Transformation of hands-on practical courses to virtual labs during the Corona Pandemic (and beyond)

Schliessen Icon
Kite Award 2022
NomineeLogo KITE Nominee

Lab courses and
practical work

The Corona Pandemic hit the biology practical courses with 400 students in the middle of the first experiments. These courses are designed to train students in common techniques and prepare them for the third year, which is focused on experimental work in research laboratories. Within days, D-BIOL was able to offer an alternative course where the focus was shifted from handling experiments to experimental design and critical evaluation of data. To do so, the lecturers of the practical courses teamed up with the D-BIOL Center for Active Learning (CAL) to design virtual modules for a variety of topics in different areas of biology, resulting in 28 online modules that enabled first and second year practical courses to be taken entirely remotely. This was only possible due to intensive team work and tight collaboration between the lecturers and the team of CAL. While lecturers defined the content of the course, CAL identified suitable video material, figures, publications, and data, wrote introductory texts and designed questions, and combined the material in a didactically meaningful manner.

The entire practical courses in spring 20 were carried out via Moodle. Before the practical day, students downloaded scripts, watched short videos and solved quizzes in preparation for the online modules. A typical practical day started with a Zoom session where lecturers introduced the topic and answered questions before students proceeded with the online modules. While working on the virtual modules, students were supported by a chat and a forum on Moodle that were moderated by PhD students who would normally supervise the practical work of the students. The virtual modules were composed of short introductory texts, videos explaining different steps of the practical or specific techniques, quizzes and short essay questions, and different data sets to be analysed for each topic. Wherever possible, students were asked to formulate a hypothesis, suggest a suitable experimental setup, discuss possible outcomes of the experiments or interpret a given data set. Feedback was given to the students either instantly after entering their answers on Moodle (e.g., by comparing with a model answer or a figure, by watching a video), on individual request via the Moodle forum, or in a Q/A Zoom session at the end of the practical day. Students were also encouraged to work on the modules in teams. The concluding Zoom sessions at the end of the day were hosted by the lecturers or the assistants to discuss the results, give feedback on student’s work, and clarify open questions. The combination of synchronous (e.g., Zoom sessions, Chat) and asynchronous (e.g., preparation quizzes, virtual modules, forum) elements allowed students to structure their day individually and enabled teachers to react to questions and difficulties arising on the Moodle platform in real time.

In spring 2021, while in -person teaching was permitted again, the distancing rules required splitting students into morning and afternoon shifts to form smaller groups. Here, the virtual online modules from the previous year were restructured to offer «remote onboarding» → «on campus course» → «remote debriefing» formats for each practical day. The “on campus” parts benefited from the online preparation modules as students prepared for the work and familiarised themselves by watching videos of the procedure and discussing in the forum. Although a virtual course cannot replace the on-site practical experience, the students acknowledged the added value of an accompanying online program. Going forward, virtual modules will remain an inherent part of the hands-on courses at D-BIOL beyond the current Covid-19 pandemic. We believe that this structured way of designing and implementing virtual labs can be transferred to other disciplines and will be valuable also in other teaching settings, such as training of lab technicians or school teachers, or in continuing education modules focusing on biotechnological or biomedical applications.

Course Description

Grundlagen der Biologie I
Introduction to experimental work in a biology laboratory
Day 1: Protein purification
Day 2: SDS-Gelelektrophoresis
Day 3: Activity test of the purified protein by PCR

Day 1: Working with microorganisms & Isolation of microorganisms from the environment
Day 2: Identification of Bacteria & antibiotics
Day 3: Microbial Physiology & interactions

Day 1: Microscopy and plant cell anatomy
Day 2: Plant organ anatomy & physiology
Day 3: Ecology – field trips/excursions

Day 1: Mouse anatomy
Day 2: Histology of mouse and human tissues
Day 3: Chromosome analysis
551-0102-01L, (since FS21: 551-0128-00L)
Laboratory course 
Ungraded semester performance

Course concept before the pandemic
The practical courses are attended by 400 students in their first and second year to train common lab techniques. The practical followed the classical setup of introductory lab courses: Typically, students worked in groups of 3-4 to perform experiments following the protocols under the supervision of assistants. The theoretical background information required for the experiments is delivered by a script and short introductory lectures. Apart from the script, no additional learning material was provided. To pass the course, students needed to receive a signature from the assistants for each practical. On most days, following the script and answering questions in the script was sufficient to pass the course, while on selected days, students had to wrap-up the practical day by giving a presentation or writing a report.

Course concept during the pandemic
The practical in spring 20 took place entirely online on Moodle. A Zoom session started each day before students proceeded with the online modules. While working online, students were supported by a Moodle chat and a forum moderated by assistants. The online modules consisted of short texts, videos explaining techniques, quizzes and essay questions, and data sets for analysis. Feedback was given either instantly after entering the answers in Moodle or on individual request via the forum. In concluding Zoom sessions, lecturers and assistants discussed results and open questions. To pass the course, students had to complete all online modules within a certain time frame, which was monitored via Moodle (feature “activity completion”). In spring 2021, the online modules were restructured to offer «remote onboarding» → «on campus course» → «remote debriefing» formats for each practical day, which allowed splitting students into morning and afternoon shifts and smaller groups to adhere to the safety regulations.

The remote parts included Zoom sessions, videos, and online modules on Moodle supported by a forum.

Course concept after the pandemic
Virtual modules will remain an inherent part of D-BIOL practical courses beyond the current pandemic. We will expand the «remote onboarding» → «on campus course» → «remote debriefing» format, starting from spring 22. While 2/3 of the practical day will be dedicated to hands-on activities, students will prepare and wrap-up the practical using online modules. Preparation will include watching videos on experimental setups, answering questions, and solving quizzes. The introductory lectures will be provided as short videos and a forum will be available for questions. For the practical work, students in the first year course will be assigned to morning and afternoon shifts, allowing to cope with the increasing student numbers we are facing in natural sciences programs. Online modules will complement the practical work, e.g., by showing experiments that cannot be performed within the scope of the hands-on course, to analyze follow-up experiments, or to apply knowledge in a new context. A virtual meeting will wrap-up each practical day. This combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities provides a high flexibility and will allow lecturers to address questions arising during the preparation phase in real time. This will create more opportunities for interactions between students, assistants and lecturers, and will motivate student engagement with the topics apart from the time they spend on the actual experiments.