Bringing the lab home: OLabs

Subhadip Senapati

The year 2020 has shown us the potential and importance of online learning. While we have managed to teach the theory part of science online,science is a practical subject and learning via experiments cannot be ignored. Every student must be able to perform basic science experiments to complement their textbook learning. Even before the pandemic, quite a large number of high school students did not have the chance to learn through experimental science due to a lack of physical laboratories, proper infrastructure, and well-trained educators, primarily in the rural areas.

Imagine the challenge in front of us. How can we get students to perform experiments, which would otherwise need laboratories and expensive instruments, from their homes?

Online laboratories are not new. They have been around for some time now, although popular only outside India. A few notable online labs are PhET, CK–12 Chemistry Simulations, Algodoo, Chemcollective, Labster, Beyond Labz. Unfortunately, this domain has not been explored in the Indian education system – neither academic labs nor industrial organizations have contributed much to this idea. That is why OLabs – the online lab developed by Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC, Maharashtra) becomes very important1.

Features
After receiving a research grant and support from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in 2011, OLabs started to roll out simulations in 20132. At present, simulations are offered in five subjects by OLabs – three science subjects (physics, chemistry, biology), along with mathematics and English. Science labs are aimed at students from classes 9-12, whereas mathematics and English lessons are only for classes 9 and 10. The contents of the labs/lessons are based on NCERT/CBSE and State Board syllabus, but can also be useful for ICSE students. The science content has been developed by Amrita Center for Research in Analytics, Technologies & Education (AmritaCREATE) at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, and English and mathematics content by CDAC1,3. Right now, OLabs has 173 simulations (physics-54, chemistry-46, biology-36, mathematics-25, English-12). All the available simulations are online-only, there is no option for offline simulation yet. These simulations are also available through the OLabs app developed for smartphones and tablets. A summary of science simulations under OLabs can be found in Table 1.

Table 1. Number of online labs offered by OLabs for science subjects across classes 9-12

Specifications
OLabs simulations are completely free to access, however, interested schools need to register first. All the online labs consist of eight different tabs – theory, procedure, animation, simulator, video, viva voce, resources and feedback. A brief description for each tab has been summarized in Table 2.

Table 2. Descriptions and purposes of the tabs available for each online lab under OLabs

TabsPurposes
TheoryTheory including objectives of the experiment and relevant background.
ProcedureDetailed protocol including materials required, step-by-step instructions (for both real labs and online labs), precautions/safety measures.
AnimationEntire experiment explained through animation.
VideoEntire experiment explained through recorded video covering the demonstration carried out in a physical lab.
SimulatorOnline labs where students can carry out online experiments through interactive simulations.
Viva voceSet of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) covering the concept and experimental methods for assessment.
ResourcesResources relevant to the content (publications, books, websites, etc.).
FeedbackStudents can provide feedback about their experience to the creators of OLabs to make the lab simulations better.

All the tabs come with the option of online discussion, where students can ask questions, interact and discuss the experiments. As a representative example,some of the features for online lab on ‘Properties of Acids and Bases’ have been depicted in Figure 14.

Figure 1. Representative images from the user-interface of ‘Properties of Acids and Bases’ simulator in OLabs. A) Materials are enlisted (with images) under ‘Procedure’ tab, B) Animation video explaining the theory and showing the experiment, C) Real video of live demonstration shot in a physical lab covering ‘acid-base’ concepts, D) The simulator where users can perform online experiments on ‘acid-base’ and identify 7 unknown samples using 3 different methods


• Students can understand the objectives of this simulation under the ‘Theory’ tab, including basic theory, definitions, concepts and relevant equations.
• Under ‘Procedure’, students can learn about the materials required (with pictorial depiction) for acid-base experiments, along with protocols for conducting experiments in the physical lab (formatted as experiment, observation, and inference) and using simulations. (Fig. 1-A)
• Under the ‘Animation’ and ‘Video’ tabs, students can watch the experiments and learn from the instructions, observations and explanations from both the animated video (made using computer graphics) and actual video (shot in a physical lab, recording real experiments), before attempting the simulation. All the videos can be separately accessed via the official YouTube channel of AmritaCREATE (https://www.youtube.com/user/amritacreate) (Fig. 1-B and 1-C).
• Once students are familiar with the materials, techniques and protocols, they can attempt the ‘Simulator’ to carry out the virtual experiment. There are seven unknown samples to analyze, using three separate methods (litmus solutions, zinc metal (Zn) and solid sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). Details can be found under the ‘Procedure’ tab. There is also a ‘Help’ button in the ‘Simulator’ tab to guide the students through the analysis process. (Fig. 1-D). Students can attempt the simulations as many times as they want.
• Once the students complete the simulation, they can answer an MCQ questionnaire under the ‘Viva Voce’ for assessment and evaluation. (Fig. 2)
• Finally, students can go through the references under ‘Resources’ to know more about the topic from scientific papers, book chapters or websites, and share their comments or inputs under the ‘Feedback’ tab.

Figure 2. Knowledge and understanding of the students can be assessed from the ‘Viva Voce’ tab, using a set of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) relevant to the theoretical and practical knowledge of each concept

Summary
OLabs simulations enable students to perform a wide range of online experiments mapped to high school syllabus (across physics, chemistry and biology), coupled with ‘real-lab’ and ‘animation’ videos, followed by an online assessment. OLabs provides school students in India a wonderful opportunity to carry out experimental school-level science, irrespective of geographical or financial obstacles. Even though OLabs simulations have been available since 2013, the initial response from students and teachers in India was lukewarm5. But the pandemic has shown once again how important these online labs can be. In 2020, the CBSE board has renewed its focus on OLabs and encouraged both students and teachers to embrace it to complement online learning. As of December 2021, a total of 4,45,213 users have registered for OLabs and 27,748 teachers from 8,080 schools have trained to use OLabs – a number we believe will only grow in the future.

References

  1. OLabs (http://www.olabs.edu.in/)
  2. A. Sridhar, Experimenting online, with acids & alkalis, 2013 (https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/experimenting-online-with-acids-alkalis/article4453942.ece)
  3. Online Labs (OLabs) for School Lab Experiments – Interactive Simulations (https://www.amrita.edu/research/project/online-labs)
  4. P. Nedungadi,P. Malini and R. Raman, Inquiry Based Learning Pedagogy for Chemistry Practical Experiments Using OLabs. Advances in Intelligent Informatics, 2015, 320, 633-642
  5. S. Mishra, Olabs to help CBSE students perform science experiments virtually, 2020 (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/olabs-to-help-cbse-students-perform-science-experiments-virtually/articleshow/77503130.cms)

The author is a Senior Researcher in chemistry at the Prayoga Institute of Education Research. He can be reached at [email protected].

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