Innovations in STEM education: the Go-Lab federation of online labs
© de Jong et al.; licensee Springer 2014
Received: 05 May 2014
Accepted: 17 July 2014
Published: 16 October 2014
The Go-Lab federation of online labs opens up virtual laboratories (simulation), remote laboratories (real equipment accessible at distance) and data sets from physical laboratory experiments (together called “online labs”) for large-scale use in education. In this way, Go-Lab enables inquiry-based learning that promotes acquisition of deep conceptual domain knowledge and inquiry skills, with the further intent of interesting students in careers in science. For students, Go-Lab offers the opportunity to perform scientific experiments with online labs in pedagogically structured learning spaces. Go-Lab’s inquiry learning spaces (ILSs) structure the students’ inquiry process through an inquiry cycle and provide students with guidance in which dedicated (and connected) scaffolds for inquiry processes play a pivotal role. Teachers can create and adapt inquiry learning phases and the associated guidance in an ILS through a simple wiki-like interface and can add scaffolds and tools to an ILS using a straightforward drag and drop feature. Teachers can also adapt scaffolds and tools (e.g., change the language or the concepts available in a concept mapper) through an “app composer”. In creating ILSs, teachers are supported by scenarios and associated defaults ILSs that can be used as a starting point for development. In addition, teachers are offered a community framework to disseminate best practices and find mutual support. For lab-owners, Go-Lab provides open interfacing solutions for easily plugging in their online labs and sharing them in the Go-Lab federation of online labs. In its first year, Go-Lab created ILSs for thirteen online labs from different lab providers, including renowned research organizations (e.g., CERN, ESA) that participate in the consortium. The design of these inquiry learning spaces has been evaluated through mock-ups and prototypes with students and teachers. More advanced and later versions will be evaluated and validated in large scale pilots. The sustainability of Go-Lab will come from the opportunity for the larger science education community to add new online labs and share ILSs. An open and Web-based community will capitalize on the “collective intelligence” of students, teachers, and scientists.
In order to guarantee prosperity, the world needs young people who are skillful in, and enthusiastic for, sciencea and regard science as their future career field. To ensure this, large-scale initiatives are needed that engage students in interesting and motivating science experiences. In this context, initiatives at the policy level worldwide recommend taking an inquiry approach to education, involving teachers as the main stakeholders, and ensuring the commitment of other stakeholders (e.g., science laboratories) (National Research Council, ; Rocard et al., ). In line with these recommendations, the Go-Lab project has as its goals encouraging young students to engage in science topics, to acquire scientific inquiry skills, and to experience the culture of doing science under motivating circumstances by undertaking active, guided, experimentation, carried out with more basic and top-level scientific facilities. Making science labs available online for this purpose is seen as one of the largest revolutions yet to come in our educational system (de Jong et al. ; Waldrop, ); involving teachers in this process to identify factors that influence practical use is seen as crucial to ensure a smooth embedding in the curriculum and daily lesson practice (see e.g., Plass et al., ). More concretely, Go-Lab will offer students and teachers a federation of virtual and remote laboratories and data-sets/analysis tools, together referred to as “online labs”; it offers teachers an authoring facility to embed these online labs in pedagogically structured learning spaces, and provides students with instructional guidance and opportunities for social interaction alongside the online laboratories. This article describes the Go-Lab philosophy together with its initial results.
1.1 Online laboratories
Online labs are science labs offered through computer technology. The core activity in an online lab is an investigation (experimentation or exploration) with (physical or virtual) equipment or the possibility of working directly with the results of such an investigation (in the form of data sets). In an online lab, investigation material, physical or virtual, is manipulated, and the effects of this manipulation are observed in order to gain insight into the relationship between variables in the conceptual model underlying the online lab (de Jong, et al., ). We distinguish three types of online labs. In a virtual laboratory the investigation is performed by the student with simulated (virtual) equipment. In a remote laboratory the investigation is performed with physical equipment that is operated at a distance. In a dataset the manipulation has been done by a third party, often a professional organization, and outcomes of these investigations can be inspected by the students. Datasets often come with dedicated analysis and visualization tools that help to organize and interpret the data.
1.2 The Go-Lab pedagogical approach: the Inquiry learning Space
The central pedagogical approach adopted in Go-Lab is inquiry learning. In inquiry learning students follow a process in which investigations are pivotal. This means that information is not offered directly to students but needs to be extracted from an interaction with a phenomenon in the real world or with a model of the phenomenon. This investigation process is guided by a research question or hypothesis, requires interpretation of results and the formulation of conclusions, and the outcomes need to be communicated to others (National Science Foundation, ). We have chosen the (guided) inquiry approach because it has proven to be more effective than other lab approaches using cookbook procedures or discovery approaches (de Jong, et al., ).
All three types of lab described above provide students with the opportunity to carry out an inquiry process. However, just providing a lab does not suffice for an effective learning process. Research shows that in order for inquiry to be successful it needs to be combined with guidance; when guidance is available, an inquiry learning process leads to better conceptual knowledge than traditional instruction. This has been shown in large-scale studies over different subjects (see e.g., Eysink et al., ; Linn et al. ; Plass, et al., ) and is also the outcome of recent overview studies and meta-analyses (see e.g., Alfieri et al. ; Furtak et al. ). In a recent meta-analysis that focused specifically on inquiry learning with simulations, d’Angelo et al. () concluded that students who learned with a simulation had better achievements than students who followed an alternative form of instruction and that adding guidance to a simulation, especially scaffolding, and using multiple representations further increased students’ performance. If guidance is added, learning with online labs is often also more effective for acquiring conceptual knowledge than learning in real laboratories (de Jong, et al., ).
Guidance is the support that helps the learner in the process of inquiry in the online lab. In Go-Lab, guidance comes in two forms. First, the overall learning process is organized following an “inquiry cycle” that provides the learner with a set of phases. Second, specific forms of guidance are offered for each of the phases.
A basic Go-Lab inquiry cycle that includes all of the main elements but is still parsimonious enough to be able to work with was extracted on the basis of an extensive overview of inquiry cycles used in the literature. This cycle consists of the following phases: Orientation focuses on encouraging students’ interest in the subject. In the orientation phase the main variables of the domain are introduced; the main outcome of this phase is an initial overview of the domain and the topics involved. Conceptualization is the phase in which students need to focus on one or more specific issues in the domain, in the form of one or more research questions or hypotheses. In general, a hypothesis is a statement in which a certain relation between independent and dependent variables is proposed, while a question does not state the direction of this relation. In the investigation phase, students create plans for experiments and perform the experiment, which may involve exploring the behavior of the online lab when guided by a question or performing purposeful experiments when they have created a hypothesis. The outcome of this phase is an “interpretation” of the data (the relations between variables). In the conclusion phase, students return to their original research questions or hypotheses and consider whether these are answered or supported by outcomes of the investigation. Discussion is sharing one’s inquiry process and results with others and involves presenting and communicating findings and conclusions and reflecting upon one’s own inquiry process.
One of the phases of an ILS is shown in Figure 6. In this example, the student is in the investigation (here labelled “experimentation” by the author of the ILS) phase of an ILS based on a virtual electricity lab. In the example the student can design an experiment with the experiment design tool.
The different scaffolds function in an independent yet integrated way. This means, for example, that when a student in the conclusion tool wants to have access to hypotheses created with the hypothesis scratchpad or data sets for experiments, these are available within the conclusion tool. Another step of integration will be to create automatic alerts, for example, to tell a student that a concept that is in the concept map is not included in one of the student’s hypotheses.
A development related to the scaffolds is to provide students with an automatic analysis of some of their products, for example by presenting them a comparison between the student’s concept map and an expert concept map. This may lead to a dashboard that looks like the screendump in Figure 7. Here, students have access to overviews of their learning process and automatic feedback.
1.3 The Go-Lab portal
The Go-Lab portal will also offer a series of additional facilities, such as a booking facility, a bartering platform (this platform enables the exchange of services and competencies) and access to the Go-Lab community. The development of the portal is based on a user-centered approach that involves users directly, beginning with the initial steps of the process. This process includes extended cycles of school-centred work. Teachers (and students) will continuously give feedback to the academic team about their experiences during the use of facilities in the Go-Lab portal This not only increases the teachers' motivation and gives weight to their practical experiences, but it also provides the necessary cross-links between design, development, and practice. Being part of a professional network will provide teachers with opportunities to enrich their practices and extend their professional context through cooperation within and between schools, universities, and frontier research institutions. The development of such a virtual learning community will be enhanced by the Go-Lab community support facilities, which will provide tools for community building and support, and will encourage cooperation between teachers, students, and researchers.
Finally, the Go-Lab portal gives access to the Go-Lab platform enabling ILS authoring as discussed in the next section.
1.4 Authoring inquiry learning spaces
One of the facilities that sets Go-Lab apart from other online repositories (e.g., PhET, Wieman, et al., ) is that Go-Lab offers teachers the capability to create dedicated inquiry learning spaces. We support this process by proposing scenarios and lesson plans that help to design ILSs and combine them with off-line activities. Go-Lab also facilitates the sharing of these products in an online teacher community through the Go-Lab repository.
Teachers who design an inquiry learning space, especially those who have no experience with inquiry, also need pedagogical support. In Go-Lab we offer this support through what we call inquiry scenarios. A Go-Lab scenario is a domain-independent description of a specific inquiry approach. We currently have identified four scenarios: the basic scenario following the Go-Lab inquiry cycle as explained before, a “changing hats” scenario in which students take different roles throughout the inquiry cycle, a “jigsaw approach”, in which students in groups with changing compositions perform specific parts of the inquiry cycle and must collaborate to reach a result and the “critiquing” scenario in which students must criticize an inquiry process that has already been performed. This set of scenarios will be extended in the course of the project, but we will try to make the set of scenarios as small as possible in order to avoid overwhelming the teacher. The descriptions of these scenarios should also be brief so that a teacher may easily get a quick impression of their possibilities. If a teacher has found a suitable lab and wants to create his or her own ILS, the teacher can try to find to find a scenario that a) s/he likes b) fits his or her educational objectives c) fits his or her students’ prior knowledge and inquiry skills d) can be organized in his or her classroom.
After having selected a scenario, the teacher will be offered a default ILS in which the specific phases and the default filler for each phase are offered according to the scenario (and thus differs from the scenario as depicted in Figure 10). Then the teacher may continue by personalizing the available scaffolds (through the app composer) and adapt the default filling in of the phases for his own class, add or delete phases, and so forth. In addition, in what we call a “lesson plan”, all kinds of information for collaborative or off-line activities that are characteristic for the scenario that was chosen will be offered. As an alternative to creating a new ILS or lesson plan from scratch (or rather from a default ILS or lesson plan), teachers may decide to continue working on existing ILSs or lesson plans that can be found on the Go-Lab portal. If a teacher has finished a self-created ILS or lesson plan, it can be uploaded to the portal under a creative commons license so that it can be used by other teachers.
1.5 Go-Lab’s technical infrastructure
The technical infrastructure supporting the Go-Lab objectives builds on the outcome of previous European research projects such as PALETTE, in which an open access platform was developed to support online communities of practice, ROLE (Bogdanov et al., ) in which responsive open learning environments enabling recommendation (El Helou et al. ) and aggregation of cloud resources, peers, and Web applications were devised, and SCY (de Jong et al., ) in which scaffolding applications and virtual labs were developed and validated.
The Go-Lab portal is the single entry point for lab-owners and teachers to access the Go-Lab resources and services and integrates both the Go-Lab repository and the ILS authoring platform. The portal and the back-end services are implemented as loosely coupled components to enable a progressive and iterative development strategy with full user (pilot teacher) involvement, as described before. The loose coupling enables any platform or service to operate even when another component is unavailable. The front-end platforms include the Go-Lab repository based on Drupal, the ILS authoring facility based on Graasp, and the app composer enabling the translation and personalization of scaffolding apps or online lab interfaces, as well as the learning analytics workbench (Göhnert et al. ). The back-end services support lab-owners by enabling them to easily make remote labs available to the Go-Lab community, facilitate the harvesting of existing lab repositories, enable tracking of activities for learning analytics purposes, and offer add-ons to enable booking of remote labs and bartering of competencies for peer support within the teacher communities.
Several design principles have been devised and are enforced to strengthen the simplicity, the usability, and the sustainability of the Go-Lab technical infrastructure. First, the access to online labs through inquiry learning spaces is designed to be exploited as part of regular classroom activities. In such a context, collaboration between students happens face-to-face without technical mediation. Second, the Go-Lab platforms and services are loosely coupled, as mentioned above. Third, only libraries enabling responsive design (i.e., the user interface can adapt automatically to the devices used) and compatibility across devices are selected, to enable the exploitation of Go-Lab solutions either on desktop or laptop computers, as well as on tablets. Fourth, only modern Web standards such as HTML5 and Web sockets are exploited to enable the usage of modern Web browsers without the need to install dedicated plug-ins. In this spirit, educational standards linked to learning management systems and not compatible with the social media platforms learners are using nowadays are avoided. Fifth, no installation is required at school. The Go-Lab Portal is an open access platform that can be exploited by any teacher from anywhere at any time without requiring an authorization from a local school administration or actions by a local system administrator. Sixth, Web applications are developed using the opensocial standard and learning analytics rely on the activity stream standard, both to enable compatibility and portability across social media platforms and services ([Chamberlain et al.]). Last but not least, privacy is enforced by design. In Go-Lab, the privacy scheme mimics the model of the classroom, where only the teacher is aware of the identities and the activities of her or his students. As a consequence, privacy level is defined per inquiry learning space (ILS). The teacher can choose at the creation of the ILS whether tracking should be enabled or not, knowing that enabling it will offer better scaffolding for the students (scaffolding applications smoothly degrade their features depending on whether tracking is enabled or not). Students do not need an account to use an ILS shared by the teacher with a secret URL (which avoids malicious access to a space by external people). They simply log in using a nickname of their choice. This nickname is exploited internally for identifying the artifacts they created. The match between a nickname and a real identity is known only by the teacher and is not stored anywhere.
The proposed loosely coupled technical platforms and services together with the Go-Lab design principles have already enabled a smooth and progressive deployment of inquiry learning spaces to develop a shared understanding of the deployment challenges among the interdisciplinary partners in the project and with the initial pilot teachers. In the future, the social features of the portal will enable teachers to directly populate the repository with the ILSs they produce and help them to identify new resources based on their popularity (elicited through their usage, tagging, rating and commenting by peers), which will lower the barriers for sharing.
1.6 Facilitating large-scale use of the Go-Lab portal
The use of the Go-Lab portal and its services will be piloted and validated in a network of 1000 schools in Europe (Netherlands, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Poland, Italy, Cyprus, Germany, Spain, Austria, Estonia, Switzerland, the UK and Portugal). The schools that are selected will have a different level of innovation maturity in order to provide a balanced sample. The most innovative of them operate in the framework of national (or local) reforms in the participating countries, while others offer nothing but the most basic services to their students. The 1000 pilot sites will be selected taking into consideration the local conditions and a set of common criteria, and will enter the project activities in three phases. The Go-Lab school network will include 100 innovative schools (in the use of technologies and in the application of innovative STEM practices) and 900 more mainstreamed school environments. Among them a sub-network of (about 100) remote and rural schools will be involved in the project, ensuring that all types of schools are represented in the pilot sample.
The aim of this effort is to generate a showcase of sufficient scale across borders, across languages, and across different educational systems. The organization of the large-scale pilots and the implementation of Go-Lab activities in a diverse group of schools in different European countries is a major challenge. The process requires the design of an implementation plan that takes into account the current reform initiatives of the different European countries. Different countries involve different cultures, curricula, and approaches, and thus the implementation of Go-Lab activities in each of them requires a different implementation plan tailored to their specific needs. However, Go-Lab implementation is taking advantage of the extended efforts regarding the effective introduction of inquiry-based approaches in STEM that are taking place in many European countries as a follow-up of the publication of the Rocard report (Rocard, et al., ). For this reason, all implementation activities are centrally coordinated, but also managed locally by one partner in each of the pilot countries who will act as the National Coordinator, responsible for the local management and localization of resources and activities. Currently over 500 schools from all over Europe have subscribed to be involved the Go-Lab pilot phase.
The Go-Lab project is currently in the second year of its four year span. It has now laid the conceptual and technical basis for a federation of online labs, as discussed in this paper, and now goes on to a phase in which its facilities will be further tested, refined, and extended. A second major development will be the population of the portal and the creation of a large user community around the online labs. The facilities that Go-Lab offers for creating and sharing full learning environments around online labs should be one of the major “selling points” to attract lab-owners and teachers.
In this endeavor, it will be important to support teachers in the use of Go-Lab. Our experience with teachers until now has been that from a technical point of view, the way the Go-Lab authoring system is set up does not present them with major obstacles; teachers can very quickly create their first ILSs. This means that the main challenge will lie in informing teachers on how to create well-designed inquiry environments. Moving away from strictly guided procedural approaches when learning in labs or practical sessions will require a major shift in thinking. We hope that providing teachers with good examples of ILSs and default ILSs will be a source of inspiration.
The emphasis in our work on online laboratories doesn’t mean that there is no room in the curriculum for other forms of instruction, such as physical laboratories, self-study, lectures, and so forth. All these forms of learning and instruction have their own specific advantages that should be part of a balanced curriculum, and often intelligent combinations, such as using virtual and physical labs together (see e.g., Jaakkola and Nurmi, ) offer specific advantages. Online labs can play a valuable role in this whole spectrum of instructional opportunities, and the intention is that the Go-Lab portal will contribute to realizing this role.
aHereafter, when referring to science at large, we mean the natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, geology, etc.), technology (including computer science), and math; also referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
bThe Splash lab can be found at http://go-lab.gw.utwente.nl/production/splash/labs/splash/virtual.html.
cThe Methyl Orange lab can be accessed at https://www.chem.vu.nl/en/voor-het-vwo/online-scheikunde-experiment/index.asp.
dHYPATIA can be accessed at http://hypatia.iasa.gr/.
This work was partially funded by the European Union in the context of the Go-Lab project (Grant Agreement no. 317601) under the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) theme of the 7th Framework Programme for R&D (FP7. This document does not represent the opinion of the European Union, and the European Union is not responsible for any use that might be made of its content. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the many Go-Lab project members to the work presented here.
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