Adoption of digital learning resources in teaching labs: A varied state of play


First year teaching labs have variable digital learning provisions among UK universities, according to a Learning Science survey of delegates at ViCE-PHEC 2017 in York, a leading conference in chemistry and physics higher education teaching.

Delegates were asked three questions about the use of digital resources at their departments, as well as current plans and future goals for first year teaching labs specifically.

We obtained responses (N = 33) from teaching fellows, lecturers, eLearning specialists, laboratory managers, course co-ordinators and directors of teaching.

Current use of digital learning resources in undergraduate practical classes

There was a broad spread of use of digital learning resources in practical classes among our respondents. The majority (73%) answered either “moderately” or “extensively”, and it is clear that the trend towards digital provision of practical lab support is already well underway.

ViCE-PHEC survey results Q1 chart.PNG

That said, there are still a significant number of respondents (27%) whose departments are using digital learning resources only minimally or not at all to support undergraduate practicals.

Modern students expect technology to be an integral part of their learning, preparing them for the digital workplace. Yet only half believe their course prepares them for this.

It has been argued that technology at universities is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Departments providing little-to-no digital learning might do well to consider some of the many ways to introduce technology into their practice.


Plans to increase use of digital learning resources

When it comes to increasing the use of digital learning resources, small steps are the most common method among our respondents. 64% said their department were making incremental changes, compared to the 6% who stated department-wide initiatives were incoming.

ViCE-PHEC survey results Q2 chart.PNG

Are the increases via incremental changes due to a particular decision to keep changes localised? Or are there factors (such as time or fear) that are inhibiting the department-wide initiatives which have the potential for a larger and more consistent impact.

Working with an e-learning partner can reduce the anxiety and save time in the long run by reducing staff workload in marking and the generation of resources.

As for the 15% who stated that there were no current plans for improvement - why? Is this because students and staff are satisfied with the level of technology in place; because they are not aware of the e-learning options available; or for another reason?


Areas to enhance: Independent thinking, confidence and engagement

When asked “Which of these areas would you most like to enhance in first year lab classes”, the top three answers were: independent thinking, confidence and engagement (respondents could pick more than one answer).

Independent thinking: 45% of our respondents said they wanted to enhance independent thinking within their labs. The aim is typically to move students away from a cookbook approach to lab sessions and develop the skills required in a research environment or in the workplace and to link theory with practice. Reducing the cognitive load creates space and opportunity for this and the use of prelab activities can help by providing familiarity and building confidence before entering the laboratory. 


Confidence: 39% said they wished to boost confidence in their first year labs. First year students come from a wide range of backgrounds - for many this could be the first time they have stepped into a dedicated lab environment like this.

It’s not surprising some preparation and familiarity can be a great boon to confidence. The use of pre-lab interactives, videos, tutorials and/or quizzes can all help students arrive in the lab better prepared and more confident.


Engagement: 21% of delegates said they wanted to boost engagement within first year labs. A solution could include reducing the “cookbook” style of lab sessions to focus more on discovery. This could be especially valuable towards the end of a semester when students have built up confidence in the lab and with the techniques. Dynamic introductions at the start of a lab session can also build interest and motivate students for the session ahead.

Engagement is also connected to confidence; students are less likely to be engaged if they are not sure what they are doing. Strategies for addressing one of these issues may well synergize with the other.


The state of play

UK universities are in a period of transition with regards to digital support of practical teaching. Every university department we have contact with uses a VLE (virtual learning environment) such as Moodle, Canvas or Blackboard. Yet the state of play is much more varied when it comes to lab sessions.

The rate of technological and policy change is currently very high, so UK universities need to adapt quickly to meet student expectations. JISC’s digital student tracker report from June 2017 showed, students in higher education desire quality and consistency in staff’s use of digital resources, rather than quantity alone. Carefully planned introduction of technology is paramount.

Learning Science work with academic staff as a leading technological partner, helping drive the continuous enhancement of scientific learning through innovative use of education technology.

Contact us for a free consultation to discuss innovative pre-lab and post-lab solutions that support and enhance your practical labs.