Overcoming Limitations with Remote Labs in Higher Education

May 12, 2023

It isn’t easy to imagine a science class without lab experiments. The correlation between hands-on learning and scientific curiosity, understanding, and reasoning is nothing new. From high school to higher education, the learning experience of an in-person lab has been fundamental to science curriculums for well over a century

But as we hurtle through the Great Digital Migration and concepts such as “remote” and “virtual” go from being buzzwords to industry standards overnight, the role of labs in science education is also going through a transformation — well, at least the “hands-on” part. 

The pandemic changed education forever. But while some disciplines had an easier time adapting and managing student retention and engagement issues, the sudden shift to virtual was more challenging for others. In particular, for science educators in colleges and universities. Those in charge of life science curriculums who had traditionally relied on hands-on interactions needed to emulate the experience for students through virtual science labs.

The shift to remote labs in higher education 

The key to developing effective virtual labs is recognizing that labs aren’t lectures, and traditional online delivery forms aren’t going to do the trick. To a degree, this called for an updated understanding of how to bring the scientific method to a virtual space, which in turn required a new design of how we conduct remote labs.

There’s little doubt that virtual experiences can be realistic, immersive, and instructive. But those in charge of science education still need to find ways to implement remote science labs into their curriculums effectively. 

And since virtual learning does have limitations, learning to overcome them can help science educators and administrators reap the benefits of new technology to provide high-quality, remote, and interactive lab simulations.  

What Role Do Labs Play in a Life Science Curriculum? 

At every level of education, labs play an integral role in life science curriculums and are associated with several positive outcomes. You may have a difficult time imagining science classes without experiments or experiments without labs. The iconography of the science lab alone is woven into what we think of as science education. So let’s first look at how the science lab came to be a staple of science curriculums. 

A brief history of the American science lab

The first science labs adopted for teaching in the U.S. can be traced back to the mid-19th century, with early influences from European universities. Between 1850 and 1950, science labs went from uncommon to crucial for research and education, and the laboratory model became an integral part of science education in American high schools, colleges, and universities.

Initially, high school science labs wanted to prepare students for college. Educators saw hands-on learning as a way to help students develop practical skills, understand scientific concepts, and engage in the scientific process. To a large degree, early science education emphasized mainly practical goals and the benefits of science in everyday life.

After some time, tension grew between those who wanted to expand scientific inquiry with experimentation and those who only saw science as a tool of convenience. American philosopher and educator John Dewey attempted to ease this tension in a 1910 book in which he theorized that people could only learn and grow through interactions, emphasizing the value of the science lab. He called his theory “a complete act of thought,” later adapted into “the project method” in an article with over 60,000 reprints. But despite these efforts, the role of the science lab remained largely complementary until after World War II. 

With the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik and the ensuing space race, Americans gained a renewed interest in scientific discovery, laboratory experiences, and inquiry-based learning. Since then, the science lab has continued to evolve, incorporating advanced technology and new approaches to help learners better explore the natural world.

The value of labs in a life science curriculum 

Labs are a fundamental part of a life science curriculum, and if you’ve ever been part of a high-quality lab in a science class, you know their value intuitively. Lab experiments have various benefits, including:

  • Providing practical experience: Labs are an opportunity to put into practice the theoretical knowledge students learn in the classroom. The practical experience of seeing a reaction or scientific outcome helps learners retain information better and create synergy between theory and practice. 
  • Developing critical thinking skills: Frequent lab experiences also improve critical thinking. Learners practice and hone this ability by identifying objectives, designing experiments, analyzing results, and drawing conclusions. The more time someone has in an interactive lab environment, the more opportunities they have to make critical decisions. 
  • Enhancing problem-solving skills: With critical thinking also comes problem-solving. The lab environment can often be unpredictable, sometimes even volatile. Working in labs requires troubleshooting, adapting to unexpected outcomes, and identifying problem areas in the design of an experiment. 
  • Building teamwork and communication: Working in a group gives lab participants a chance to collaborate, share ideas, present findings, and learn from each other. Solving a problem together or achieving a desired outcome as a group also instills a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, further promoting collaborations. 
  • Fostering curiosity and inquiry: The lab is about identifying problems, exploring questions, generating hypotheses, and testing ideas — all functions that promote student curiosity and encourage further discovery. These critical qualities lead students to be intrinsically motivated to keep learning, which educators can struggle with in theory-based science lessons. 
  • Preparing students for real-world situations: A core purpose of a science lab is to prepare students for genuine scientific inquiry. Lab experiences are vital to preparing would-be scientists to work in future professional and research settings with much higher stakes. By getting a first-hand understanding of laboratory work, students can make an easier transition between school and work down the line.

How Has the Shift to Online Education Impacted Hands-on Lab Experiences?

The most significant impact of online education on hands-on lab experiences has to do with access. In an increasingly digital world, a remote alternative to an in-person lab may have been a convenience or preference in the past, but the pandemic showed us that it’s actually a necessity. 

During the worst of the lockdowns, there was a period when virtually no science lab in the country was being used for teaching. The consequences of this educational shortfall are difficult to measure, but it’s a situation we hope never to repeat.

Growing pains

Online education had gained plenty of momentum, but the pandemic sent it into overdrive. Suddenly, every class, lecture, and exam had to be delivered online. These changes came with growing pains. In particular, providing lab-based science lessons in a virtual space posed some initial challenges that science educators had to overcome:

  • Physical limitations: The static nature of the camera was a limitation in all classes, but it especially applied to science labs, where movement and activity require students to have a more versatile vantage point. For example, an instructor might want to spontaneously pick something up to show the class but find it awkward.
  • Lack of immersion: Unlike a two-dimensional lecture, a science lab is 3D. It’s immersive and interactive. Someone might be doing something important or cool behind you, and you’re encouraged to move around and touch things (within reason!). Without the ability to be physically present, the missing immersive element was another major limitation.
  • Technological issues: Although the infrastructure for online delivery already existed, it needed to be expanded in scope and was often used as an auxiliary. The sudden, rapid scaling of online learning led to technological hiccups, including software and hardware limitations, glitches, connectivity issues, and a frustrating demand for a quick learning curve. 
  • Challenges in fostering collaboration: Getting students to feel comfortable collaborating online — whether in groups or pairs — posed unique challenges that involved a new intersection of technological and psychological elements.
  • Altered learning experience: Typically, a shift to remote would have happened more gradually through a “hybrid” model, but the swift transformation also carried an element of shock. A fundamental component of the learning experience had been altered, requiring students, educators, and administrators to adapt quickly. 
  • Necessity for creative teaching strategies: The challenges of shifting to remote learning meant teachers, administrators, and curriculum designers had to develop new pedagogical approaches and creatively incorporate technology into the new model.  

Do Online Labs Have a Place in Higher Education Science Curriculums?  

Online labs and virtual science simulations have a place in the future of science curriculums. Not only that, they’re likely to be indispensable to them. 

The reality is that online learning is going nowhere. The World Economic Forum projects that by 2025, nearly three-quarters of all learners will at least be using a hybrid model. And since labs are still essential to developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, learning to overcome the limitations of remote experiences is the only way to maximize their potential. 

How To Overcome the Limitations of Remote Labs

The are three ways that educators and administrators in charge of a university education curriculum can overcome the main limitations of remote labs:


Virtual science labs compensate for the inability to be physically present through their ease of access. Learners in remote locations or with mobility limitations can now be involved in what traditionally was accessible to a much smaller group. Remote labs also dramatically expand the scope of access, giving students a much wider selection of labs, choices, and career paths. 


Often cited as a significant impediment to the success of virtual learning, technological limitations are some of the easiest to overcome. This is because technology is constantly — and exponentially — evolving, and much of its potential has barely been tapped. 

For example, initial problems with compatibility were quickly resolved as software companies addressed and ironed out the bugs in their programs. Soon after that, new features and functions became available as more people started focusing on developing remote learning solutions. 

New advancements in cloud-based research, camera capabilities, virtual reality, 3D modeling, and artificial intelligence have already begun to usher in a new era of what’s possible regarding remote lab simulations. And as these new advancements become mainstream, the learning curve will go down, and what was once a technological limitation could be what makes the remote lab experience immersive. 

New pedagogies

New pedagogies are what make access and technology possible. Those designing science curriculums or in charge of continuing health care education must adapt and develop new pedagogical approaches that address and circumvent the limitations of remote labs.

The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) has already proposed new ideas that will challenge the status quo in terms of what remote labs will look like in the future, and their ideas are bound to keep evolving. 

The one-size-fits-all solution is no longer practical, and companies such as Caduceus International Publishing understand that. To overcome the limitations of the traditional model, remote labs need to be flexible, customizable, affordable, and account for the needs of educators and learners. 

What Are the Challenges of Online Labs?

The large-scale shift to remote learning came with overarching challenges, but online science labs had a more specific set of problems to deal with it. To become an effective, viable alternative to in-person, online science labs needed to address the following challenges:

  • Technology access: Without adequate technological infrastructure, remote labs aren’t possible. This means learners need to have a stable internet connection and access to compatible hardware and software to participate in a virtual lab. In the future, this will also extend to VR technology.  
  • Low participation: There’s something about logging in from home that doesn’t quite match the “in-person” feel. This can lead to learners skipping their labs or participating minimally with little engagement or retention.
  • Letting a lab become a lecture: Some instructors need more experience, time, or support to design engaging virtual labs. As a result, they often end up reverting to the old models and letting an interactive lab session turn into a dull lecture with little participation.
  • Poor material: Directly affecting the above two points, a lack of dynamic and diverse material is a central challenge of online labs. Material is often outdated without access to high-quality free resources, causing frustrations that reverberate from curriculum designers and administrators to educators and students.

What Makes an Effective Online Lab? 

An engaging online science lab requires design, strategy, and a keen understanding of the needs of both learners and educators. Because science labs aren’t meant to be lectures, there is a higher burden of responsibility on those designing and leading remote labs to ensure their value is preserved. Several factors play into what makes an online science lab effective:

Clear objectives and outcomes 

Setting clear objectives is good advice for most online classes, but it’s especially true for virtual labs. Whether instruction or inquiry-based, clearly outlining what you will do and hope to gain is critical for setting the stage so students don’t falter and stay focused on achieving the larger outcomes. 

The highest-quality material

We can’t overstate the importance of high-quality materials. Science, medicine, and health care are at the leading edge of discoveries and updates to our understanding, making it imperative to have a pulse on the changes in the field. But staying current can sometimes be overwhelming for educators and administrators who may need more time, experience, or expertise to keep up with new research, technological advancements, or developing pedagogies. 

By partnering with Caduceus International Publishing, founded by and for educators, your course materials are third-party vetted by Quality Matters, ensuring you always provide the highest quality material.

Realistic simulations

The more realistic remote lab environments and simulations are, the more effective they will be in engaging students to get the most out of remote labs. For example, advanced 3D models can assist in anatomy and biology labs to teach spacial knowledge and encourage interactive learning. Additionally, labs can include modules that allow students to experiment with the University of Colorado’s PhET simulations, have a front-row seat to a live dissection, or tackle a recent case study in groups to create realistic lab experiences. 

Integration of visual and multimedia material

Including various engaging media is another key to designing effective online labs. A combination of videos, flashcards, high-quality medical and scientific images, audio explanations, and interactive tools such as those found in CIP’s Survey of Human Disease & Pathophysiology course will improve how students engage with and retain the material.  

Omnidirectional communication

In an in-person lab, an instructor might make an impromptu suggestion, or you may want to consult with another group briefly, which remote labs also need to allow. Feedback loops should always be open and allow for both formal and informal feedback opportunities. Omnidirectional communication is most effective, meaning each participant in a remote lab can directly contact and communicate with each other.

It also is essential to offer multiple communication channels, expanding on the traditional text and email mediums to include websites and internal comms apps such as Slack. 

How Can You Keep Students Engaged with Online Labs?

Overcoming Limitations with Remote Labs in Higher Education

Student engagement in higher education is a long-term battle, and keeping students engaged with online labs is the newest front. Since measuring student engagement in higher education is already tricky, deploying specific strategies becomes essential to ensuring learners have an impactful remote lab experience.

Re-imagining evaluations

Instead of obstacles to passing, evaluations become meaningful contributions to learning. By flipping this model, online labs can integrate evaluations in various forms, including self-assessments, quizzes, pre- and post-lab analysis, and proctored exams.

Those ahead of the curve have already started to do this. For instance, CIP’s online medical terminology course incorporates self and interactive assessments with flexible proctored exams to convert evaluations from something learners stress about to something they gain from. 

Receiving post-lab feedback from students 

In the omnidirectional model, students can provide real-time feedback to their instructors after completing a remote lab, giving teachers and administrators critical information that can lead to actionable decisions resulting in immediate improvements. 

Creating a collaborative virtual space

New interactive software allows remote users to participate in a class activity simultaneously. Opening private virtual rooms can let groups collaborate privately while instructors virtually step in and out of the discussion. These are just a few features to encourage virtual collaboration, and new ones are constantly being developed. 

Supplementing follow-up activities

Like any science lab, learning in an online lab doesn’t have to end with a live session. Online science labs can adopt the same philosophy by providing students with at-home activities, different problems to solve or ponder, and follow-up readings. Supplemental resources play an invaluable role in online labs by encouraging learning, enhancing motivation, and providing support.  

Remote Labs Are the Future of Higher Education

We are in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Every year, technological advances herald new changes to how we live, work, and relate to each other. And if you’re a health science educator, it might be starting to feel like you have to keep up or be left behind. 

Those working with health care professionals in continuing education might also be concerned. The pressure to stay up to date with best practices, new research, and trustworthy resources can be too much. And outdated digital infrastructures, old system bottle-necks, and a lack of reliable tech support are just a few reasons why those who manage life science curriculums are turning to industry leaders for help. 

At Caduceus International, we believe in empowering people, and our mission is to do it through high-quality education that’s affordable and meaningful for everyone. With the needs of educators in mind, we designed each of our health science courses to offer a top-of-the-line curriculum at a fraction of the cost of printed competitors. Our material is comprehensive yet unobtrusive, has a modern interface that’s easy to use, and has received the Quality Matters (QM) seal of approval.

The fundamental philosophy at CIP is threefold: 

  • Provide updated, award-winning material at lower prices
  • Maximize student comprehension and long-term retention
  • Increase communication efficiencies to improve health outcomes

Check out our resource library or contact us to see if CIP is right for you.

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