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Researchers work to improve remote laboratory learning

They are studying ways to enhance the virtual learning experience

Dominik May has been researching, studying and evaluating the practice of remote learning for the duration of his academic career. The experience will serve May well given his current circumstances: he’ll be teaching and leading research projects at the University of Georgia remotely from his native Germany for at least part of Fall semester.

May, an assistant professor in UGA’s College of Engineering, will join instructors around the world who have rapidly shifted to online instruction in the wake of the pandemic.

With UGA preparing for a mixture of in-person experiences and remote learning for the 2020-21 academic year, May also recognized an opportunity to study ways to enhance the virtual learning experience for both faculty and students.

Thanks to a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant, May and his team will evaluate the experiences and effectiveness of incorporating remote technology into the laboratory environment. Joining May in the study from the College of Engineering are Fred Beyette, chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and faculty members Beshoy Morkos, Joachim Walther and Nathaniel Hunsu. The group also features Andrew Jackson, an assistant professor at the Mary Frances Early College of Education, and Amy Ingalls, an instructional designer with UGA’s Online Learning Center.

Better understanding of user experience

“In the time of COVID-19, remote labs are sometimes the only way to do experiments still using real equipment, and classes like engineering rely heavily on experiments,” May said. “One of the core elements of these classes is that you get to know the equipment, and you get to learn the theory behind doing the experiments. If you cut out the experimentation piece, you cut out a big portion of the curriculum.”

The project aims to build a better understanding of the user experience in the remote environment, particularly at a time when students may not have expected to be learning online. The study’s findings can provide insights on what works well in the existing environment, as well as offer clues on how the broader remote learning experience might be improved. May and his team will also explore ways educators are responding to the rapid shift to online-based lab modules.

“Now we can use these technologies to keep experimentation in the curriculum and experience it during an extraordinary but extremely interesting time because it’s the only option. This context gives us a unique opportunity for doing research in this area.”

Crafting their own schedule

If implemented properly, May believes remote learning offers several advantages. One of the more obvious advantages is the flexibility online learning creates for the students. Rather than being wed to a particular time and place for a lab session, they are able to craft a schedule that suits their needs and interests.

May says remote learning also can serve as a study aid, enabling students to repeat a lab in advance of a test or class. It also provides the opportunity for students to conduct various levels of experimentation in advance of in-person lab sessions.

He also believes a greater integration of remote learning practices can help universities reimagine not only how courses could be structured, but also how students can get more out of their collegiate experience.

Currently, many students are forced into an either-or approach when it comes to opportunities such as study-abroad experiences, internships or even vacation plans in the summer. According to May, a fully integrated remote learning experience would give students more choices and greater flexibility, empowering them to do – and accomplish – more.

Seeking student input

The potential of remote learning is one reason why Ingalls believes it’s imperative to collect user feedback in this moment so universities can adjust and modify their existing approach.

“I don’t think we ask students to give their input in authentic ways enough, and that is separate from asking them to do a course evaluation,” Ingalls said. “This means asking them to go through that course experience and tell us what worked and what didn’t work.”

The expansion of remote learning doesn’t erase the value of in-person experiences in the classroom and the lab, according to May. He wants educators and students to recognize the proper understanding and application of remote technology can enhance the overall educational experience.

“If I advocate for online technology, it’s not that I’m advocating against face-to-face teaching and vice versa,” May said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to both. With our research, we will find and define ways of how to combine both approaches for the best overall learning experience for our students.”

By Johnathan McGinty | Photos: Dorothy Kozlowski, UGA and Mark Sorrow

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