Short Guide 8: Reimagining Practicals

split image with a blond man looking into a microscope on the left and someone at a computer on the right

Reimagining Practicals

Short Guide #8, August 2020

1. Lab based learning

There are a multitude of disciplines that use lab-based learning to develop core skills and understanding in students. The range of activities involved is diverse, including hands-on manipulation of equipment or materials, as well as computational and other activities. The continued uncertainty regarding social distancing guidelines gives rise to challenges in planning for the coming September. There is no set prescription on this, it is up to each school and department to make the decision on what works best in their context. Equally it is important that these decisions are communicated to staff and shared with accrediting bodies. This short guide provides an overview of different approaches being considered as well as sharing practices from colleagues.

2. Scenario planning

The benefits of live engagement in practice-based learning are countless. They can ensure the acquisition of particular technical skills, can enhance student learning and engagement, and provide moments for feedback on student understanding. In some cases, departments and schools are planning for more regular scheduling of labs with fewer students and increased cleaning protocols. In other cases, departments and schools are providing practicals for larger numbers of students, such that a greater reliance on online and other solutions is required. Adherence to Guidelines for Public Health Measures in HEIs is required in all instances of face-to-face teaching (see HSE, 2020, pgs 8-12).

Ideally time spent face-to-face should be minimised so consider what activities can be moved online. This could include preparatory videos that frame the lab session, or organising online post lab discussions and working out of calculations. The inclusion of a quiz pre-lab can also motivate students to engage with pre-recorded content. Certain equipment may make social distancing difficult such as microscopes, fume cupboards, centrifuges, spectrometers, balances etc. In some cases, the risks here could be mitigated by utilizing image databases or simulations (see Table 1 on curated resources) or take your own pictures/videos for your students.

Activities that readily can be moved online:

  • Pre-lab and/or post-lab assignment
  • Come up with questions to investigate
  • Interpret data / create models / reflect on results
  • Write a lab report
  • Create a class presentation
  • Give each other feedback on any of the above

Where face-to-face engagement is not possible, or indeed where topics are generic in nature and would benefit from becoming standard content, staff may choose to record the practical, point students towards existing available videos (see Table 1 on curated resources), or purchase off-the-shelf lab simulation systems e.g. Labster. Generic content may include videos on hazard training, aseptic techniques, administering CPR etc.

One benefit of pre-recording and posting videos on Canvas is that students can review the video repeatedly. Also, if recorded in Panopto, the video is auto captioned and can be easily searched by the students. There is a technology requirement to enable staff to record their own videos, as well as practice in editing videos and breaking them into smaller chunks.

The advice for staff is that each video is no longer than 5-7-minutes and relates to one idea or theme. This makes it easier to hold students’ attention and is kinder on the video recorder who will have less to do if a reshoot is needed. It’s important to frame the video with a question to encourage active engagement. The discussion forum feature on Canvas could be very useful to enable communication and sharing of ideas in relation to the particular lab session. Other approaches include engaging students with open source datasets via Canvas Groups to develop core research skills such as the interpretation and analysis of data.

Activities which are more difficult to move online (See Strubbe and McKagan, 2020, for suggestions)

  • Observe a phenomenon
  • Design an experiment including troubleshooting
  • Collect data i.e. make measurements
  • Analyze and visualize data
  • Develop technical and practical laboratory skills

A third option is to combine pre-recorded video and ‘live’ online sessions. This combined approach is recommended for teaching and learning in general during this time of remote teaching. MS Teams is the preferred and supported platform for live interactions with students, and it integrates seamlessly with Canvas.  You could use MS Teams to facilitate students going through worked examples related to the recorded practical activity or simulation.

MS Teams has an integrated digital whiteboard which can enable rough calculations while presenting live. Alternatively, you could use a document camera, a webcam or even your phone to point at a sheet of paper and work out the formula, map out the process or circuit etc.

3. Use of simulations in teaching

There are a myriad of simulation systems available for teaching and which one is used depends on the particular need and desired learning outcomes of the module. The following section considers the use of simulations in teaching.

The application of 3D technologies known as extended reality (XR) that encompasses augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) provide novel teaching methods and learning opportunities including, immersive, active learning where students can engage at their own pace, and in their own style, while still having access to peer-peer and tutor-led supports (Educause, 2018). This has the potential to dramatically enhance deep learning in our student cohorts.

While integrating XR, capturing the student voice is key to successfully developing these technologies for your module(s). In order for online simulations to truly enrich the student experience in your module or practical programmes they will require certain elements of re-design. In using technology it is often useful to start with the curriculum design and ask, where does the technology fit. The Learning Design workshops held by CIRTL are useful in helping unpack where these technological solutions, including XR, could fit into existing modules.

Once decided upon solutions can be sought, for example, where software designers provide online simulations that are embedded in textbook offerings that can be purchased as an integrated package. In other cases, the simulations are stand-alone, and work independent of any other source, textbook or otherwise.  It is important to note that with each level of complexity, ranging from 360 video to fully immersive VR,  the application and adaptation of the technology to each teaching context is required. In thinking about the use of XR this is an important consideration.

In each case, it is important to consider how the online activity, which will likely be performed remotely, is integrated in our own teaching. This may require additional background information, or in some cases new aspects to be taught, in order to give the students the capacity to fully engage in the online learning concepts and to integrate these new concepts into the mental models being created by the lecturer in the broader module context.

When reviewing simulation software, some key points to consider are:

Suitability of the interface or platform:

  1. What level of competency does it presume?
  2. What supporting resources are available, what is the theory/practice balance?
  3. Can the online platform be run through Canvas?
  4. What elements of feedback are contained in the technology and how accessible is it to students?
  5. Can formative and/or summative assessments be carried out and captured?

Sustaining the online dimension:

  1. Does your module content need revision to align with and underpin the self-directed online learning?
  2. Has your unit developed a usage chart to reduce duplication of use?
  3. Have you considered a workshop to introduce students to the software and provide some training on engaging with the interface?
  4. What supports are available to students if they have issues with the software, is support centralised?

4. Communication

A key feature of reimagining practicals is good communication. While module and programme design is often carried out independent of the student end-users, it is essential that we communicate our approach, expectations and ambitions to students when deploying new teaching methods and moreso where lab-based activities are being replaced by new formats which students are unfamiliar with. 

Communication in this sense could be considered to fall into two categories; (a) providing technical support to facilitate effective student engagement with a new approach and, (b) providing insights on the T&L rationale of the activity. The value of adopting this approach is not just student-centric, it can also promote reflection within the design process, offering an additional perspective by which to evaluate planned activities and their specific goals/learning outcome alignment.  One could even provide an opportunity for students to give feedback on the planned T&L activities prior to enactment to create engagement and flag potential technical/pedagogical issues early on.

5. Assessment

The move to remote teaching may support innovations in how you assess student understanding in lab based modules. First, look at the learning outcomes for your module or programme that relate to the practicals. How might students achieve these using an alternative assessment? A key consideration here should be on creating opportunities for the students to demonstrate relevant competencies rather than assessing knowledge.  While recall has an intrinsic value, assessments focused solely here offer limited developmental feedback opportunities. To complement the replacement laboratory teaching strategy, assessment of higher order cognitive skills as prescribed in Bloom’s taxonomy (Kennedy, 2006) can be applied. You could ask students to identify the cause of error in a failed experiment. Students might engage with open data sets to interpret data and draw conclusions.  You could ask students to develop a lab protocol based on an observed video.

A critical and perhaps unique element of lab-based classes is the high degree of peer interaction, which students often report as a key aspect of learning in such settings.  Lab based modules often involve significant group work so explore the use of groups on Canvas to support, encourage and moderate social and peer learning (see Short Guide #7: Group Work). It is important in this context to create positive online working spaces where individual student contributions can be documented, particularly where an assessment component is involved. This is outlined in UCC's Group Work policy which came into effect in 2019/2020.  If students are unable to interact with the materials, then instead perhaps they can interact more with each other.

Preparing for September

This section includes reflections from staff across the University on what worked well in the past and what they are planning in their future teaching:

UCC's ELEVATE project is examining the use of XR in Microbiology and Virology in Teaching and Learning. The project team includes Drs Jerry Reen, Niall O’Leary, Martina Scallan, Brian McSharry and John Morgan, School of Microbiology, and Owen Jump, Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning.

ELEVATE is a National Forum funded initiative that seeks to understand and develop ‘best practice’ for student engagement with active immersive learning in virology and molecular/cellular biology. Adopting an integrated approach encompassing virtual reality, virtual online simulations, and active learning with 3D models, ELEVATE has been working with students to assess how these innovative teaching approaches can best be embedded in the core curriculum. 

Enthusiasm for novel teaching modalities is clear, and student involvement in learning Is something that delivers a clear positive dynamic in the classroom, whether remote or on-site. However, significant design and development goals must be met before these systems can deliver on the student potential.

Integrating online simulations into existing modules and practical laboratory programmes requires compatibility and compromise between two independently designed teaching modalities. Lecturers need to see the online simulations through the student’s eyes and ask ‘how will my lectures prepare the students for this knowledge and the way in which it is presented?’ or vice versa. Selecting the appropriate online simulation provider is also an important choice, with significant differences between many of the market leaders. Introducing virtual reality brings its own challenges, but also great opportunities. Issues around the user interface, universal design in the student experience, access to headsets in the current climate, identifying and defining what the VR element brings to the learning experience, all need to be addressed early on in the design process. While there are online platforms available, engagement with leaders in the VR space is key here. 

Jerry Reen, Microbiology Department

Labster simulations in Food Science as part of a Masters in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education:

I piloted the use of Labster simulation software with 3rd year Food Science students during 2018/2019. The simulation was chosen based on its alignment with module learning outcomes and was tested in advance of its release to students. The HPLC simulation lasted 40 minutes and students ‘explored’ the instrument, set up an experiment, created a calibration curve and carried out a calculation, while also responding to a series of MCQ questions. The software captured student scores, completion rates, time taken, and number of attempts via a teacher dashboard.

Rather than being seen as entertainment, simulations have great potential to enhance student learning. It’s crucial that the simulation is appropriate to the module and also at the right level of difficulty. In my pilot study, students were disappointed that the MCQ scores did not count towards continuous assessment as they wanted their efforts ‘rewarded’. My research showed that students’ understanding improved following use of the software, but that careful planning was required to make best use of the software.

In preparing for September I have developed a conceptual framework that will inform my planning which is founded on three main considerations:

  • Pedagogy should be the primary consideration with a focus on what understanding students can demonstrate as a consequence of their engagement with the simulation.
  • The technology itself must align with existing curricula, include deep learning tasks, address ‘real world’ problems and specific learning outcomes.
  • Its implementation must be strategic, i.e., does it support self-directed learning, can it be used as an in-class activity or as a part of a flipped classroom? Does it build on prior learning and give students authentic choice?

My upcoming courses will include a comprehensive introduction to the simulation, outlining its purpose, operation etc., followed by self-directed learning for students for a defined period of time. I will also include structured group work via Teams or Canvas following the simulation experience where students will respond to a ‘real’ food science problem based on the simulation. This post simulation activity will give further opportunity for debriefing and feedback. As mentioned earlier, students should be rewarded for their efforts by ensuring the simulation counts towards their continuous assessment grade.

Therese Uniacke, School of Food and Nutritional Sciences

Further resources

Educause, (2018) Learning in three dimensions.

Enhanced Active Learning in Virology, cell culture and molecular biotechnology (ELEVATE). University College Cork & The National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

IUA (2020) The EDTL Approach for lab based modules. Available from

Kennedy, D. (2006) Writing and using learning outcomes: a practical guide. Cork : University College Cork.

Strubbe, L. and McKagan, S. (2020) I suddenly have to move my lab course online! What should I do? PhysPort.

UCC (2017) Policy on Designing, Delivering & Assessing Group Work.

HSE (2020) Implementation Guidelines for Public Health Measures in Higher
Education Institutions (HEIs).



This short guide was created by Owen Jump (CIRTL), Jerry Reen (Microbiology), Eric Moore (Chemistry), Niall O’Leary (Microbiology), Catherine O’Mahony (CIRTL), Humphrey Moynihan (Chemistry) and Therese Uniacke (Food and Nutritional Sciences).

Curated resources for creating low cost virtual labs

Resource Description Link
HHMI BioInteractive Virtual Labs Free fully interactive simulations in life science in which students perform experiments, collect data, and answer questions to assess their understanding.
Merlot Curated online learning and support materials and content creation tools (free or low cost; all disciplines).
PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations.
Learn Genetics Genetic science learning center.
Science Bank Online Dissection resources Mix of free and paid animal dissection simulations.
NMSU Virtual Labs Virtual Labs to help students learn basic laboratory techniques and practice methods used by lab technicians and researchers in a variety of careers, using specific food science lab processes.
Atlas of Human Histology Virtual Histology laboratory.
BioDigital BioDigital Human, is a searchable, customizable map of the human body. Registration is required and basic version includes over 100 anatomy and health condition models in 3D.
ChemCollective Virtual Lab is an online simulation of a chemistry lab. It is designed to help students link chemical computations with authentic laboratory chemistry. The lab allows students to select from hundreds of standard reagents (aqueous) and manipulate them in a manner resembling a real lab.
Nobel Prize Educational Games Educational games and animated interactives, based on Nobel Prize-awarded achievements.
FoldIt Protein Folding Activity Foldit is a computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research.
Build your own brain Online simple neural network simulator for intro behavioural neuroscience.
SWIMMY Free Software for Teaching Neurophysiology of Neuronal Circuits.
Google VR Expeditions Google sheet of available VR field trips arranged into themes.
NOVA Interactives Interactive modules and videos for many subjects.
General Higher Education Virtual and Remote Lab Resources List of available resources on virtual and remote labs.
Open Educational resources Simulations and virtual labs.
Online Resources for Science Laboratories A shared Google doc with around 200 links and resources for online Science labs.

Training and Support

Getting Started webpage

This webpage introduces both academic and professional staff to the first steps in preparing to teach (and support teaching) remotely in September. Guidance is provided on how to teach remotely, the importance of Canvas, what tools to use and when, and signposting you to the relevant training and resources available in this regard.

Teach Digi Summer Training

Learn from academic and instructional designer Dr. Sarah Thelen as she delivers weekly asynchronous recordings structured around Think, Plan, and Teach and supported by Live Q&As. A great entry point for those who have their curriculum and learning activities already prepared.

Canvas training

Do you want to learn how to use UCC's virtual learning environment more effectively? Look no further. Sophie Gahan of the CDE is delivering weekly Canvas training over the summer.

CIRTL Learning Design workshops

Are you thinking about how you will teach in September, January, and beyond? The Learning Design workshop guides you through some collaborative structured exercises to provide a robust framework for curriculum and learning design. Patrick Kiely of CIRTL will host these workshops throughout the summer.

AVMS Guide to online video and collaboration

Panopto is not just about lecture capture you know? MS Teams is not just for meetings. Get oriented to the full capability of the UCC's video tools. A great starting point before pressing the record button!

ITS Teaching and Working remotely (tools)

Microsoft Office 365, Google Suite for Education, and everything else. A great resource for those who want to review and learn about all of the tools we have available in UCC. 

UCC Skills Centre

Supporting students through the closure and now a comprehensive resource for September and beyond. See where you can direct your students to help them reach their potential.

Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL)

West Lodge, Main Campus,