Chemistry, Contingency Planning, Laboratory, Pedagogy

What is an “online chemistry lab”?


The massive shift to online teaching and learning for us in Edinburgh focussed on lectures and tutorials, as we were comparatively lucky in timing – our semester starts and ends very early in the calendar year, which meant that our students were able to complete the majority of their labs. Knowing what I have lived through over the last weeks, I empathise with educators from the other side of the world who are just beginning their teaching year, and those teaching summer semesters: I realise how lucky I am! I mention this as a prelude as I want to discuss what “online labs” are with the luxury of time on my side, but in no way mean to diminish efforts being made by people under extreme time pressures – everyone is doing what they can to fix their local situation. This post is mostly useless as it raises more questions than it answers.

Why labs at all?

Before thinking about what a lab might look like online, we perhaps need to think about why we have labs at all. The literature is really unhelpful in this regard, as there are an array of lists of learning outcomes in labs, but they mostly come from the position that labs happen in the first place, and therefore list what kind of learning can be extracted from them. The place of labs to learn a whole host of non-lab-specific transferable skills is a case in point.

For me there are two and a half reasons why we have labs.

Firstly, labs are in the curriculum for cultural reasons – you couldn’t be a chemist and not have labs. Since von Liebig and perhaps before, labs are an integral part of chemists’ identity.

The second reason is most important to me – labs must offer something that can’t otherwise be learned. So we can learn how to do titration calculations and plot a Beer Lambert law in lectures – what is the lab offering? More generally, we can know all of this chemistry theory, but how do we enact it. For me labs have a distinct pedagogical offering because we can learn techniques, and we can use our knowledge of those techniques, along with a knowledge of chemistry, and pull it together to do something tangible in practice (or on a computer if you are a computational chemist – I am all-inclusive!). This distinction between “knowing” and “doing” is described in the literature as substantive knowledge and syntactical knowledge. This is why “recipe labs” often get a lot of criticism; they are trying to teach technique (poorly, by osmosis) and don’t really require any intellectual input, so they are a poor use of resource and brain capacity.

The half reason is accreditation – we do labs as we “have to” do labs. To be honest, I’m not really sure a University like mine not being accredited would make a difference; of course we love having it, and it is a nice external “check” on what we are doing. But in many ways accreditation is just a reflection on the cultural aspects of chemistry and a (hugely misunderstood) sense of the importance of labs pedagogically, so if the zeitgeist moved away from doing labs in say Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford and Durham, I’m not sure it would be an accreditation requirement for much longer. That is to say: accreditation isn’t a reason to have labs.

Moving online – teaching technique

This consideration is important, I think, when we move our labs online. In terms of teaching technique, I worry that with easy access to computer software we’ll try to replicate somehow the in-lab activities, and there will be digital titrations and online spectroscopy before you can blink. (I’m pointing the finger at myself here and here, both from 2011). But even the simulations I have seen which are good, it takes two clicks and a swipey-wipe to get some water into my beaker.  These kind of actions are not associated with the actions in reality. I don’t click to pour water in reality, I hold a beaker, and pour at just the right rate so that the liquid goes into a narrow neck volumetric flask. There is no big red button on any UV/vis spectrometer I have seen that checks the solution for clarity, places the cuvette in the instrument in the right direction and chooses the right wavelength range. So one has to ask (politely) – what benefit is there from the substantial and clever development work going on to create these activities?

I think teaching technique online is going to be really difficult actually, and so the efforts mentioned above are really admirable. I am learning some more advanced aspects of the Adobe CS suite at the moment, and YouTube is my best friend. I look at videos demonstrating something, and then play those videos bit by bit as I do the action, and then I try the action myself. It takes a few goes, because I am not very good and have a terrible memory. But over time, I learn how to do the technique. But I had to practice with reality (which in this case, is easier as reality is also on a computer). How can we ever mimic this for chemistry technique? And an additional note, how do we even begin to mimic the learned caution and care required, to be a safe and competent chemist. Even the masters of online learning, Open University, used to run residential summer schools, although in changing times, these sadly went online too. This is the first thing I am grappling with. (Virtual reality (VR) is an exciting area of development; I have no sense yet whether VR can replicate all of the requirements of teaching technique, but is probably at least an improvement on two dimensions.)

Moving online – syntactical knowledge

We want to teach our chemists to be chemists, not cooks, and being a chemist means having requisite practical techniques to hand and being to use them in situations of your own design. Teaching experimental design is really tough – to teach and to learn – and we’ve invested a lot of effort into it. It involves decision making – both trivial (what solution concentration should I make?) and complex (what is the scope of this experiment and what will it tell me?). Oddly, free from the concerns about technique, this may be easier to replicate online, although I don’t think as a self-contained package (without a lot of effort and perhaps some artificial intelligence), but more as a kind of lab-tutorial, involving ongoing dialogue and lots and lots of decisions for the students to make. Missing from the piece will be the actual “doing” of the experimental work, which is not trivial. If I prepare a solution concentration that’s too high so that I get a bit of precipitate that will distort the spectrum, what do I do in practice? Did I hear a hiss of gas at some stage during a synthetic procedure that may have implications for the reaction? It is hard to replicate those kind of considerations in a mock version online, where you are really relying on the proto-chemist to bring together chemical and technical knowledge, in what I have framed as a “complex learning environment”.

But I see some hope here, certainly for analytical and physical labs, and much of my own thoughts are focussed on this piece and thinking about how we could move at least some of this syntactical knowledge online. I welcome any thoughts and advice!

Links to source

Contingency Planning

Managing information from student perspective during COVID contingencies

My colleague Chris Mowat and I co-wrote a blog post for our university’s Teaching Matters blog, which I am linking here as it pulls together a lot of our activities into one post, so might be useful for people in a hurry!

The end of academic year is a busy time for students in normal circumstances, but this year, in addition to spending this time reviewing all of their courses and getting ready for assessment, there is a swell in information relating to managing alternative arrangements due to COVID-19 that our honours students have to process. As a combined effort, we have been working to mediate this information in a way that is clear, coordinated, and student-focussed. We share below five headline strategies that are working well for us, what we are doing next, and reflect on how the last few weeks have been. [Link to Teaching Matters blog post to continue reading]

(Graphic courtesy of @ScienceNerdSACR and used with permission) - see post linked for details
(Graphic courtesy of @ScienceNerdSACR and used with permission) – see post linked for details
Chemistry, Contingency Planning

Managing the open-book exam process

At Edinburgh, we are mostly moving to replacing our 3 hour exams with open book exams. We had initially intended these to be within 24 hour timeframes, but the University has mandated 48. Otherwise, things are as described in the previous post.

So students will need to access an exam paper from a  specific “start time” and submit their written answers no later than 48 hours than that start time. Easy!

Exam Process Guide

Having looked through the various options, I am going with the following 5 step plan based on Blackboard Assignments (rather than Turnitin), described below in terms of front of house and behind the scenes:

For students:

  1. Students will be able to download the paper in advance from Blackboard (called “Learn” here), but it is password protected.
  2. At the start time, the password is released on Blackboard and by email. We didn’t want 150 students trying to download a PDF at the same time.
  3. Students complete their answers on paper.
  4. Students scan their answers using Adobe Scan app to create a PDF. For us, one lecturer corrects one exam question, so we want these uploaded on a question by question basis.
  5. Students upload their answers.

I’ve made a draft video (subtitled) outlining this process, which we are testing robustly this week! We are then going to release to students and allow them play with a mock set-up.

Behind the scenes, this means:

  • Setting timings so that Blackboard courses release in line with exam timetable, and components (e.g. password, answer submission areas) release at the right time
  • Enabling anonymous marking so that the student number doesn’t appear in the file name
  • Allowing multiple submissions so that when students upload the wrong file (it will happen) they can submit the correct file – this needs careful management post hoc.
  • After time window has closed, each question will be downloaded and shared with examiners. I am not going to ask my colleagues to annotate files in any way; they will simply keep a mark tally per exam number related to marking scheme so that they can refer back to that if there are queries.
  • Marks can then be returned in an Excel sheet by exam number, and these can go into “the system” for exam boards.

EASY! 🙂 What can go wrong? (no, really…?)

Chemistry, Contingency Planning

Supporting student study in the “pivot” online

As mentioned in last post, we are focussing our current efforts on two strands – maintaining and promoting academic focus, and being active in student support, the second aspect being led by m’colleague Chris Mowat.

In terms of academic focus, we are moving our closed book exams to open book. Of course this seems “easier”, but I think brings new challenges for students in their study. All that study time spent learning things off doesn’t seem as important now, and we are moving our focus to asking students to think about what questions are asking, showing their understanding concisely in answers, etc. In other words, now that students have a chance to write as much as they want, the challenge instead becomes, what should they do to show they understand? (It’s like, I don’t know, closed-book exams aren’t a good way to assess or something, huh).

Anyway, to help with this I have produced the guide below for students. Hopefully it has some useful prompts in terms of getting focussed and keeping organised, thinking about “pivoting” (ugh) to the new assessment regime, along with Chris’ ongoing guidance re student support. I’ve reproduced the text below, if any of it is of use, please reproduce as you need. CC-by-CoronaVirus 4.0. (With thanks back to the internet for various bits of guidelines that fed into this.)

Supporting Students Study graphic

Text of graphic:

As we have moved quickly to online and remote learning and teaching, you may need to work to establish new study patterns. This will take a little time to get used to, so take your time, and take care of your wellbeing first.
This guide will outline how you can make a plan to adjust your studying and help you regain control of your work.
In this guide we’ll talk about:
» Staying organised
» Adjusting to new assessment protocols
» Connecting with others
» Keeping in touch with the School

You may need to adapt your study habits. Find out what works best for you and establish a regular pattern of work, ensuring you include downtime. This is a marathon, not a sprint!
1. Organise your notes and study
There has been a lot of upheaval in the last weeks of Semester. Your task is to manage your ongoing workload in an organised and coherent way. To do this you can:
make sure you know where all the materials are for each lecture course unit. Live lecture recordings will be in the Lecture Recordings area, with online classrooms in the Course Collaborate channel linked in each course;
make sure you know any revisions to the assessment protocols, so you can plan your study accordingly;
plan and keep track of your study tasks, including scheduling downtime;
note the contacts for each course lecturer;
share your plans with peers in your study group so that you can coordinate your work.
To keep your study focussed and on target, a suggestion is to divide each study day into thirds, with a study session or a scheduled downtime in each third.
In each study session, you can:
focus on reviewing the content of particular topics, drawing on lecture recordings as you need;
work through tutorial materials, discussing with peers in your study group through whatever electronic communication means you have decided on;
test out your understanding with past paper questions;
draw up a list of questions that you wish to discuss with your peers and with your lecturers.
In each session, stay focussed on one topic. Multi-tasking (or micro-tasking) is a very poor learning strategy (only about 2% of the population can multi-task). Work on one topic, wrap it up so that you can return to it easily (clear questions that need follow up), and move on.
In your study sessions, aim to establish a rhythm. Structure the time within each study session, by using, for example, the Pomodoro technique (e.g. a series of three 50 minutes on, 10 minutes break in one study session).

Remember to schedule downtime including full days away from study. Make sure you maintain your usual daily routines of personal care, eating, and social contact by phone or online.

2. Adjusting to new assessment protocols
Until recently, students’ study has been focussed on preparing for closed book exams. The new assessment protocols mean that these exams are now open book. This will mean some changes to your study requirements, but most importantly some additional focus on how you answer questions asked:
The guiding principle for closed-book exams on “making sure you answer the question asked” applies even more in open-book assessments. Students should read questions carefully and make sure that they answer what is being asked. Assessors will be looking to see whether students can concisely answer the question asked. This is the main challenge in open-book assessments.
When studying and reviewing past papers, check that you can identify exactly what is being asked. Remember, exam questions are written so that they can typically be answered in timed conditions, so assessors will look to see quality of your answers addressing the specific chemistry asked, rather than seeing all of their notes reproduced verbatim.
Continue to practice drawing chemical structures, diagrams, and any figures or graphs as you normally would. All of the work you produce for open-book assessments must be in your own hand.

Experience tells us that students often write lots of material, but don’t necessarily answer what is being asked. Make sure your study includes a focus on identifying what is being asked.

3. Connecting with others for study
Much of learning and revision is based around discussions, both among students and between students and staff. Make sure you keep connected as follows:
You should aim to contact lecturers with specific questions arising out of your study, or arising out of revision sessions and discussions with your peers. It is easier for lecturers to address specific questions. Lecturers may also be able to direct you to online reading in the face of library closure.
If you don’t understand a topic generally and don’t know where to start, even after reviewing materials, ask your lecturer for suitable reading. Reading about your topic in a wider context can often help with understanding.
Make sure to form discussion groups. If you are not already in a study group and want to be, the best person to start out with is your lab partner. From there, look to grow it to groups of 4 – 6. It is good when there is a mix of abilities—explaining something to others is very beneficial.
Working in study groups means that you can contact staff as a group with any questions emerging from study.

4. Re-invent the social space online!
One of the challenges over the coming weeks up to the assessment period will be staying focussed during periods of isolation. We’re all missing our lovely Museum, and in place of that, the School are scheduling regular online drop in sessions—these are informal and are intended for social contact as much as addressing any questions among students. Join in these sessions, even if it is only to listen.
All students should make an effort to check in on each other regularly. If someone has been absent from your group meetings or chat, check in with them to see that they are okay. If you aren’t getting responses within a day or two, let your Personal Tutor know.

Keep connected with your class, either as study groups or just social connections. Everyone will need a different level of social contact, but make sure there is someone there for you when you want to disconnect from study. Always remember that staff are available if you need someone to talk to.

5. Stay in touch with the School
If anything is troubling you, or you want to talk about how you are getting on generally, let us know. We can arrange Skype or phone calls at any time. The School’s Personal Tutor system is ready and waiting, and if you have any queries, contact your Personal Tutor, the Senior Personal Tutor (Chris Mowat), the Director of Postgraduate Teaching (Nanna Lilienkampf), or the Director of Teaching (Michael Seery).
All of us are ready to answer and address any queries you have. Even if you don’t have a specific query and just want to reach out, contact us:
Your Personal Tutor
Chris Mowat:
Nanna Lilienkampf:
Michael Seery:
General queries:
There are University resources available including student study resources in the Library and IAD and student support resources. For these, and full details of University guidance regarding COVID-19, see the website:

Contingency Planning

Managing and recovering from serious interruption to teaching

The internet has been full of amazing advice over the last few weeks on technical issues relating to moving online. I’ve nothing to add to that, but thought I might offer our perspective from managing the whole process overall. Below are some notes I have sketched out on how we have dealt and are continuing to deal with with events of the last few weeks. We are sharing these with other chemistry departments in UK/IE, and I am publishing here for more general interest. As well as sharing, I am keen to learn. What is missing, what isn’t clear… (what’s wrong…) from the compilation below.

Phase 1: Immediate Disruption – managing teaching alternatives

Aim: to continue the curriculum as much as possible, with clear communication to staff and students as to what options are available, and where resources are. This is done by time release (week by week) of prepopulated online class links and other details on the course homepage of the VLE.

  • Clear decision making process with authority delegated to key stakeholders. One person responsible in this phase for all staff and student communications with a back-up nominated and cc-ed from the outset; staff communications crucial at this stage;
  • Lectures: We mapped our existing timetable online and delivered a combination of:
    • Live lecture via webinar system (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate) – good for staff who have a full slide deck and little board work
    • Lecture recordings (full or in parts) released to students with live lecture discussion via webinar (a form of flipped lecturing) – good where existing recordings are available and staff comfortable with live classrooms
    • Lecture given live and live streamed, with questions via email (assuming building is open) – good for staff who are uncomfortable giving webinar type lecture
  • Tutorials were managed in a similar manner, and staff typically:
    • Go through tutorial answers with discussion in online webchat
    • Release tutorial answers and have discussion in online webchat on any difficulties
    • Release tutorial answers and have discussion by email or discussion board
  • Labs: We were at the end of our lab cycle so finished just short of the finish line. Clearly future contingency will need to consider laboratory alternatives (see Phase 4).
  • Coursework: all activities moved to online submission. Some events, such as presentations, changed to students submitting PowerPoint decks with outline of presentation, or were cancelled.

Phase 2: Preparing for Alternative Examinations

Aim: to introduce an alternative to in-person closed book exams, that matches similar assessment of learning outcomes, allows students to handwrite, can be completed anywhere in the world, being as low tech as possible, and allows students to perform in an equitable manner

  • We have opted to issue our exams as open book assessments.
  • Students will be given paper in advance, password protected, which they can download from a special VLE site for each paper. This reduces internet connection concerns on the day.
  • Students will be asked to agree to a revised Code of Conduct.
  • Students use the password released at the start time of the assessment. Password release by email, on VLE, and possibly by text.
  • Students take photos of their work, and generate a PDF, which can be concatenated (using Adobe Scan mobile app, a solution I am currently exploring – thanks to Ross Galloway for this tip) and uploaded via mobile to VLE, on a question by question basis (use grayscale to reduce size of file). We are exploring a parallel e-mail bin for each exam. Option with advance notice of students sending papers back by registered post.
  • Process will be issued using existing published timetable, assuming no clashes within (exactly) 24 hours of start times.
  • Answer files then distributed to markers in a batch zip file for anonymous marking.
  • Note: at Edinburgh, all non-honours exams were cancelled centrally, so course (module) marks for these are generated by known existing marks – lab and other course marks in our case.

 Phase 3: Get students’ focus back on studying chemistry

Aim: to “normalise” the new arrangements, online teaching, preparation for open book exams, and make sure isolated students’ welfare is closely monitored

  • Return to regular communication with central focus on two streams – one on academic matters and one on student support. At Edinburgh we split this activity across two people (Director of Teaching and Senior Personal Tutor).
  • In academic terms, communications around getting on with study, study advice for different assessment formats, making sure students are pushed back to thinking about tutorials, revisions, thesis writing etc. The tone is regular, even mundane (by design!), just to aim to get students to focus in the current chaos. In addition, we will be releasing a mock exam system so that students can interact with it, get a feel for it and check it out in their situation, for reassurance (on both sides) more than anything else. All academic guidance about new arrangements located on a single webpage, with all VLE course (modules) linking to it. This means students have information centrally as well as in email.
  • In student support terms, we are worried about isolation. We pushed strongly in all email correspondence and Twitter unambiguous messages that we want to stay in contact, and prompting students to contact DoT/SPT/PT for anything; the language here was personal and casual. This is then followed by regular webchats – twice weekly online Q+As where students can ask anything. These have been very popular, and have moved from lots (and lots) of queries about exam paper format to students (and staff) sharing pictures of their dogs. We don’t care, the intention is to just keep a conversation going. We’ve also created a “kudoboard” which will act as an online Yearbook (see: – students can just post anything they want there.
  • These approaches have been very well received by students. The key message is: you cannot communicate enough, but that communication needs to be well planned, and unambiguous. We have a policy of getting every major email second read, at least, with relevant stakeholders.

Phase 4: Mop up and prepare for future?

Aim: once immediate task is completed, what can we learn? And how do we prepare for a more serious (mid-semester) interruption.

  • We have garnered a huge swell of goodwill from staff who have seen many benefits of lecture recordings, online interaction, and dialogue, and the importance of dialogue in general. We plan to consider how to continue this, even in low tech ways, when teaching returns to normal.
  • The move to open book assessments will open a big opportunity for chemistry to really rethink assessment for 21st century. Lots of opportunities to pursue here.
  • The chemistry community (worldwide) is very underprepared for major interruptions to laboratory teaching, and I think there is scope for significant collaboration in generating datasets and banks of materials for alternatives to lab classes in the event of future interruptions.