Laboratory classes are an integral part of many university subjects in disciplines such as science, engineering and health. The pandemic of 2020 forced many such classes to be rescheduled or waived, but it has also seen a rise in interest in on-line laboratory simulations, such as Labster, Open STEM Labs and SimBio.

With the return to campus in 2021, we are seeing the re-establishment of laboratory classes, but with a new attitude towards simulations as a supplement to face-to-face practicals. Laboratory time is increasingly precious, and so preparing students as thoroughly as possible in advance means that the time spent in the laboratory environment itself can focus on the most important aspects, rather than starting ab initio.

Students enjoy virtual simulations, which mean they are able to prepare for labs in a risk-free environment, and to use virtual labs as a revision tool rather than as a one-time experience. Elaborate and complex scenarios can be explored, which are beyond those possible in real labs due to time and budget constraints.

Students can also engage in such activities anytime and anywhere, rather than being allocate a fixed laboratory schedule. Digital technologies allow laboratory time to be leveraged in different ways, such as showing recordings of laboratory procedures, or livestreaming experimental processes to students unable to be present in the laboratory itself. The use of remote sensing techniques also means that equipment can be accessed and/or controlled from anywhere, allowing wider access to the outcomes and data from experiments.

In future, it seems students will need to acquire skills in digital experimental techniques and practices as well as traditional manual ones. Of course, a digital experience can never fully replace manual training, especially where specific competencies in handling and safety management are required. But it seems the days of optimising precious laboratory time by using digital supplements are here to stay.

Professor James Harland, Director of the Centre for Digital Innovation, STEM College, RMIT University @placid_platypus


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