The move to online instruction has been particularly challenging for engineering lab courses. The  equipment used can often be expensive and immobile, and labs and group projects have an intrinsic need for collaboration.

As an example, Harvard University has been following the plan for the 2020-21 academic year that requires all undergraduates to complete all their coursework remotely without access to labs, while graduate students currently only have limited lab access to minimize in-person interaction. The engineering department had to create a number of ways to attempt to compensate for the challenges of remote learning. These included conducting labs at home using equipment mailed to students and remote-controlled technology.

Virtual lab courses, using only the computer interface, are often simulations of how students would conduct experiments and gather data in the real world. Others allow online students remote access to computerized equipment – such as telescopes and microscopes.

Some programs have students fulfill laboratory course requirements through in-person lab work conducted in their own homes. A lab kit may be purchased, just as you would purchase textbooks, and then the components are used to conduct the lab work. Other online lab courses have created experiments that use readily available household products. Unfortunately, university level lab work often requires dedicated and expensive equipment.

When faced with the need to conduct an online lab – or any hands-on training workshop – consider the following:

  • identify which lab activities can be delivered online – often, a portion of the lab activities are delivered through orientation/pre-lectures and demonstrations of techniques;
  • provide students with raw data to analyze – demonstrate the data collection process and then provide your students with the collected data;
  • promote Interaction – schedule online lab sessions to promote direct student interaction; and,
  • take advantage of readily available online labs and simulations. For example, The MERLOT collection of Open Educational Resources includes thousands of free simulations on a broad range of topics.