Virtual Lab

Increasing Analytical Skills with Interactive Tools

Piraeus (GR), November 2012 - Symeon Retalis is Assiciate Professor in the Department of Digital Systems at the Greek University of Piraeus. In this capacity he has been able to expand his experience in "Designing Multi-user Learning Activities for a Virtual Chemistry Lab on a Multi-touch Interactive Whiteboard", and this is the topic of his talk at ONLINE EDUCA. He will take a very practical point of view in this session, which will also debate the theory and practise of "digital tools and aids for teaching Maths and Science".

What prompted you to develop learning activities done on a whiteboard for use in chemistry lab?

Symeon Retalis: In general, our research and development group at the Department of Digital Systems at the University of Piraeus, Greece - called CoSyLlab - have been collaborating with the company ITisART. The work involves experimenting with the development of usable interactive learning tools for school education. CoSyLlab has launched several initiatives, especially for the needs of science education.

In high-school chemistry courses, laboratory experience is considered very essential for students to increase their analytical skills and understanding of chemical concepts. For several schools, maintaining a real chemistry lab is not viable for economic, security-related, and other reasons. An alternative to traditional labs is virtual labs, which allow students to design and perform diverse experiments in chemistry - some even more complex than what can be done in a real lab - in a secure environment.

Since a lot of schools had been equipped with interactive whiteboards, we thought of offering students and teachers an open, inquiry-based learning environment. We also found out that no virtual chemistry labs have specifically been designed for interactive whiteboards.

Thus, we proposed to SMART technologies to fund a development project for developing and evaluating a virtual chemistry lab (VCL) in authentic classroom environments. The most innovative feature is that our VCL has been designed to be used in ordinary single-touch interactive boards, but also for multi-touch interactive boards that can be operated by up to four hands. There are very few learning tools that can be used with multi-touch interactive boards.

What resources were necessary and who provided them?

Symeon Retalis: SMART technologies company was very generous. They gave us two multi-touch interactive boards as part of the grant, which helped us a lot in experimenting with various learning scenarios. We had access to the free Software Development Kit for building interactive applications for Smart boards, as well as to various online tutorials.

Did you confront any special challenges?

Symeon Retalis: We confronted both pedagogical as well as technical challenges. First, we wanted to design a simple but powerful virtual lab with which learners could perform experiments based on real-world scenarios that are tightly linked to difficult concepts in chemistry. Some of the existing chemistry virtual labs have quite a complex user interface because they try to cover several concepts in chemistry for different school ages.

We focused on simulating chemical experiments on specific topics that are taught in secondary education:

  • concentration of solutions (w/w, w/v, v/v)
  • dilution/condensation, concentration, and solution mixing

However, we designed our VCL in such a way that can easily be enriched with several other concepts for experiments, and also allow the addition of extra exercises for experimentation.

Furthermore, we had to devote quite some effort in designing the VCL's user interface so that it could allow at least two students to simultaneously perform experiments on a multi-touch smart board. Having analysed learning scenarios like "race board games" that teachers use in a typical classroom, we created the VCL's graphical user interface. Also, not only did we create a VCL for multi-touch SMART boards, but we also created a version for single touch since most of the schools have single-touch interactive boards.

CoSyLlab team believes that we need to create usable tools that can be put into practice and not stay in the lab. As a result, we put in extra effort in designing the software architecture of the VCL that allowed us to create two versions in multiple languages: Now the VCL exists in English and Greek, but it can be easily translated in other languages.

What has the experience in class been like?

Symeon Retalis: It was really great! After the first evaluation round with two schools and three experienced chemistry teachers who focused on software testing and usability measurement, VCL was given to several selected schools for evaluating its learning effectiveness and usability in a systematic way. We collected data from multiple sources, including questionnaires, teachers' observations, and focused group interviews. The evaluation results had been very positive. Teachers and students gave us very helpful feedback, especially with regards to learning scenarios.

How do the pupils react to it?

Symeon Retalis: Our goals were not only to help students understand theoretical concepts, but also to help them increase their analytical skills as well as acquire new learning experiences via active engagement, inquiry-based learning, and collaboration with peers. And we succeeded in doing so.

Especially for students who never had the option to attend a real laboratory class, VCL was extremely helpful, giving them the ability to use all the kinds of vessels described in their science books. They had the opportunity to create virtual chemistry experiments, mix ingredients, and measure the outcomes.

The general feeling both from teachers and students was that the VCL managed to "get things clear" about the solutions and their measurement.