In a previous post, my Lovely Assistant discussed her adventures with teaching the lecture portion of microbiology in an online format. Teaching the lecture portion of a microbiology course online is not inherently different from teaching any lecture-based course online. As an instructor, you have to figure out how to engage students with multiple learning styles and assess them effectively. In my opinion, the microbiology lab is an entirely different animal than lecture. There are many variables to consider, including safety, good aseptic technique, and demonstration of acquired skills as well as knowledge and understanding. Of course, depending on the microbiology course, an instructor could be working with non-majors students, allied health students, or microbiology majors. The lab for each (as well as the lecture) has a different purpose and scope. Herein lies the rub: With the increasing demand for online courses, whether it is from the students or the administration, there is also a demand for labs to be administered "online" or at least in a more convenient locale for distance learners than a college microbiology laboratory. How is that done with microbiology, exactly?
[Image courtesy: http://www.lab-initio.com/screen_res/nz122.jpg]
To meet these demands for online or at-home learning, a number of companies provide microbiology lab kit packs to use at home. These kits are designed to give students the experience of culturing, isolating, Gram staining, and testing microbes outside of an on-campus laboratory. At-home kits range from $250 – 300 and provide the tools needed to study microbes – some even come with an oil immersion microscope. Many lab activities can be duplicated, and the student has the benefit of manipulating microbes and media, but there are limitations on the types of microbes that can be used due to the issue of biohazard disposal. Additionally, there is no way to determine the level of student engagement as with an on-campus lab.
[Image courtesy: http://people.auc.ca/antunes/teaching/microbiology-2026-weblog/]
“Given that online courses are not going away, the concept of “at home labs” is worthy of exploration. The LabPaq lab manuals would require major peer review and an expansion of the technical sophistication of the activities before they could be considered equivalent to a college-level laboratory course.”
Clearly these kits have promise, but they aren’t equivalent to an on campus laboratory experience.
[Image courtesy: http://nitaarifindarius.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/microbiology-cartoon/]
Here are some issues that I see with utilizing at-home microbiology lab kits:
- No demonstration or monitoring of student technique.
- Limitations on the number and types of microbes that can be utilized due to biohazard issues.
- No way to test the students on their lab experience and knowledge – there is no arena for a lab practical exam.
In my opinion, the primary purpose of the introductory microbiology course, especially for pre-allied health students, is to introduce students to aseptic technique. Good aseptic technique is an essential skill not only for a microbiology laboratory, but also for working with patients in a hospital or clinical setting. Having an awareness of where the microbes most likely to be on a patient or in a hospital room and an understanding of the types of infections these microbes can cause is key to infection prevention in the hospital or in the clinic. Can an at-home lab teach that awareness? At the end of the day, my goal for my pre-allied health students is not that they’ll have a perfect streak-plate or Gram staining technique, but that they will understand the importance of maintaining a sterile field, manipulating sterile instruments, and washing their hands between patients. Yes, they will have reinforcement of these principles in their courses in medical and nursing school, but we plant the seeds in the introductory microbiology course. In my opinion, although at-home labs can be valuable for teaching the principles of microbiology, they are not effective in teaching good practices of aseptic technique.
Fellow Mavenites, what is your opinion? Have you worked with virtual or at-home microbiology kits? If so, do you feel that they are effective instruments? Why or why not? Online education is now part of the college experience. How can we make it better?