Doing Science Online: The State of Middle School Virtual Labs

Concurrent Session 8

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

An ethnographic content analysis exploring science practices and crosscutting concepts identified in online science labs students in cyber charter schools was completed. Constructivist design features with potential to support learning were identified. Results show that certain practices like communication are lacking but others like interpreting data were more likely. 


I am the online learning librarian for Penn State and am responsible for delivering effective library services, instruction, and resources to World Campus students as well as serving as the online learning expert for the library.

Extended Abstract

Students in cyber charter schools complete the majority of their coursework through the computer. These students are completing their science courses online. Virtual science labs are used in many of these schools to have students experiment and investigate scientific phenomena. There is a lack of research around the student experience in cyber charter schools. This study is significant because it analyzed the virtual labs that students are actually using in school for their potential to engage students with science practices and crosscutting concepts. This study is a directed, ethnographic content analysis because it relies on categories and themes identified in previous literature around the phenomena of virtual science labs and constructivist design supports while expecting emergent findings to be produced through the analysis. Science practices and crosscutting concepts were identified because they are integral components of the Next Generation Science Standards for students experiencing science as scientists would be experiencing science. None of the previous studies with virtual labs have placed them in the context of a cyber charter school. Middle school students in cyber charter schools have needs different than students who are in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. These students are likely to be completing their coursework at home, in isolation from their peers, and at different times of the day. This context requires that virtual science labs be analyzed with consideration of the learning environment to understand the constraints and affordances of that environment. Previous studies have contributed extensive amounts of research on the content that students are learning from virtual science labs (Pyatt & Sims, 2011, Zacharia & Olympiou, 2011) but not the scientific inquiry that students engaged in with these labs. Science practices are related to scientific inquiry but intended to be more representative of what scientists are doing in the field such as being more circular and less linear in their investigations (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012). Crosscutting concepts are the enduring concepts that extend beyond content to organize thoughts in a way similar to how experts think about the field (Quinn et al., 2012).


The purpose of this study was to uncover the potential that virtual labs used in cyber charter schools have to engage students in practices and concepts fundamental to science. The research questions in this study are: “What are the variations of labs that are in cyber charter schools curricula?” and “Are there identifiable markers observed in the labs in cyber charter middle school classrooms that have the potential to engage learners in science practices and crosscutting concepts for the students?” and “Are there constructivist design components used in the labs to support the potential the labs have to engage students in science practices and crosscutting concepts?”

The data collection methods in this study were a directed, ethnographic content analysis of twenty virtual labs from five cyber charter schools and semi-structured interviews with teachers who are responsible for delivering the labs. The teacher interviews lasted between thirty and ninety minutes and were conducted virtually. The teacher interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The ethnographic content analysis followed the procedures outlined by Altheide & Schneider (2013) that culminated with case study descriptions of the virtual labs and a numerical summary of the identified science practices, crosscutting concepts, and constructivist supports.

There were eight themes identified from the teacher interviews related to the virtual science labs. These themes are: (1) the design of the labs; (2) teacher dedication and improvisation; (3) teacher availability to students; (4) communication practices; (5) parental expectations from the school; (6) challenges with the virtual labs; (7) willingness to allow revisions and give detailed feedback to students; and (8) teacher definitions of labs in the virtual setting. Three of the most interesting findings from the interviews were that teachers excelled at promoting a mastery-based learning environment where students where free to fail and try again, that there was not a salient definition of what was meant by a virtual science lab, and that some of the teachers designed their own curricula while other teachers had to teach a purchased curriculum package.

From the ethnographic content analysis it was found that all of the science practices were identified in at least one of the virtual labs. However, certain practices were lacking across schools such as students communicating about their findings from the lab (10%), asking research questions (40%), and engaging in argumentation from evidence (30%). Science practices more commonly seen were developing and using models (70%), planning and carrying out investigations (70%), and analyzing and interpreting data (60%). The crosscutting concepts identified tended to be implicit (34%) in their design rather than explicit (19%). Quinn et al (2012) stressed the importance of making the concepts explicit because the underlying knowledge structures and ways of thinking about the world are not easily formed by novice learners. All of the constructivist design features were identified in at least one of the labs. Some of these features limited the power and control of students in the labs such as controlling confounding variables for students or only allowing certain parts of the lab to be interactive. Other features promoted ill-structured problem-solving and using scaffolding to guide students in their problem-solving. The labs did not frequently ask students for their prior knowledge (25%) or reflection throughout the labs (25%). An interesting finding from the analysis was that some of the labs were experiments in that students were expected to prep and set-up the equipment while others were simulations that were prepared for students. The labs then had students either observe or be active manipulators to make an action happen. This is different than previous understanding of experiments and simulations (Crippen, Archembault, & Kern, 2013).

The limitations of this study are that while it is generalizable to a larger population of virtual labs than traditional qualitative research, the contextualization with teacher interviews limit the generalizability of the findings as a whole; and that content analysis is not a hermeneutic method that seeks to arrive at complete understandings of a phenomenon, but rather intends to focus on specific parts of the phenomenon. An implication of this study is that while the virtual labs deliver some aspects of science practices, crosscutting concepts, and good constructivist design features no lab was ideal. The role of the teacher in tailoring other curricula experiences around the virtual labs to create a comprehensive experience for students cannot be overstated. In addition, this study should prompt further research about the potential of the virtual labs to engage students in more than learning content. When analyzing the virtual labs it became clear that the analysis was not black and white. A range of the themes/concepts identified was an important finding of this research. The labs would be open-ended in some aspects and very controlled in others or it would have students interpret data but the data would be provided to the students. A future study could refine the initial identification of the categories in virtual labs.

This session will engage attendees by having interactive polls built into the presentation, eliciting feedback from the audience on experience they have with using virtual interactive software to increase active learning for students, and having intentional discussion slides after particularly important processes/findings from the research study. The outcomes of this session are that (a) attendees will be able to summarize similarities and differences of the virtual labs that cyber charter schools choose to use, the variation in how cyber charter schools choose to deliver their curricula, and the potential these labs have to engage students in science practices and crosscutting concepts; (b) attendees will analyze the importance of the teacher, even in an online environment; and (c) attendees will articulate the difficulties with structuring effective communication in online learning environments, particularly for younger students.




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Quinn, H., Schweingruber, H., & Keller, T. (Eds.) (2012). A framework for K-12 science

            education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC:

            The National Academies Press.

Zacharia, Z. C., & Olympiou, G. (2011). Physical versus virtual manipulative

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doi: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2010.03.001