Practicals are a key component of teaching STEM disciplines in higher education. Adapting laboratory teaching to be flexible and inclusive of students at home, or socially distanced in the lab and limited in their ability to work together, is one of the more difficult challenges in these disciplines. Teams across the world and our academics in Trinity term 2020 produced numerous creative approaches to adapting undergraduate practicals. We distil some of the advice here to assist you in planning your practical sessions for the current academic year.
This is a complex topic and as advice on social distancing and lab-based PPE may change, we suggest adopting one approach to planning your practicals which would enable you to move easily between lab-based experimentation with data generated by students, or simulations and analysis of data supplied by tutors.
Laboratory practicals are part of a complex learning environment in which practical skills are learnt and practised and disciplinary theory and knowledge is understood through observation of experimental results. Practicals include learning the correct and safe use of scientific equipment, developing observational and experimental skills, and generating and collecting data.
A flexible and inclusive approach to learning practical skills (in the laboratory or at the bedside in clinical disciplines) can be achieved using instructional videos. These involve videoing and explaining an experimental technique or patient examination. There are several Oxford examples below: A clinical anatomy workshop, and a Biochemistry laboratory based practical. As the visual below demonstrates, instructional videos can be prepared in advance and shared with students before the practical, or they can replace the practical/patient examination if these cannot occur face to face. In any event, they are valuable aids to student learning, allowing students to view experimental procedures or examinations at any time.
Practicals often include ‘out of lab’ skills such as analysing, visualising and presenting data in different formats (reports, posters, presentations), understanding and applying good experimental design, and problem solving. If students cannot generate their own experimental data, these skills may be practised on data generated from previous experiments and shared in interactive forms to allow different simulations. Experimental design and problem-solving skills can be learnt and practised using real experimental data.
Canvas can be used for sharing practical instructional materials, videos and other resources for the laboratory in a structured manner.
Consider designing and filming instructional videos. A mobile phone or a small camera can be used to record experimental procedures. The video can be annotated and edited with simple video editing software such as Adobe Sparks before being uploaded to Canvas via Panopto.
Microsoft Teams allows you to schedule live meetings with video and screensharing.
Teams also provides functionality for sharing documents, and as it is part of Nexus Office365, these documents can be collaborated on by multiple people simultaneously. Working on one such document while in a Teams meeting can be an effective way of working.
The chat functionality in Teams also provides a useful less formal way of keeping in touch.
Many departments and faculties are reflecting upon how programmes are taught, what materials are assigned and how students are assessed. Academics and administrators who would like to consult with the CTL as they design flexible and inclusive programmes may contact us.