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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Biology Laboratory Online: A Hands-on and 
Project-Based Course 

San Diego Miramar College, CA

The world of online educational content today closely emulates the text-based, lecture-based, or print-based curriculum of traditional classroom-based instruction. Many online courses have been developed with minor modifications to the legacy lecture format and delivered through a series of technological innovations and resources. A cursory overview illustrates that the greatest advances in online courses have occurred through technological delivery rather than advancing teaching and learning techniques. This noted, how has e-learning impacted the translation of critical content mastery through experimental, hands-on learning experiences associated with scientific lab experiments?

At the turn of the millennium, online degree options expanded within the California State System. During this time, San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) recognized the need to create an internet-based science course in order to meet full degree requirements for the newly developed SDCCD Online Program. In the fall of 2001, SDCCD and department faculty approved the concept, curriculum, and development of the first online biology course and lab. As part of this approval, they also included stipulations and the following requirements: 

  • The course content must be comparable to the course content of the regular lab course on campus.
  • The lab experiments must be hands-on and project-based, with as little virtual simulation as possible.
  • The online lab course must undergo a pilot test for one semester on campus. 

In 2002, SDCCD Miramar College faculty developed and pilot tested an online biology laboratory course for non-science major students. Although initially funded through a grant from The California Virtual Campus Southern California Regional Center, by 2003, the course received regional attention as an exemplary model. 

Content and Lab Development
As might be expected, development of the Online Principles of Biology laboratory course proved to be much more challenging and time consuming than the development of the Online Principles of Biology lecture course. In addition, department faculty in the SDCCD Miramar College Department of Sciences expressed concerns about the feasibility and rigor of an online biology lab course. 

WebCT, SDCCD's proprietary software provider, was used to organize and deliver course content and assessments to students. The online course was created with a series of learning resources to give students flexibility and increased access. Students are able to complete the preparation instructions either by reading the experiment version as part of the course CD, reviewing the printed lab manual, or accessing the online WebCT Course Content reference. 

The lab was designed to provide a project-based learning experience with four primary learning tools required for course experiments: 

1. A course website delivered via WebCT 
2. Two Principles of Biology Labs delivered via two CD-ROMs 
(Part 1 and Part 2) 
3. A printed lab manual 
4. A home lab kit. 

In the online world of lab experiences, students are expected to conduct thorough experiments from beginning to end. Early on, faculty recognized that the student who is not prepared for laboratory experiments might make serious mistakes or create potential hazards. Students in the online courses must prepare their own reagents and materials, while biology technicians make the necessary preparations for those in the classroom courses.

Thus students enrolling in the online lab course are expected to

  •  collect all project materials;
  •  prepare all solutions;
  •  organize a working protocol;
  •  exercise powers of observations;
  • make independent judgments and interpretations of data; and
  • clean up at the completion of each lab experiment

Another major difference is the opportunity to use a microscope. Online students experience the microscope through virtual simulations, while on-campus course students use the microscope manually.

Unlike their counterparts in the regular lab course, online lab students are responsible for far more preparation, readiness, and independent problem solving. To minimize the risks involved, faculty developed a series of checklist activities to help ensure safe and proper procedures. Students enrolled in the Online Biology Lab are required to read the lab experiment instructions twice before actually conducting experiments. In addition, students are required to complete a Readiness Assessment Test (RAT), developed as part of the online lab preparation credit process. 

For each weekly lab experiment, students determine what materials are needed for the experiment from the "Materials for Labs" in the WebCT Course Content section. Students who are unsure about a particular material may click on the photo next to the item (for example, Experiment 3, unflavored Knox gelatin). The student must have all the materials ready before performing the experiment, and as part of the RAT credit, students must provide the instructor with a digital or print photo of the materials needed for the experiment.

After the experiment is completed, students submit experiment reports and evaluations of the lab exercise. The RAT tests, midterms, final exams, and experiment reports are available online in the Assessment Tools section of the Online Biology Lab website. Students are advised to complete one experiment per week. Some experiments may take three to four days to complete. For example, it takes two to three days for bacteria to grow into colonies, and four to six days for fermentation to yield alcohol. Generally, each Monday the instructor posts information relevant to the experiment of that week on both the Discussion Board and Calendar sections of the website. It is the student's responsibility to check email and view the Discussion Board and Calendar at least twice per week. At the end of each experiment, there are discussion questions, photos, and results in the forms of tables and graphs that must be included in the students' reports and posted in the WebCT course website.

Multimedia Lecture Delivery via CD
The Tegrity Weblearner system was used to create multimedia demonstrations of each experiment. The technology used in the Online Biology CD-ROMs contains audio-video streaming presentations for the following hands-on experiments: 

  • Demonstration of techniques (e.g., how to make a test tube rack and measure and shake solutions; how to streak a bacteria plate and simulate exponential bacterial growth; how to make graphs with Excel; and how to integrate Tegrity Weblearner with WebCT)
  • Safety, metric system, and scientific method
  • Microscope and cytology
  • Biochemistry of macromolecules
  • Diffusion and osmosis
  • Action of pH on biological membranes 
  • Enzymes
  • Photosynthesis 
  • Cellular respiration
  • Mitosis and Meiosis
  • The inheritance characteristics of humans
  • DNA and DNA fingerprints
  • Population and evolution
  • Bacteria and protists
  • Plant diversity
  • Invertebrate diversity
  • Chicken dissection and virtual fetal pig dissection
  • Biosphere (alternative lab)
  • Circulation (alternative lab)
  • Resolution of matter (alternative lab) 

At the end of the course, students must either submit an electronic notebook or the original physical lab notebook reflecting their experiences with each experiment. The electronic notebook created for the course allows students to transcribe notes, input lab results in tables or graphs, and interpret and analyze each experiment as a digital file. Students then save their data in an electronic folder, and, at the end of the course, submit the folder to the instructor via email. 

Pilot Test of Online Biology Course
As part of the initial district and departmental requirements, the online lab course was pilot-tested during the spring of 2002. The pilot test provided formative evaluation of the course with ongoing feedback to the course developers, and included both student and faculty comments. 

Before teaching the biology lab course entirely online in the fall 2002 semester, the pilot test allowed faculty to observe students as they used the online course materials and procedures in an on-campus setting. Students in the online lab section met face to face in an on-campus lab; however, the course content was delivered via WebCT and CD. These students enrolled in the online lab course section were then compared with students in a traditional classroom-based lab course. Two instructors taught the online lab course while only one instructor taught the regular lab course. The students in the classroom-based lab course used a lab manual that has been developed over the years by departmental faculty. The students in the online course used the online biology manual. The RAT, midterm, and final exams given to both groups were the same. The outcomes of the pilot test experiments, comparing the types and order of activities conducted by students in each of the courses, are identified in Table 1. Online Biol 106 vs. On-campus Biol 106 Lab in terms of experiments

Online Course Experiments On-Campus Course Experiments
Microscope & Cytology
Action of pH
Cell Respiration
Mitosis & Meiosis
Human Genetics
DNA & DNA Fingerprint
Bacteria & Protists
Plant Diversity
Invertebrate Diversity (Aquarium trip)
Chicken Dissection
Lab Orientation 
Microscope & Cytology
Field Trip-Aquarium
Mitosis and Meiosis
Human Genetics
Bacteria & Protists
Invertebrate Diversity
Project report
Vertebrate Anatomy
Field Trip (Torrey Pines State Park)

Of the 42 students enrolled in the online Biology course, 35 completed the online course for a success rate of 83 percent. Of the 50 students enrolled in the traditional classroom course, 38 students completed the on-campus course for a success rate of 76 percent. Results on student performance tests in the two courses indicate very little difference, with average scores of 82.7 percent and 82 percent on the midterm test and 78 percent and 71 percent on the final exam for the online course and the regular course, respectively. Baseline scores on the Readiness Assessment Test did differ, however, with an average score of 16 for students in the online course and 10 for students in the regular courses.

Summary and Comparative Lab Results
In the fall of 2002, the same faculty member taught one section of the biology lab (BIOL 106) completely online for the first time. At this time, the same faculty member also taught one section of BIOL 106 section in the traditional classroom and campus-based setting. 

Twenty-six students registered for the online biology lab section. Of these, seven individuals who officially registered for the course did not attend the on-campus course orientation session and did not purchase a lab kit. The instructor identified them as no-show individuals who were dropped from the official roster prior to any actual course participation. These students were not considered in grade computations, and their reasons for dropping the course were collected as formative data:

  • They found the online lab to be too demanding. 
  • They did not have or were not willing to spend the estimated $150 for the course ($45 for lab kit and $100 for supplies).
  • They did not have six to eight hours per week to dedicate to the course.
  • They did not have physical space at their residence to conduct experiments. 
  • They moved out of the area between the time they registered and the time class began. 

Seventeen of the 19 students enrolled in the lab, or 89 percent, completed the course. The rates of course success are as follows, 35 percent of students earned an A; 41 percent earned a B; 12 percent earned a C; 6 percent earned a D; and 6 percent earned an F. These numbers were compared to the 32 students enrolled in the on-campus classroom course. Of these, one student dropped out within the first week of the semester and 25, or 78 percent, completed the course. The rates of course success are as follows, 15 percent of students earned an A; 32 percent earned a B; 40 percent earned a C; 0 percent earned a D; and 12 percent earned an F.

Qualitative Course and Lab Results
As part of the formative course and lab evaluation process, a student survey was developed to gather qualitative comments. Students enrolled in the online biology lab courses for fall 2002 and spring 2003 were asked for feedback, and their comments are noted below.

"This course, so far, has been very interesting. This is actually my very first online course, and it will not be the last. I have learned that you can take advantage of what technology has to offer and attend school even when you have a very hectic schedule. As a working mom, it is very difficult for me to attend school in a normal classroom setting. This course has allowed me to attend school and work on my degree without actually having to leave home and incur extra childcare expenses. I would also like to comment that this online course has made me a better student. It takes a lot of will power for me to not want to procrastinate. Because you basically work at your own pace in this course, you tend to push yourself to prove that even if no one is making sure you attend class, you are still responsible for the work you perform and the quality of it. I have noticed I've been pushing myself to do the best job I can do and take full advantage of the opportunity I have been given by being able to take a class within the comfort of my own home."

"I am really happy that I took this course online. I have never thought that I can be able to conduct experiments on my own. After taking this course, I have learned personally more about the biological topics discussed in the lecture. The lab work helps more in understanding the concepts. The weekly group discussions were fun and interesting to read. It is also a good way to communicate with classmates. Overall, I think this has been a successful class for me. I would definitely encourage other students I know who will take the course to try to take it online."

"The instructions are methodical and easy to follow, and the lab manual includes photos depicting every aspect of the experiment, including the necessary materials. The same instructions are available both online through a PowerPoint presentation and in an accompanying CD for the course. The learning resources are abundant, and each is as detailed and easy to understand as the others, and with the added help from our teaching assistant, I really don't see how any student can fail in this course. The fact that I can perform the experiments at home and schedule them conveniently within my own demanding schedule without having to attend class on campus is invaluable to me. The concepts I am learning in biology are demonstrated throughout the lab experiments, helping me to understand the concepts in a very practical way."

"I was very hesitant taking an online biology lab as I prepared this semester's schedule earlier in the year. First, as a liberal arts student I am not a scientific thinker. Second, I was somewhat intimidated at the thought of transforming my washroom into a laboratory on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, I registered and attended the orientation on campus after purchasing my lab supplies. I was at once struck by the fact that Professor Gin Gee's class and lab course are the most thorough of the seven classes I am taking this semester. Many of my fears diminished as the weeks passed about taking a biology lab online. Traditional on-campus classes would be very challenging for a student such as myself. With responsibilities outside of school, an online schedule enables me to juggle my weeks more efficiently with the scheduling flexibility it affords."

"I would strongly recommend taking this lab to any student interested in biology. That being said, you must be prepared to spend upwards of four to five hours per experiment and be highly motivated and self-directed to take this laboratory. It's by no means easier than taking a class on campus! I find myself thrilled several weeks into the semester at how much I am learning about biological concepts. The lab is an outstanding compliment to Biology 105, providing hands-on experience directly related to the course content. The lab kit provides clear instructions and supplies, making preparations for experiments easy. Amusingly enough, my greatest challenge thus far has been purchasing the correct items from the grocery store for my experiments. Finally, the addition of Shane, our teaching assistant, has been great. His feedback and updates to the class discussions are very helpful. With all of the resources and tools in place to be successful, I'm realizing much of my initial hesitation about taking online biology lab was premature. Accordingly, the most important tips I'd give to future instructors and students are to plan ahead by attending the in-person orientation and gather your supplies well in advance of the time you set aside to conduct your experiments."

"As a returning college student, I have found the Biology 106 Lab online course to be extremely helpful. For me, there are many advantages for taking this course online. I work full time and have two children. I am able to schedule my lab around my schedule. But most importantly, I can take my time working the lab. I am not in a time crunch because my class is almost over. Again, I can take my time with the experiments. For example, I can go back and redo any portion of the lab I am not certain about. I can go back and redo any portion of the lab I really enjoyed. If I want or need to double-check something, I have the time to do it. Over the years I had always had a mental block toward biology, so much so that I waited to take it as my last required course. Yet, with this course, the biological concepts seem to come alive. They really make sense to me. I also find that the instructor, teaching assistant, and students are very enthusiastic about the course and very willing to help. At the beginning of the semester, I couldn't imagine how one could take a biology lab course online. I understand it very well now and highly recommend it to anyone that is interested. I especially recommend it to students who are returning students and need more time to complete their assignments."

Faculty Preparation for Teaching Online Biology Lab
Teaching an online biology lab course presents a challenge for faculty. Experience as an online student or teaching assistant prior to teaching any course fully online helps a faculty member anticipate the workload involved. In order to gain such experience, a science student from Harvard volunteered as a virtual teaching assistant for the online BIOL 106 lab course during the spring 2003 semester. As an online evaluator, the teaching assistant has provided the course developer with suggestions for improving the course as well as assisting in the course instruction. 

San Diego Miramar College and the San Diego Community College District have supported the development of this innovative online biology lab course in several ways. The District awarded a faculty member a Technology Innovation Grant (TIG) for the development of the course. When supplies were needed in order to pilot test the home-based lab experiments, SDCCD Online covered material expenses. In addition, SDCCD Online and the District funded travel expenses for the faculty course developer to present the course at the national WebCT conference in July 2002. As progressive measures for content development and access, SDCCD Online staff provided ongoing consultation and technical assistance in the implementation of Section 508 accessibility standards and requirements for the online course content and online lab activities.

Summary and Lessons Learned
In order to simulate the home laboratory conditions of his online students, the primary course developer Gin Gee initially developed many of the course experiments in the kitchen of his residence. However, use of the kitchen as a home laboratory created several problems, such as mixing up laboratory appliances with eating utensils and contaminating cooking materials with laboratory materials. In addition to these, pouring chemicals such as iodine, alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide into the kitchen sink undiluted is harmful to the environment. Gee moved his home lab from the kitchen to the bathroom for greater success. As a point of reference, the bathroom turns out to be a much more ideal home laboratory. All materials for experiments can be isolated from cooking materials; the bathroom has a ventilation fan, which is very helpful when working with such chemicals as ammonia, iodine, and acetone. Low concentration solutions of iodine and alcohol can be flushed in the toilet without causing hazardous contamination as in the case of the kitchen sink. In addition to the home bathroom, faculty also found the garage with a functional sink to be a workable home laboratory, especially in milder climates and more temperate states.

From the formative data and survey feedback, the online course and lab will be modified to address or include the following suggestions:

  • Promote the cost of the course and lab more clearly to students prior to their enrollment; in addition, note the requirement of the student to have access to a digital camera or regular camera with a scanner. 
  • Screen students prior to enrollment or course access in terms of their ability to meet the supplies, cost, and space requirements.
  • Since many of the online students are working students, take measurements in eight- to nine-hour intervals for experiments such as growth rate of cat grass or anaerobic fermentation of alcohol.
  • Prepare a database of all needed materials for the entire semester. If possible, try to estimate general costs of these materials. This enables students to save time and travel by purchasing some materials in bulk. 
  • Provide alternate chemicals and materials or generic equivalents that can be substituted. 
  • Experiments that take several days to conduct should be designed to enable student monitoring only once a day, as it is not feasible for some students to monitor experiments every 12 hours. 
  • Label lab kit items in both technical and nontechnical terms. Include iodine in the kit or let the student know from the beginning to purchase a bottle. Always include all names that the product could be listed or known as. 

Based on the experience of instructors teaching the online biology lab, the performance of the students, and their evaluations, it is evident that this online lab course is successful and academically feasible. The simplicity of materials employed in the experiments makes this hands-on and project-based course innovative and accessible. The rigor of course content, the learning theory behind the experiments, the diversity of learning resources, and the mechanism for community discussion, communication, and interaction between students and instructor demonstrate the standards and integrity of this course as compared with the regular lab course on campus. This course brings the challenge and joy of scientific discovery to the home environment for distance education students and a beginning for online learning developments.

For more information, contact:
Gin Gee
Miramar College
San Diego Community College District

We wish to thank Sandra Slivka for serving as beta testing instructor in the curriculum development of the course. Appreciation goes to Owen Li Gee for his assistance with the Tegrity Weblearner recording, Annabelle Hibbard for her contributions in editing the lab manual, Cong Tran for typing lab exercises into Dreamweaver format, Mark Alcaraz for his help in developing the experiment report in Excel format, and Robert Love for reviewing some of the online experiments. 

The Principles of Biology Lab Online, consists of Gin K. Gee/M.Spradley: Online Biology Lab Manual CD, Gin K Gee: Principles of Biology Lab Online CD, Part 1, and Gin K. Gee: Principles of Biology Online CD, Part 2 , (a 3-CD set), published by Thomson Learning Custom Publishing, ISBN 0-759-31275-2. Available fall 2003


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