A curly conundrum came to the attention of Dr Alexander Engel while he was a lecturer in Anatomy & Physiology at Charles Darwin University – one which brought to light the topical issue of online delivery of pracs and labs in bioscience courses.

The problem was this: one of his online undergraduate bioscience students was applying for a post-graduate physiotherapy course. But one pre-requisite cast dark clouds over this student’s ambitions: the Musculoskeletal Anatomy pre-requisite conditions clearly stated: ‘cannot be an online unit‘ and ‘must include wet lab/cadaveric content‘. For this online student, their chosen mode of undergraduate study suddenly became a hurdle to their graduate study goals.

While online study has become a key blended learning component across higher education, perhaps we’re not yet all on the same page when it comes to the value of online delivery of practical work in biosciences.

Moving online – by choice and by necessity

Let’s revisit a familiar scene during COVID-19 lockdowns: dining tables became desks, chat rooms became classrooms, and for our bioscience students loungerooms became labs. When online delivery was thrust upon all disciplines, prac requirements had to swiftly follow suit with this blended learning approach. Multimedia resources of textbooks like Tortora’s Principles of Anatomy & Physiology filled an immediate gap, providing online interactive activities to engage bioscience students.

Of course, in a nation with more students opting to learn remotely, Australia already had biosciences courses being delivered online.

In fact, some courses no longer run hands-on labs at all for first-year Anatomy and Physiology, even if they have both on-campus and online cohorts. Consider Dr Engel’s cohort in the Northern Territory: 250 on-campus students in Darwin and 700 students studying online. The size of his online cohort means if he offers face-to-face options, he would disadvantage the online students that live in regional communities.

What do online pracs and labs look like in bioscience?

As a lecturer in Anatomy and Physiology and co-author of the newest edition of Tortora’s Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, Dr Engel suggests the following 5 L’s when teaching online students:

Learning through mini-lectures
Short engaging video content of the practical task or lab task being performed by others

Learning through observation 
Lecturers and lab technicians filming onsite for students to watch; for example, examining a cadaver in the wet lab.

Learning through engagement
Interactive practical tasks that utilise media resources provided in Tortora’s multimedia library.

Learning in a virtual setting
Virtual reality options will increase as technology becomes more accessible.

Learning through self-investigation
Instructional activities that students can do by themselves, such as discovering how osmosis works with a slice of cucumber.

The challenges of online pracs and labs: learning outcomes

There are some challenges to prac work in the online environment. Dr Hayley Green, Senior Lecturer in Human Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at Western Sydney University, recognises the need for online options, but say it’s just as important that students have the option of face-to-face delivery.

Dr Green highlighted some challenges that bioscience instructors have encountered:

  • While comprehensive, advanced technology exists to assess a human body and explore the anatomy of a cadaver, sometimes contextualising Anatomy and Physiology requires experiencing the sights, smells and sounds – something difficult to simulate in an online experience.
  • There are benefits to in-person collaborative clinical education that are hard to replicate. Clinical problem-solving, real-time communication with lab technicians and prac instructors, the opportunity to get immediate feedback and hear other people ask questions are just a few. First Year students may find it hard to establish these skills in self-directed asynchronous learning – and bioscience subjects are already quite overwhelming in terms of content.

Let’s not forget about our student’s sticky issue of prerequisites that preclude online labs. Dr Green is also an Academic Course Adviser – she reminds students to always be mindful of entry requirements. If students want their course to be a stepping stone to another, then their choice of units, specialisations and even delivery mode can be a barrier or an asset to their graduate pathway.