Remote alternatives to undergraduate practical classes

The aim for the 2020/21 academic year is to preserve Oxford’s high-quality, personalised education offerings, despite the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Practical classes are key components of teaching in many disciplines. For clinical training, they include bedside teaching and patient examinations, and for other scientific disciplines, include hands-on experimentation, observations and recording data. Adapting these scenarios for remote teaching and learning presents various challenges.

Pedagogical guidance

Practical classes are part of a complex learning environment. Students learn and practice psychomotor skills, as well as understanding their subject through experimentation, observation and interpretation. The correct and safe use of equipment, developing general observational and experimental design skills, generating, collecting and analysing data are all learned during practical classes.

It is important to acknowledge that students might become anxious or frustrated if they are unable to learn and practice these skills, and this may have a detrimental effect on their motivation and engagement.

Key questions to consider when planning remote alternatives to a practical class are:

  • What should students be able to do at the end of this practical class?
  • How can I engage and motivate students to learn?
  • How can I facilitate peer group working and problem-solving?

Quick ways to adapt your practical class to remote teaching

  • Use instructional videos that record and explain an experimental technique, scenario or patient examination. Use the ‘Related Oxford examples’ link above to browse examples from Oxford, including A clinical anatomy workshop and a Biochemistry laboratory based practical. Students found these types of videos to be useful: ‘It was definitely worthwhile to see the videos taken in the lab demonstrating the techniques we would have used had this been a wet lab, and these showed the techniques very clearly’ (anonymous student response from end of term survey).
  • How might I produce instructional videos? A mobile phone or a small camera – possibly head-mounted like a GoPro – can be used to record experimental procedures. The video can be annotated and edited with simple video editing software such as Adobe Spark before being uploaded to Panopto via Canvas. Refer to this guide by Dominik Lukeš: Guide to creating and using instructional videos.
  • Give students data to analyse. Practical classes often include additional skills such as analysing, interpreting, visualising and presenting data in different formats (reports, posters, and presentations), understanding and applying good experimental design, and problem-solving.  Data generated from previous practical classes or research projects can be used when students can’t generate their own experimental data or observations. Research papers and discipline specific teaching communities can be a good source of experimental data.
  • Consider using handouts written in R Markdown for data analysis practicals. The code used to perform the analysis is embedded in the document so that it is straightforward for students to recreate the analysis in the handout on their laptops and potentially use it to analyse new data. Use of R Markdown also reduces the risk of errors when preparing teaching materials. The free user-friendly RStudio software can be used by both teachers and students to create, compile and edit R Markdown. R Markdown handouts and data can be embedded in Canvas.
  • Students could learn and practice experimental design and problem-solving skills in small groups or pairs, using real experimental data presented in interactive forms and guided by formative feedback from tutors. 
    • Microsoft Teams provides functionality for sharing documents through Nexus Office365 so students can work collaboratively on documents both during live Teams meetings and in their study time.
    • Canvas can be used for sharing practical instructional materials, videos and other resources for the practical class in a structured manner. Problem-solving questions that form part of many practical classes can be moved into Canvas. Students can interact and discuss problems in Canvas discussions and receive formative feedback from tutors via the SpeedGrader tool.  
  • Replace practical classes with Journal Clubs. Practical classes for final year undergraduate, postgraduate or DPhil students could be replaced by journal clubs and focus on developing students’ critical analysis skills. This can be a powerful way to build both a community and develop a set of useful resources, for example, COVID-19 Literature Reviews developed by the Medical Sciences Division and Cardiff University.
    • Using research articles that include videos can be a way of engaging students in current research questions and enable them to observe practical techniques.  
    • JOVE offers thousands of instructional videos on laboratory methods and science concepts, as well as a collection of research papers.
    • Microsoft Teams allows scheduling live meetings with video and screen sharing for students to present data and discuss papers.
    • Canvas could be used for storing reading lists, facilitating discussions, presenting videos and other resources for journal clubs.

Using simulated practical classes and scenarios

There are many online resources that are specifically designed as alternatives to university-level practical classes. We list free tools and resources and others that require payment.

Free tools and resources

Paid-for tools, resources and apps

Designing your own simulations: Using virtual reality tools to help students learn practical skills

More advanced and customised simulations can be developed for teaching virtual labs and engaging students. However, this requires more time and investment from staff and students. Some examples from departments in Oxford include Life-saving Instruction for Emergencies (LIFE), Gene expression by modelling the 3D structure of DNA, Particle Physics – Venu and Oncology – Radiotherapy lecture.

The Innovation team at IT Services is looking to help and support such projects in cooperation with the OXR Hub, external partners and the Centre for Teaching and Learning. We are also exploring ideas to engage students and academics in the development of virtual tools for teaching and learning as part of final year projects. Please contact the CTL if you have some ideas that we could support. 

Technical guidance

Videos: Record instructional videos of practical exercises yourself using a mobile phone, small camera or GoPro and upload into Panopto. A longer video can be split into shorter chunks and combined with short activities for students to complete. This can help to maintain student engagement, for example, 'Study this video and then answer the following…'. 

Panopto integration in Canvas: Videos may be uploaded and stored in Panopto, and then added to your Canvas course. Refer to the Panopto help pages and recommended audio and video equipment.

Canvas allows you to create structured content and resources for students to access as well as a means of contacting students and receiving work. Canvas tools enable a variety of asynchronous student activities, which may be offered both in preparation for a ‘virtual practical class’, and as consolidation afterwards. Forums can enable asynchronous discussions on a topic, and assignments and quizzes enable students to submit work and test their understanding. The Speedgrader tool (used with the Assignments tool) allows you to provide feedback to students in several ways – typed annotations, handwritten with a stylus, or using audio or video.

Microsoft Teams provides live conferencing with audio, video and screen sharing. The chat functionality is good for informal discussions (the Chat channel is retained for later reference). A live Teams meeting can be split into breakout rooms for students to work in small groups and then report back to the main meeting. You can visit the breakout rooms to guide the discussion if required.

Gather is a free ‘video calling space’ that allows people to ‘hang out’ in small groups, in a sort of virtual lounge. Students in Earth Sciences reported that they enjoyed being able to drop in (at specified times during a day-long session) and ask the tutors questions in a spontaneous and informal way, as they might during a face-to-face practical session.

Cabinet is a project developed at Oxford using 3D photogrammetry to provide access to some of Oxford’s museum objects and artefacts in 2D or 3D format. Peruse the CTL Cabinet web page, with details of the Cabinet collection and how to use it, to see if there may be existing artefacts for your students to study in a remote situation.

Useful links

Oxford resources

Guidance for designing remote practical classes

Networks for virtual labs and remote teaching STEM disciplines

Various universities around the UK are sharing ideas and examples for remote practical classes via subject-specific networks:

Contact us

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.

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