The New York Times today has a story about Web-based classes offering virtual labs, and whether they should count for AP credit:
As part of a broader audit of the thousands of high school courses that display its Advanced Placement trademark, the [College Board] has recruited panels of university professors and experts in Internet-based learning to scrutinize the quality of online laboratories used in Web-based A.P. science courses.
“Professors are saying that simulations can be really good, that they use them to supplement their own lab work, but that they’d be concerned about giving credit to students who have never had any experience in a hands-on lab,” said Trevor Packer, the board’s executive director for Advanced Placement. “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”
Internet-based educators are seeking to convince the board, and the public, that their virtual laboratories are educationally sound, pointing out that their students earn high scores on the A.P. exams. They also say online laboratories are often the only way advanced science can be taught in isolated rural schools or impoverished urban ones. Online schooling, which was all but nonexistent at the elementary and secondary level a decade ago, is today one of the fastest-growing educational sectors, with some half-million course enrollments nationwide.
I’m tempermentally with the skeptical college professors on this one, but I’m a little conflicted. As someone who grew up in a rural area, and attended a rural high school, I have a certain amount of sympathy for that particular argument.
(More below the fold.)
The examples in the article are all from chemistry or biology, which makes sense. The materials for those labs tend to be consumable (you can’t dissect the same fetal pig twice, after all), which makes them more expensive to run. Physics labs tend not to destroy the materials used for the lab (at least not on purpose), and there are lots of ways to do really effective and interesting physics labs using low-cost materials. See, for example, Robert Ehrlich’s two books on the subject, Turning the World Inside Out and Why Toast Lands Jelly Side Down.
There are some things that are best done on the computer, even in physics, though. There are little applets out there that let students play with diffraction from different types of sources, for example, something that would be hard to do in real life. And you can set up a single-photon interference “virtual experiment” a lot more easily than you can do the real thing.
In the end, though, I think that computer-based exercises are no real substitute for actual lab experience. Unless, that is, you can program the computer to have something really bizarre and inexplicable happen in one out of ten simulated experiments… Some of the chemical reactions should fizzle, some of the pigs being dissected should be missing vital organs, some of the physics data should just be screwy. That’s what science is really like, after all.
I should also note that there’s a clear alternative to teaching AP classes via “virtual labs”: don’t teach them. It’s not the end of the world, after all– these are supposedly advanced classes for extra credit, not an absolute requirement for college admissions. It’s perfectly possible to get into a good school and have a career in science without taking AP science classes in high school. I know, because I went to a rural district that didn’t offer AP classes in any science subjects. And I’ve got a Ph.D. and a tenure-track job.
The real problem here is not so much that it’s expensive and difficult to offer real lab experiences to students in poor schools, but rather that we have created a college admissions culture in which parents and students think that AP classes are a requirement for admissions, rather than a nice bonus.
(Well, OK, there’s an even deeper problem than that– if we were adequately funding education in the first place, this wouldn’t be an issue at all…)