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Opinion: For first-years, online labs have been underwhelming

Online labs fail to teach skills effectively, lack peer-to-peer learning
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Online labs transfer few valuable skills and often have technical difficulties. AALIYAH MULLA/THE VARSITY
Online labs transfer few valuable skills and often have technical difficulties. AALIYAH MULLA/THE VARSITY

Before coming to university, the part that I, and many other students entering the sciences had perhaps looked forward to the most were the labs. We would have access to high-grade equipment and new technologies, and we would be carrying out experiments at a far higher level than we ever did in high school. It all seemed incredibly exciting!

And then the pandemic happened.

Suddenly, our practicals were all shifted online, carried out through videos rather than with test tubes and in pajamas rather than lab coats. This year, first-years in lab-intensive courses have had to adapt not only to the increased pressures of university life, but also to an entirely new delivery format for their labs — and with the online environment have come a number of issues.

Missed educational opportunities?

Mariah Johnson, a first-year life science student, pointed out that labs are a big draw for first-year students entering university. “[Labs are] a big part [of doing a science degree], so I was excited to have some sort of interactive component of school,” she said in an interview with The Varsity

Liana De Luna, another first-year student, also mentioned how much she was looking forward to doing labs with better equipment and more interesting topics than the ones she did in high school. “Chemistry and Biology labs in highschool were always so fascinating and so much fun for me, but the budget for equipment at my highschool was not very high,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity

“Therefore, when I went on tours and heard about the types of labs that first year students would be able to do… I was very excited to graduate high school.” 

But with the online format, students don’t always get that interactive component. Johnson remarked that it was “difficult watching someone else do [labs] instead of having the hands-on experience,” and students were worried about the impact this could have on their futures. 

There are a lot of lab techniques that we will need in the future. It’s one thing to do these labs in a computer simulation but another one entirely to do it physically. “There’s a lot more things that you need to be aware of that a computer [usually] takes care of,” Sebastian Vinasco-Lasso, a first-year student taking biology courses, said in an interview with The Varsity.

No in-person lab work means no in-person lab partners

Alongside the educational aspect, there is also a major social aspect to labs. The online labs, particularly the asynchronous ones, have felt incredibly isolating, and many students often end up having to find their own way through them. In person, you could always ask your lab group or teaching assistants (TA) for help, but online, we have had to teach ourselves these skills.

Some courses, such as BIO120 — Adaptation and Biodiversity and BIO130 — Molecular and Cell Biology, were able to combat these issues well. They conducted synchronous sessions as part of their labs, allowing students to connect with TAs and clear up issues or questions they had. These courses also had lab groups or partners instead of students working individually, which can help a lot.

Other courses, however, have not been so proactive. A lot of the issues and challenges centred around the labs in CHM135 — Chemistry: Physical Principles and CHM136 — Introductory Organic Chemistry. 

These labs were conducted asynchronously through pre-recorded videos that we had to interpret for results, and these have not been very friendly to us. While there were synchronous sessions, they were only there to prepare us for when we watched the videos, rather than to help us carry out the lab itself. 

Ayanna Sharma, a student currently taking CHM136, said in an interview with The Varsity that she has had to email the lab coordinators everytime because of some issues, either with the marking or the labs themselves.

A developing story

With these issues and others, the excitement students carried when entering first year seems to have dissipated. We felt as though the labs became “just another task,” and we were doing them simply for the sake of it. “I don’t feel like I’m enjoying it… as much as I could be,” Sharma said. “I do enjoy chemistry… but I just feel like with the labs, it’s just another thing to cross off the list.”

However, coming together as a community and understanding that everyone is going through this has helped students alleviate some of that disappointment.

Overall, this year has somehow been both overwhelming and underwhelming for first-year students. University life is a whole other world we have gotten to explore — albeit in a limited capacity online — and while we have not yet seen it all, we will get the opportunity to do so soon, so our excitement is simply on hold until then.