Chemistry, Contingency Planning, Laboratory, Pedagogy

What is an “online chemistry lab”?

Prelude

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!

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