experience are effectively implemented. Furthermore, it creates a sustainable, supportable and consistent environment to allow the university to deliver high value learning content.
Today’s students are immersed in media rich content and are accustomed to having access to information at their fingertips, whether this is on their laptop, tablet or smartphone. It is not surprising that the same students expect these types of content to be blended into their courses at university.
Resources that were traditionally contained within printed texts are moving online. The real power of the new technologies, however, is not simply reproducing the printed word in electronic form. Rather, it is achieved by taking advantage of varied multimedia approaches to teach complicated and/or counterintuitive concepts and procedures in a visual, interactive and engaging manner that relates directly to the expectations of 21st century students.
The Traditional Approach vs The DLM Approach
The following graphic illustrates typical timelines for laboratory sessions using a traditional approach and a DLM approach. The actual amount of lab time does not change but a major advantage of utilising a DLM is that the whole process is more efficient, significantly reducing the time from preparation and lab work to the final marking and feedback. It also enables a greater amount of assessment during the lab session with multiple opportunities for feedback. The majority of the benefits are facilitated by investing in pre-lab resources and effective online post-lab marking.
Laboratory time and space comes at a high price, making it even more important to use the lab sessions as effectively as possible. The traditional approach typically involves students arriving at the practical lesson having done minimal preparation and without a clear understanding of the techniques or the science behind the experiment. Consequently, a large amount of lab time is focused on students getting up to speed by listening to a long introductory talk, reading through a lab manual or asking demonstrators basic questions. Understanding and appreciation of the learning objectives only begin to become clear during the long (and often laborious) write-up following the experiment.
The DLM approach incorporates pre-lab activities and resources which give students a thorough grasp of the underlying science behind each experiment. Students spend more time preparing for the practical sessions which results in increased levels of enjoyment and satisfaction. Staff teaching practical sessions benefit from students arriving at the laboratory ready to work. They also have access to see how well students have performed in the pre-lab quizzes and safety assessment, allowing any issues to be dealt with promptly. Furthermore, since the students already have a good understanding of the experiment, a significant amount of in-lab assessment can be achieved.
Comments from students at the University of Bristol:
“I really like it, as allows me to feel more confident in the practical and fully understand the practical before I enter.”
“The pre-labs are especially helpful because they explain what you are doing before the practical which makes practicals easier.”
“eBiolabs [DLM] has been really useful in preparation for practical work and it has been beneficial to have to work out certain aspects of practical work rather than being spoon-fed information.”
Traditional assessment is often concentrated solely on the lab report. This means that there is a long delay before the student receives any feedback, by which time they have often started a different experiment and the opportunity to fully harness the potential learning outcomes, from what has been an expensive practical session, have been lost.
The DLM utilises a number of technologies to streamline the marking, enabling the whole process (pre-lab to post-lab) to be complete within one week. This is achieved partly by reducing the number of full write-ups, and using pre-lab quizzes and online proformas. Online marking and attendance are facilitated using LMS technologies such as Moodle and Blackboard which Universities have commonly already invested in. The impact of streamlining the marking and feedback process has a positive effect on students’ experiences in laboratory-based disciplines.
Staff comments from the University of Bristol:
“The online marking of post-lab tests has improved the timeliness of receipt of marks and feedback on assessed work.”
“The DLM has allowed us to cope with increasing numbers of students in an efficient and effective way.”
“The DLMs have completely replaced the traditional printed lab manuals in chemistry and biochemistry practicals which allows students to practice laboratory methods and techniques online prior to the lab thereby greatly aiding preparation and confidence. By further integrating quizzes, coursework submission and automated marking systems along with instant feedback and attendance tracking, these DLMs have radically changed the student and staff experience.”
“With hindsight the only thing that we should have done differently was to introduce the DLM much earlier.”