The emerging educational effectiveness of a virtual microscope and virtual demonstrator during the COVID-19 crisis. (2021)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameMaster of Science
Laboratory sessions (labs) in geology, like in many other fields of science, provide crucial practical learning experiences that teach skills and apply the theory learned during lectures. In mineralogy and petrology courses, polarised light microscopy in particular helps students build fundamental geological skills through inquiry-based learning, and hands-on use of an analytical instrument. From 25 March to 27 April 2020, New Zealand was placed under lockdown due to the community transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Geology undergraduates at the University of Canterbury (UC) were consequently unable to attend their weekly physical labs. As such, the Virtual Microscope/Demonstrator (VMD 1.0) was developed with the assistance of the teaching staff. The VMD 1.0 was a two-part online platform which allowed students from the introductory igneous and metamorphic petrology and petrography course at UC to complete their lab work and receive feedback remotely during the lockdown period.
In the VMD 1.0, a virtual microscope (VM) and virtual demonstrator (VD) worked together to provide students with a lab experience as close to face-to-face as practical. The VM provided students remote access to samples while the VD would provide students with feedback by utilising of a step-by-step guide through the sample. This guided learning provided by the VD is what sets the VMD platform apart from other online microscopes.
During 2020, students used the VMD 1.0 as a replacement for labs, this was not necessary in 2021, as they were able to attend all their labs face-to-face. As such, the VMD 1.0 was modified to act more as a supplementary tool in a blended lab setting (VMD 2.0). This research examines student reflections to assess the effectiveness of both the VMD 1.0 and 2.0, informed by prior work on digital microscopes and remote learning.
In 2020 36 students in the course gave their consent to take part in this study, in 2021 39 students from a different cohort gave their consent. Both sets of students sat lab exams at the end of each term and completed a reflective questionnaire afterwards. These questionnaires were analysed for content in accordance with the aims of this study. The results from the 2020 cohort show that overall, students felt that the VMD 1.0 was beneficial to their learning experience in the absence of face-to-face lab sessions. However, despite the effectiveness of the VMD 1.0 in replacing face-to-face labs, students still preferred having in-person interactions with the teaching staff and the microscopes.
The VMD 1.0 was then improved upon in 2021 based on the 2020 cohort’s feedback and was modified accordingly to act as a supplementary tool. Changes included: reducing the amount of information present in the VMD 2.0 to make it more concise, improving the microscope videos, and adding multichoice questions with directed feedback. The effectiveness of the VMD 2.0 was analysed via the use of reflective questionnaires in the same manner as the previous year. Students’ perception of the available online material was more positive in 2021 than students in 2020, both before and after they had access to any form of the VMD (i.e., before and during the COVID-19 lockdown). It can therefore be concluded that the VMD 2.0 was effective as a supplementary tool for face-to-face labs in 2021.
Students identified three key aspects of the VMD 2.0 that are supported by educational theory: (1) the step-by-step guide provided instructional scaffolding; (2) automated feedback provided an additional opportunity for students to obtain an expert’s view; and (3) the convenience of access provided flexible opportunities to reinforce concepts and skills relevant to their learning. In the future, more research is encouraged to identify the impact that the VMD 2.0 may have on students’ grades, and how to further improve the VMD 2.0 based on student feedback. Overall, the VMD 2.0 has proven to be an effective supplementary tool for students which can easily be expanded upon or adapted to suit different educational environments and needs.
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