Going online: What defines a lab?

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology recognizes that the global COVID-19 pandemic has caused substantial disruption in education and has necessitated large-scale temporary moves to remote or hybrid instruction.

A working group of the ASBMB degree-accreditation program have reflected on the key features of laboratory courses that allow them to provide experiential learning as an essential part of training students in the sciences and offer the following guidance.

At their heart, lab courses give students the opportunity to:

  • Take a direct role in experimental design and execution.
  • Directly observe the consequences of their design choices and techniques.
  • Analyze and evaluate authentic, empirical data.
  • Develop approaches for evaluating results and troubleshooting experiments.

Until a full, safe return to in-person teaching and learning is possible, there are elements of experiential learning that can be achieved remotely and emphasized in online laboratory courses. Incorporating as many of the following features as feasible will maximize the experiential nature of online laboratory courses.

Students should:

  • Learn through reflection on doing.
  • Explain and implement the principles of experimental design. These principles include the identification and use of positive and negative controls and biological and technical replicates.
  • Choose and describe the preparation of appropriate reagents, particularly buffers.
  • Predict potential experimental outcomes and relate them to appropriate conclusions.
  • Collect, record and organize procedures and data.
  • Analyze authentic scientific data, preferably those generated by students themselves or by proxy utilizing student-generated experimental designs and protocols.
  • Employ statistical tools to assess the reliability and reproducibility of experimental outcomes.
  • Prepare figures, graphs and tables to facilitate the analysis and discussion of experimental data.
  • Identify safety considerations for experimental approaches.
  • Explain the conceptual basis, strengths and limitations of scientific techniques.
  • Explain discrepancies between predicted and actual experimental outcomes; describe appropriate troubleshooting.
  • Clearly and accurately communicate scientific data and conclusions, in oral and written formats.
  • Collaborate effectively as a member of a team. Productive collaboration includes contributing to a positive atmosphere that respects diversity and promotes inclusivity.

Although the ideal remains a return to the richer, more authentic and more spontaneous learning environment of in-person laboratories, a thoughtful approach focused on relevant learning goals and corresponding student outcomes can both support student learning in online laboratory courses implemented under the current challenging circumstances and also inform future educational efforts upon the return to face-to-face instruction.