Do science students need to conduct actual, physical experiments in chemistry, physics, natural resources, environment? Or can all science education lab work be done online? This is the question with which eduators and those who accredit science education are trying to grapple.
The arguments for online education (not necessarily an exhaustive list): lack of resources (we have no teachers; we have no labs; we’re poor and rural; we want to home school…), better grades (students are performing better on advanced placement exams to get into university), protection of the student (some experiments are dangerous or are in distant locations) and promotion of student individuality (students can take courses at their own pace, can take more advanced courses than currently offered in their schools or can take remedial courses). One such example of online science education is the Virtual High School, a nonprofit educational institution based in the US that reports to serve 7,600 students from numerous countries and US states.
The arguments against (which are not well-covered in the article): the inability of virtual space to simulate the physical world (e.g., smells, manipulation of substances and instruments), the uneven quality and lack of accreditation of online courses, as well as the dubious connection between doing well on exams and being able to conduct science.
Add to those, the argument by the online content producers themselves that online science in and of itself is insufficient:
Earl W. Fleck, the biology professor who created the virtual pig dissection, believes otherwise. Dr. Fleck began working on the virtual dissection in 1997 to help his students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., review for tests and to offer a substitute for those who, for ethical reasons, objected to working with once-living specimens.
Dr. Fleck, who is now provost at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, said students worldwide found the virtual dissection useful. But he called it â€œmarkedly inferiorâ€ to performing a real dissection.
Note how this is an example of mission creep in virtual education. What was created for one purpose, an assistance to real world practice, has become an end in itself. This is a real problem in any distance education. The temptation is to think that all you need is a computer and an Internet connection and you can learn everything you need to know. It’s the computer / Internet revolutionary lure. It’s an efficiency argument (why have our own lab when an online course can do it better and utilize the best instructors in the world?). So there is ample justification that a school need not seek investment in its own science education. More important, like textbook sales, online education is an incredibly lucrative market. There is every incentive to package and sell these virtual labs.
So can we conduct environmental science this way? Certainly there are strong arguments for online labs. For example, it’s difficult to do a real world science lab on global warming. Much of global warming research is computer-based anyway, so it’s relatively easy to move the desktop models online so that students can conduct their own ‘bite-sized’ climate change models. One can create similar online labs in water modeling and management, food systems, epidemiology and public health, even in sustainable forestry and habitat conservation. Technically, it’s relatively easy. But what does the student lose by not travelling to the river, taking the water sample, and examining it under a physical microscope?
Believe or not, I’m quite ambivalent. I do research in the use of geographic information systems by poor communities. A lot of the modelling and mapping could be done online and be used to educate people about the impacts of deforestation, air/water pollution, climate change, etc. Poor people in far flung places can be greatly assisted by online courses featuring the best environmental instructors and advocates in the world. But does that mean we need invest in no local teachers nor worry about real world practice in difficult places (say, science education for girls in Afghanistan)? Of course not, but balancing the on the ground environmental education against efficiency / technological razzle dazzle is difficult.