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Laboratory activities to support online chemistry courses: a literature review

Publication: Canadian Journal of Chemistry
3 June 2021


The laboratory is an essential element in the teaching and learning of chemistry, but it is challenging to provide this when delivering courses and programs online or at a distance. Studies have repeatedly shown that alternate laboratory modes can lead to equivalent student performance when compared with in-person experiences. In this literature review, we will examine five modes of laboratory delivery (i.e., face-to-face, virtual, remote control, home-study kits and, to a lesser extent, self-guided field trips) that may be considered in providing quality practical laboratory activities to support online studies. Each mode brings its own particular strengths and weaknesses and can be used individually or in combination. The selection and integration of those modes, which is driven by learning outcomes and other factors, will be examined as part of the design process. Finally, future laboratory design will certainly include new technologies, but potentially also elements like open educational resources, learning analytics, universal design, and citizen science.

Graphical Abstract


Les laboratoires sont un élément essentiel de l’enseignement et de l’apprentissage de la chimie, mais la tenue de ces activités présente des difficultés dans le contexte de la prestation de cours et de programmes en ligne ou à distance. Des études ont montré à plusieurs reprises que d’autres modes d’enseignement pratique peuvent permettre aux étudiants d’acquérir des compétences équivalentes à celles que permettent d’acquérir les expériences de laboratoire en personne. Dans cette revue de la littérature, nous examinerons cinq modes de prestation des laboratoires (soit en personne, virtuel, évaluation à distance, trousses d’étude à domicile et, dans une moindre mesure, excursions autoguidées sur le terrain) qui peuvent être envisagés pour offrir des activités pratiques de laboratoire de qualité en complément aux études en ligne. Chaque mode comporte ses forces et ses faiblesses et peut être utilisé seul ou en combinaison. Nous nous intéresserons à la sélection de ces modes, orientée par les résultats d’apprentissage et d’autres facteurs, et à leur intégration dans le cadre du processus de conception des activités de laboratoire. Enfin, nous prévoyons que la conception des laboratoires inclura certainement dans l’avenir de nouvelles technologies, mais peut-être aussi des éléments tels que les ressources éducatives libres, l’analytique de l’apprentissage, la conception universelle et la science citoyenne. [Traduit par la Rédaction]


Although the laboratory experience is an integral part of any chemistry program, it is also probably the most challenging component to provide at a distance. Chemistry educators at online and open institutions have been grappling with this problem for many years and with some success. Historically, this alternate approach has provided some learners with access and flexibility that they might not otherwise find at on-campus institutions. However, until recently, the number of students learning at a distance in chemistry has very much been a minority, with students often taking only a few courses online rather than an entire program. With the arrival of the COVID pandemic and mandated social distancing, many on-campus institutions are discovering online learning and, in disciplines like chemistry, are now also dealing with the practical aspects of delivering a suitable laboratory component. Domenici provides a brief introduction to distance education in chemistry in the context of COVID.1
Most literature available specific to online and distance chemistry laboratory activities at the post-secondary level have been reported in widely scattered sources. Past reviews have either focused on K–12 activities2 or survey STEM laboratories more generally.3,4 There have also been books of edited collections5,6 and practical guides,7,8 but again, chemistry makes an appearance amidst the pantheon of other science disciplines. At least one journal has recently dedicated a special issue to teaching chemistry during COVID that includes several submissions on handling the laboratory component.9
This literature review is meant as both an introduction and an overview of initiatives to provide appropriate laboratory experiences to support online chemistry courses. With almost three decades of experience teaching chemistry in a distributed and online setting, the author draws from his own experiences, those of his colleagues, and findings reported in the literature. This review article will primarily provide a summary and synthesis of the field, as well as some critical analysis as described by Paré et al.10 Although the information delivered will be of value to practitioners, the article will also attempt to offer some theoretical underpinnings, context, and advice.

Role of the laboratory and how we learn in chemistry

Why do we require laboratory work? The role of the teaching laboratory has been examined at great length in the literature.7,11–14 The most popular stated aim and purpose of the teaching laboratory has been to reinforce course concepts and make chemistry real for the student. Lists have been developed of particular skills, both physical and cognitive, that are exercised by the learner through a teaching laboratory experience. These skills include understanding and following safety protocols, physical manipulations, making hypotheses and observations, problem solving, taking accurate records, analyzing results, time management, communicating results, and dealing with errors. Reid and Shah provide an accessible historic overview of the evolution of the chemistry teaching laboratory along with an excellent synopsis and analysis of many of its objectives and aims that have been stated over the years.13 Before examining the laboratory itself, we should remind ourselves of a couple of foundational pieces about learning in chemistry.
First, there is a vast literature on teaching and learning theories that are meant to help educators understand the underpinnings of student learning. Four of the major theoretical families are behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and, much more recently, connectivism. The latter theoretical framework of connectivism emerged for the digital age where learning and knowing can be accessed through technological interactions, both human and non-human.15,16 Although connectivism will no doubt have influence on chemistry students in the information age, it is generally accepted that the teaching of chemistry is firmly planted in the idea of constructivism;17,18 that is, students take what they are being taught and add it to their previous knowledge and experiences to construct their own unique learning. Bailey and Garratt provide a very helpful pre-connectivist introduction and review of education research for the practitioner teaching chemistry from a primarily constructivist and experiential perspective.17
Second, one should also keep in mind that every discipline, including chemistry, possesses its own particular language, culture, and epistemology that it tries to impart as part of its knowledge to future generations. Our approach to teaching and learning often tries to reflect scientific methodology with students expected to state problems, ask questions, make observations, keep records, offer explanations, create a design or carry out an experiment, and communicate findings with others. This vehicle to learning is problem solving and scientific inquiry and forms the model for navigating and dealing with hypotheses, facts, laws, and theories.19
Given this rich scholarship of chemistry education available and the collective aspirations of the aims of the chemistry laboratory stated earlier, it is surprising to realize that the great majority of chemistry teaching experiments in the last few decades have been so-called “cookbook” style. Although there are certainly strong drivers for this (e.g., service teaching, fiscal considerations, large enrollments), it has become the de facto traditional laboratory style and anything else is different (non-traditional). Still there are champions of those unconventional styles who are moving the needle towards more complete and effective laboratory experiences. A simple taxonomy of laboratory instruction styles provided by Domin describes four distinct styles — expository, discovery, inquiry, and problem-based.20,21 Each style is characterized by whether the approach is deductive or inductive and whether procedures are generated by the student or the instructor and also reflects the three-phase structure of scientific research as described by Kuhn.22 Essentially, a chemistry student experiencing only one or two instructional laboratory styles gives “an incomplete depiction of the scientific enterprise”.21 Hofstein et al. provide a useful review of the chemistry teaching laboratory arguing effectively for the inquiry-based experience that is not just hands-on, but “minds-on”.23

Science laboratories at a distance

It is beneficial for us to start by acknowledging the larger landscape of science teaching laboratories that support courses online and at a distance. It not only offers a context for chemistry, but also provides ideas and inspiration from related disciplines also dealing with practical and applied components (i.e., laboratory, clinic, field work, design project). Because these components are done differently for off-campus, they have also been historically labelled by many science educators as non-traditional or alternative and often viewed with suspicion. This is despite the overwhelming literature reporting that face-to-face and alternative modes of delivery are essentially equivalent.24–32
Over the years, many strategies have been developed and explored for practical work in the sciences that support online and distance learning. They can be grouped into five teaching laboratory types that can potentially be considered by the science educator for inclusion in their course (Fig. 1). With the exception of face-to-face delivery, the remaining four modes of laboratory delivery emphasize the student–content interaction with no direct student–student and student–instructor interactions. Although an in-person laboratory environment with human interaction can and does lead to both formal and informal learning, we know that other forms of interaction in other environments can equally well lead to learning.33
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Teaching laboratory delivery modes that can be employed by the instructor to support online and distance science courses. [Colour online.]
Of the five modes, it is the virtual laboratories that seem to be most strongly associated with online science courses. The term “virtual” has been used in different ways in the literature, but for this article, we specifically define virtual as computer simulations. Whether standalone or online, these simulations offer a slice of reality that allows the learner to interactively explore various scenarios in an absolutely safe environment. Although the graphics and animation provide cues and anchors for the student to engage with the activity, it is not true that a more life-like simulation is a better one. A very realistic simulation is often better suited in training and challenging the expert. In contrast, a beginner is usually better off with a simplified version of reality that facilitates focus on specific tasks and builds confidence. In contrast to the virtual laboratory, the remote control laboratory allows students to carry out real experiments on real samples in real time — they just happen to do this safely on a browser at a distance. The experiment can be as simple as making observations with a video camera and reading sensors, through to taking control of an instrument remotely, or ultimately even carrying out physical manipulations using robotics. Not surprisingly, most remote control teaching examples come from the areas of robotics, computing, and engineering rather than the natural and physical sciences. Another mode that is gaining popularity is to have learners carry out laboratory work off-campus on their own using easily obtained materials or a home-study laboratory kit. Although safety considerations are key in the design experiments for unsupervised students, home study offers the learner incredible autonomy and flexibility, which is greatly appreciated. Indeed, a report of moving first-year introductory physics experiments from residential mode to home-study mode indicated increased student participation and dramatic increase in course enrollment.34 A useful introduction and overview of virtual, remote, and home-study laboratories used to accompany online science courses can be found elsewhere.19
Self-guided fieldwork in the sciences is worth a brief mention, even though it is not common in chemistry at the moment. Historically, descriptions in the literature of self-directed fieldwork in disciplines like the earth sciences and some life sciences have been meagre,35 but the availability of mobile GPS-enabled mobile devices is changing all that.36 With the appropriate apps, the mobile devices allow students to make observations, collect and record data, identify objects, communicate and collaborate, and solve problems directly in the field; the mobile device can also possess a location-based adaptive learning platform that is ideal for situated learning and providing information relevant to a particular geographical site.37–39 Again, risk and safety considerations are essential in designing field activities for unsupervised learners.
The fifth and last laboratory delivery mode noted in Fig. 1 is face-to-face. This mode is well understood and the gold standard of practical work in the sciences. Although there are many alternative modes available, for logistical and safety reasons, face-to-face still may be the method of choice or necessity. Often when supporting online courses, face-to-face is applied differently to offer more flexibility than one would have on-campus. For example, the Open University in the United Kingdom arranges in-person regional laboratory sessions at various partner post-secondary institutions and schools near the student.40

Learning outcomes and domains

Before focusing on the discipline of chemistry, the reader should be aware of some aspects that frame reports on alternative laboratories in the literature. First, because of scrutiny around alternative laboratory activities and the fact that practical components are often difficult to deliver remotely, the distance educator often will first ask if the laboratory is actually needed in the first place. To express this in a more useful way, one would be better off to ask what exactly will the learner get out of their practical experience? What are the learning outcomes? Indeed, Brinson reports on the achievement of traditional versus non-traditional science laboratories in the context of six standard learning outcomes by systematic analysis of empirical studies in the literature.31,41 The role of clearly articulated learning outcomes and their assessment is crucial at this point in deciding not only if, but how the practical component will be designed. However, caution is also warranted here. Although the Brinson study indicated that most non-traditional labs were quite efficient as they achieved higher or equivalent outcomes compared with traditional labs, it also revealed that most only measured the outcomes of “knowledge and understanding” and “perception”. Other outcomes important in laboratory work like inquiry skills, practical skills, analytical skills, and communication were often not considered. Second, Bloom’s taxonomy of three learning domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) and their associated hierarchies are a useful framework when reflecting on teaching laboratories and building and assessing their learning outcomes. In fact, accreditation of chemistry bachelor degree programs (including laboratory work) in educational jurisdictions in Canada require evidence of meeting standards in the areas of knowledge, attitudes, and skills (essentially Bloom’s three domains).42 Again, the caution here is that much of what is discussed and reported in the literature is heavily focused on the cognitive domain.

What is there for chemistry specifically

This review will now look at four of the more popular laboratory delivery modes used in teaching chemistry. Self-guided field trips in chemistry are omitted for lack of data.


Many of the major open universities around the globe43,44 that offer chemistry courses will usually also have some in-person options for the laboratory component.45–47 Although a common model for traditional on-campus institutions is to have a laboratory session once a week during term, this is obviously not well-suited for the off-campus student. Indeed, for reasons of access and flexibility, different strategies are employed when students are distributed and essentially not on campus. In the 1990s, as video conferencing technologies emerged, some investigated quasi face-to-face laboratories. The expert would interact with students by video conferencing at remote locations to demonstrate experiments either in whole or in part and answer questions.48 Students would make observations of the demonstration and (or) carry out the actual experiments themselves locally, often with some additional local supervision. Because of the expense and complexity of organizing these events, the strategy never became popular; institutions just opted for straight independent supervised regional laboratories (mentioned earlier) without video links to the home campus.
In addition to employing regional laboratories, another popular approach is to also concentrate the work. Rather than running a three-hour session once a week throughout the term, students would gather for one 3- or 4-day visit to do the experiments all at once. This is a lot of work and tests the endurance of both instructors and students. However, it also comes with some advantages. For example, students tend not to forget techniques from one experiment to the next, and the shared hardship builds strong relationships between students in an army-boot-camp sort of way. Also, one is now not limited to having just three-hour experiments run synchronously. For instance, organic chemistry students at Athabasca University are responsible for managing their time in running short and long experiments in series and parallel in any order they wish. That experience is much more representative of a real working laboratory.


Virtual teaching experiments in chemistry have had their detractors who point out that these lack a suitable laboratory atmosphere including noises, smells, and the haptic experience of experimenting. Still, many chemistry educators have found it a great way to teach students (especially the novice) in a safe environment that usually includes a lower cognitive load compared with real life and therefore allows for greater focus on specific tasks and skills.49,50 Sypsas and Calles offer a great introduction to the area with a solid literature review of laboratories for biology, biotechnology, and chemistry.51 In examining a virtual chemistry laboratory, Su and Cheng conclude that cognitive load and self-efficacy significantly affect learning motivation, whereas involvement significantly affects academic achievement.52 Although the virtual laboratory should be a simpler slice of reality, careful attention to design is essential to maintain that lower cognitive load and not simply replace it with another. For example, the design approach to visual representations, which are important in chemistry and a substantive part of virtual environments, needs to consider the working memory of the learner to avoid unnecessary cognitive load.53
As with other science disciplines, comparison studies in chemistry of face-to-face with virtual teaching laboratory experiences generally show the learning to be equivalent.54–60 Keep in mind that these studies are almost exclusively based on measurements within the cognitive domain, with the exception of one recent study showing equivalence in the affective domain in a general chemistry experiment.61 No studies are known to examine direct differences in the psychomotor domain, presumably as the physical processes involved are completely different. However, a pre-lab virtual experience may support face-to-face lab performance including physical skills.58
In addition to lowering cognitive load and providing the learner with a safe working environment, virtual laboratories have several other desired features including student autonomy, self-pacing, removing tedious tasks, repeatable experiments, and providing a sandbox to pursue various “what if” scenarios.19 Simulations for chemistry experiments have been available since the 1980s. Early on, the programs would be physically sent out on a disk to be loaded on a computer and used locally. The interactive experiments could be instrumental simulations62 or animations63 or video clips.64 The sophistication, quality, and availability of virtual experiments has grown quite a bit since then. A popular approach that developed was to have a laboratory or experimental setup with interactive drawings to provide a partially immersive experience. For example, Woodfield et al. created a series of synthesis and qualitative analysis laboratories known as Virtual ChemLab,65,66 which provided realistic graphics and also actively moved the learner away from cookbook experiments towards discovery-based learning. Of course, others also emerged both as commercial ventures, such as Model ChemLab,54 LearnSmart,61 and Late Nite,67 as well as privately developed virtual experiments.56,58 Not everyone has taken this exact same approach. Smaller subgroups of virtual experiments include video labs and demonstrations68,69 or instrument simulations,70,71 which tend to be less immersive, and environments using Second Life57 or 360° spherical video,55 virtual reality,52 and augmented reality,72,73 which are more immersive. It is important to note that the degree of immersion does not correlate with or imply engagement or learning. Also, Ali and Ullah provide an excellent detailed review and taxonomy of virtual chemistry laboratories for teaching.74 Despite all the enhancements, there are still drawbacks of the virtual laboratory, including continuous inherent hardware and software obsolescence with associated compatibility issues. More interestingly, it is very difficult to simulate non-ideal results and errors that seem to so easily permeate real life. However, there are other online strategies that address this.

Remote control

As noted earlier, a remote-controlled experiment is not a virtual experiment (computer simulation), so genuine results are obtained. Because one is carrying out real experiments (albeit at a distance), these laboratories represent the best alternative to working in a real laboratory and are generally being employed in four ways: (i) to allow observations of natural phenomenon or experiments; (ii) to carry out measurements; (iii) to manipulate instruments or physical objects in experiments; and (iv) to facilitate collaborative work at a distance.5 Scientists have long been accessing research experiments and instruments remotely because of physical restrictions or just to share expensive equipment. However, affordable remote access over the internet to teaching experiments has been a much more recent phenomenon.75 Still, the vast majority of these remote labs are not in the natural sciences. In 2010, a survey of 355 remote laboratory sites identified fewer than five experiments for teaching chemistry and biology, while most were devoted to engineering (64%) and physics (36%).76 Although more chemistry remote experiments have appeared since then, they are still in the minority. This could be in part because of the culture of chemistry education, but is more likely that, in general, physical experiments are easier to control remotely than chemical experiments. So, for example, although benchtop chemistry may seem simple in-person, the physical manipulations involved and the use of consumables makes it a bigger challenge to do well remotely.
Indeed, with a few exceptions like setting up a remote classic titration77 or using a miniature remote robotic arm for manipulation in a synthesis experiment,78 most chemistry remote laboratories tend to involve the control of analytical instruments. Many of these sophisticated instruments are already controlled locally by a computer, so with some modifications (e.g., adding an auto-sampler or video camera) and the addition of the right software (e.g., VMWare, LabView, PC Anywhere, PC-Duo, etc.), it is not that difficult to allow remote control by a learner through an Internet connection with nothing more than a browser. There are examples of experiments employing FTIR, UV–vis, GC,79 AA,80 single crystal X-ray diffraction,81 voltammetry,82 NMR,83 GCMS,84,85 and ICP-OES.86 In most cases, student perceptions and learning of the remote experiments were found to be equivalent to the in-person experiments. In a more structured study, some foundational constructs from the technology acceptance model were used to evaluate the students’ technological acceptance of the remote laboratory with positive results from the respondents.87 Both students and instructors lauded the access and flexibility and appreciated the realism. One study notes that the “feeling of real experiment with operational problems, errors, non-ideal results, way of overcoming the problems are really beneficial to students”.84
Beyond the low numbers of remote chemistry laboratories reported, there are more universal problems associated with remote laboratories. Despite providing both access and reality, they can be expensive and high maintenance. The cost of moving exclusively to remote laboratories for all experiments is prohibitive and would no doubt also mean re-creating experiments that are run at other institutions. The obvious solution is to share so that institutions would both host and have access to remote experiments hosted elsewhere. In the past, this has led to the creation of various collaborations and large remote laboratory initiatives and consortia like Practical Experimentation by Accessible Remote Learning (PEARL),88 Network for Education – Chemistry,89 North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO),90 Remote Laboratory Experimentation (ReLax),91 Science Teaching and Research Brings Undergraduate Research Strengths Through Technology (STaRBURSTT),92 and NetLab.93 Of these, only Netlab still exists, which underscores the ephemeral nature and the underlying economic, logistical, and political challenges of maintaining remote laboratories. Still, a few new initiatives like the BC Integrated Laboratory Network (BC-ILN)94 continue to emerge and provide access to quality remote experiments.

Home-study kits

In some instances, it is possible to bridge the distance by physically bringing the laboratory experience to the learner at home.19 Students carry out experiments doing kitchen chemistry with readily available household materials and (or) are sent home-study laboratory kits. Lyall and Patti provide a wonderful introduction to this mode including insights in designing and building your own kits that includes risk mitigation and safety.95 Although most chemistry educators understand occupational health and safety standards on-campus used for face-to-face and remote control (lab staff), the unsupervised nature of using kits (or even self-guided fieldwork) requires careful consideration in their design. For example, kits will likely employ smaller amounts of benign chemicals that can go down the sink. Although one cannot create risk-free environments for any in-person component of a chemistry laboratory to avoid liability, negligence laws tend to usually require no more than reasonable care on the part of the defendant. Many of the major open universities and some jurisdictions (e.g., Australia) with a tradition of offering flexible learning have employed home-study kits for many years. With the home-study mode, the learner carries out experiments, including physical manipulations. The difference compared with the on-campus experience is the absence of a larger laboratory environment and direct interaction with instructors and other students. However, studies indicate learning in courses using home-study to be equivalent to that learned on campus.96–99 In a more detailed study, Steely compares face-to-face and home-study kits and concludes that, although the learning was found to be equivalent, the home-study route was more expensive but notably had a lower carbon footprint.100 Another financial audit comparing kits with face-to-face also found the home-study option to require a larger outlay.101 There are different approaches to cost sharing that try to address this. Some institutions simply build and manage their own kits. However, if one employs kitchen chemistry or has the learner purchase commercially available kits, the expense is carried by the learner.7 There are several companies like Hands-On Labs (LabPaq),102 eScience Labs,103 Carolina Distance Learning, Quality Science Labs, Home Science Tools and Boreal Laboratories that sell home-study kits that will ship directly to the learner.
Given the introductory nature of the experiments and large student numbers, it is not surprising that the majority of home-study experiments described in the literature are for general chemistry.95,99,104–108 This includes some creative examples of kitchen chemistry laboratories that employ common household items and (or) materials easily purchased at the grocery or hardware store.97,109 However, in most cases, some, if not all, of the materials are provided in a kit for the student. There have also been a few interesting examples beyond general chemistry including descriptions of analytical110,111 and organic112 chemistry kits. However, more advanced courses tend to require more specialized equipment and sometimes carry risks that really do require student supervision, which limits where the kits are used.
A number of factors need to be considered in the use of home-study. The kitchen chemistry route has the advantage of lower cost and approachability of the experiments and laboratory work. The downside is that it can be a nuisance for the student to assemble the needed materials;7 it may also not meet the learners’ perceived expectations in a higher education course.98 A home-study kit is much more self-contained and professional, but also more expensive. Whether home-built or commercial, it is crucial to have clear instructions often including photographs and preferably a video guide to cover safety practices, experiment set-up, and laboratory techniques.95,99 Qualitative experiments are generally easier to design and come by. However, with the incorporation of quantitative experiments, if much more than a watch or ruler is required, one needs to also supply a means of measurement. Although some chemistry kits contain simple portable instruments like a pH meter95 or spectrometer,98,111 often a thermometer and weighing balance are required. Indeed, the availability of a suitable (i.e., inexpensive, portable, and robust) balance for weighing had been a challenge in developing some of the earlier kits.95,104 Affordable sensors and probes (e.g., O2 detection, gas pressure, radiation) that can be easily be connected and operated with a laptop or even a mobile device are becoming much more readily available through commercial vendors like Vernier. This will no doubt shape what can be investigated using future home-study kits.
On a final home-study note, although many studies indicate students very much like the flexibility and access of carrying out experiments at home, it also seems to make chemistry more approachable. In one study, students commented that they would involve their family in running the experiments at home and seemed quite enthusiastic about doing so.98 The concept that chemistry exists outside the laboratory and can be done by people in a home environment is an important lesson.

Design, integration, and blending

Once the need for a laboratory component and the associated learning outcomes are established to inform the lab curriculum,113 the type of experiment and mode of delivery still need to be chosen. Knowing the course content, the students, and the context, the instructor is ideally situated to make those decisions and design the laboratory experience for an individual course. However, this process can be more iterative and complex and (or) involve multiple instructors. A group of chemistry instructors in Australia describe a methodology of team reflection, which includes examining what the laboratory component should contribute.114 The students referred to in this work were mostly taking chemistry courses at a distance. In trying to meet articulated laboratory learning outcomes, it is also helpful to look how others have approached their designs. Seery et al. provide a chemistry laboratory design framework with practical examples that view laboratory activities as an implicit part of the entire course curriculum.115 There are also more extensive digital resources available on multimedia design that can (and should) be accessed.116 Mapped onto these design considerations is now also the mode of delivery, which simultaneously evolves from the learning outcomes, but also shapes them. For example, to meet one learning outcome, one might choose a virtual experiment, because of its discovery nature. The learner can work independently and at their own speed to change reaction conditions to explore what happens. However, that repeatability might also influence another learning outcome by altering the nature of making and recording observations. A recent case study shows how one could employ a decision matrix to find the best-fit modality of chemistry laboratory that accounts for numerous factors.117
Table 1 provides a summary of the laboratory delivery modes that have been explored in this paper as a simple overview of what one might consider during the design phase. Although the table presents major trends and characteristics, some individual situations may fall outside those ratings and descriptions. Also, absent in Table 1 is a rating of delivery mode with respect to learning outcomes and student interactions. This can vary greatly and is really more dependent on the particulars of the activity rather than delivery mode.
Table 1.
Table 1. Main advantages and disadvantages across teaching laboratory delivery modes.
First, the role of interaction of student with teacher, fellow students, and the content itself is an important consideration. Anderson’s equivalence theorem argues that deep learning is supported when at least one of those three interactions is strong.33 However, most chemistry educators try to maximize all three, and every delivery mode shown in Table 1 has the potential a high level of interaction. Sufficient presence and interaction needs to be designed as part of laboratory work (including the face-to-face mode). Interaction is also an important component of the core learning outcome of communication. Although laboratory reports are great vehicles for written communication, there is also opportunity to foster further science and social communications through activities like presentations, collaborations, and outreach. Second, the standard learning outcomes for a laboratory component like knowledge and understanding, perception, inquiry skills, analytical skills, and communication can potentially be achieved in any of the delivery modes. Again, the degree of effectiveness depends on the design particulars of the specific activity rather than the delivery mode itself. The obvious outlier is the practical skills learning outcome where hands-on laboratories offer a greater potential with physical manipulations.
One important idea to keep in mind in developing alternate laboratories is that you can employ more than one mode shown earlier in Fig. 1. The laboratory modes can be combined in a similar manner to the blending strategies used for the lecture portion of the course. The most common pairing is virtual followed by face-to-face, just like using a flight simulator to train a pilot. Although this combination can offer more learning potential than either mode on its own,118–120 the best order to present these is not always from simulation to reality.121 Other laboratory mode groupings exist, including one example of organic synthesis (face-to-face) with characterization of the product by FTIR (remote control), once students qualified to use the instrument online by taking tutorials that included simulations (virtual).122
As we reflect on combinations and getting the right laboratory mix, we should also be aware of the multipurpose nature of many of these multimedia materials, which can be used pre-, syn- and post-experiment.118 Although the pandemic has driven many chemistry instructors to look at the laboratory in a new light and to create, adopt, and adapt new materials for remote use, it may not necessarily be a one-time effort. Several colleagues have noted the dual-use nature of these materials (D.C. Stone, University of Toronto, private communication, 2020), where experiments developed for online courses can also serve as first-rate preparation materials for laboratories to be performed in person.69

Social mandate and future trends

Major drivers like the COVID pandemic (short term) and the rapid development of new technologies and ubiquitous access to information (longer term) will no doubt shape the nature of chemistry teaching laboratories in the 21st century. More systematic assessments of laboratory activities measuring stated learning outcomes (that go beyond grades and student satisfaction) will be crucial to inform our understanding of learning in the laboratory and future designs. Accompanying trends, like the emergence of open educational resources (OER)123,124 or the merging of formal, informal, and non-formal learning,125 will be welcomed if not required. Essentially, the recognition and development of alternative laboratory experiences is a part of that larger story in higher education of accessibility. It certainly carries with it a strong social mandate that has global implications for chemistry education.
From a chemistry instructor’s vantage point, three immediate trends are emerging: learning analytics, universal design, and citizen science. For those modes of delivery that have any sort of digital component (self-guided field trip, remote control, virtual), there is an opportunity to directly track learner activity and not have to exclusively rely on self-reports in surveys. The field of learning analytics is rapidly growing and provides a useful tool for improving the learning environment for the student.126 Alternative laboratory delivery modes also open the door to universal design principles that could potentially provide access for students from a wider range of situations and abilities — and can often benefit the average learner as well.127 Finally, crowd-sourcing work in the form of citizen science has been used successfully by some researchers.128 In the appropriate situation, that approach can also be used to engage students in practical work involving collaboration and a real research project.


The laboratory is an important component of many chemistry courses and programs, but it is difficult to incorporate effectively, especially when supporting online or distance learning. Alternate laboratory modes have been shown to produce equivalent student performance compared with in-person experiences. In this literature review, we have examined five modes of laboratory delivery (i.e., face-to-face, virtual, remote control, home-study kits and, to a lesser extent self-guided field trips) that may be considered in providing quality practical laboratory activities to support online studies. There is no one correct mode; each brings its own particular strengths and weaknesses. The selection and blending of those modes, driven by learning outcomes and other factors, was discussed as part of the considerations during the overview on designing and integrating laboratory activities. Future laboratory design will certainly include not only new technologies, but potentially also elements like OER, learning analytics, universal design, and citizen science.
McLuhan and Fiore once observed that “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future”.129 In a sense, as we explore alternative chemistry laboratory experiences to support online courses, we move ahead looking back on traditional laboratories — not just for our own comfort and orientation, but to bring along the best parts.


We thank Roberta Franchuk for providing the artwork for the graphics.


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cover image Canadian Journal of Chemistry
Canadian Journal of Chemistry
Volume 99Number 11November 2021
Pages: 851 - 859


Received: 18 December 2020
Accepted: 25 May 2021
Accepted manuscript online: 3 June 2021
Version of record online: 3 June 2021


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Key Words

  1. laboratory
  2. online
  3. distance
  4. virtual
  5. remote
  6. home study
  7. review
  8. chemistry education


  1. laboratoire
  2. en ligne
  3. distance
  4. virtuel
  5. à distance
  6. étude à domicile
  7. examen
  8. formation en chimie



Dietmar Kennepohl [email protected]
Athabasca University, Edmonton, AB, Canada.


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