Managing labs remotely

The information on this page was prepared in Spring 2020 for the transition to emergency remote teaching. In preparation for Fall 2020, Duke Learning Innovation has developed a new resource, Flexible Teaching, which features a series of guides for course design, delivery, and materials. Please refer to as you prepare for your fall course(s).

What is the purpose of the labs? What are the students to be learning from these labs? First, figure out the goal(s) of the lab sessions. Then, chose the option(s) that best meet the goals:

Learn a particular technique

If your goal is for students to be able to use a particular technique, possibly online simulations or videos will be helpful. Here are some online labs or demonstrations:

  • Virtual Labs allow employees, students and staff to use free software containers and virtual machines that provide Duke computing resources from a web browser, which prevents troubleshooting issues on personal computers. See this recent post for more information.
  • LabXchange contains simulations and demonstrations of molecular biology techniques
  • Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) is a peer reviewed video journal of demonstrations of laboratory fundamentals. Duke Libraries has a subscription; start at the library website to access full content. There are video demonstrations of experiments in biology, chemistry, engineering and psychology. (see page on off-campus access for help:
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute has high quality interactive labs for biology topics
  • MERLOT has a collection of virtual science labs from a variety of sources
  • PhET includes many interactive simulations in physics, chemistry, biology, earth science and math
  • check your professional society online – many have identified and vetted teaching materials 
  • check with your textbook publisher – many have online resources that could be used and/or adapted for a lab
  • Need more? Check this massive list of online science simulations and laboratory resources

To check that students have learned the technique, you can ask what happens if they leave out a certain step, or ask them to put steps in the correct order. 

Visualize a principle

If your goal is for students to visualize a principle (that is, the lab is a demonstration), you may be able to find high quality online demonstrations, at some of the same sources linked above. Here are some ideas to help students learn from the demonstration:

  • To help students learn to apply the principle, describe the demonstration, and ask them to predict what will happen. Ask that they explain their reasoning. 
  • After the demonstration, students to explain what happened and why. Ask if their prediction was correct, and why or why not.
  • Ask students to make a prediction given a different set of parameters. 

Interpret experimental data

If your goal is for students to be able to interpret experimental data, you can find and share data sets from:

  • published literature
  • student reports in previously-taught courses.

Conduct authentic research

If your goal is to have students do authentic research projects, your students may already have made progress. Perhaps it’s time to have them present what they have now. Students can present data, interpretations, predictions, design the experiments to address the next question, or present the next hypothesis. Also consider having students design and carry out experiments with items they have available. For example, one Physics professor asked his students to use a magnet in one of the objects they had at home to illustrate a principle, and create a video explanation. 

Students can make brief videos of:

  • poster presentations
  • talks with slides
  • demonstrations
  • Pecha Kucha (20 images, 20 seconds each) 
  • dance the research

or do written reports. 

For any of these options, break down the assignment into smaller steps where the students can get feedback from the instructor or from peers (or use self-reflection) to improve on the next step and the final project.