The rise of virtual labs
The development and use of ‘virtual labs’ are increasing as academic institutions and companies look to cut costs, improve student understanding, develop new training methods and reach a wider group of people with hands-on education. The recent rise of online learning through the pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in the use of virtual labs for teaching purposes over the last year. Ranging from simple 2D computer programmes with a handful of variables to fully immersive 3D experiences, virtual labs allow the practice of complex procedures without risk or additional cost. So, are virtual labs the future, and will they ever be a viable replacement for ‘real life’ laboratories?
The benefits of virtual labs are plentiful – reduced cost, the ability to run the same experiment multiple times changing only one variable, reduced need for space, no time limitations, improved health and safety training and the ability to present abstract ideas that are usually unable to be viewed. All these factors combine to highlight the importance of virtual labs for training purposes, and throughout the year where Covid-19 has been prevalent, virtual labs have allowed students and trainees the freedom to continue working despite the required social distancing and an encouragement to work from home.
However, are virtual labs a workable alternative to real-life laboratories? In simulations students do not have the opportunity to practice utilising real equipment, data is often cleaner than in reality allowing for less practice and understanding of why things go wrong. There is also less encouragement to collaborate and interact, and practical skills are not developed. Arguably most importantly, the virtual undertaking of an experiment in a laboratory will never be able to give 100% accurate-to-life results by default of it being a simulation with a limit of authenticity.
There is no doubt that virtual laboratories are a part of the future of training, and that their use will continue to increase over time. It is unlikely that their use will ever overtake the need for traditional laboratories, but the importance of their use as a supplement to traditional training, and use during the pandemic, cannot be overstated.
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Charlotte Taylor, Marketing Executive, Lab Innovations