Virtual Labs: Transforming the Hybrid Future in Higher Education

Educational technology is going through a period of blooming and acceptance. Higher education leadership and academia are incorporating more cloud-based virtual lab options with real-time guidance and feedback. 

Virtual labs are far from being a recent development, though. These virtual environments have been around in one way or another since the early days of Apple computers, back in the 1980s. 

Forty years later, in the 2020s, the access to industry-grade equipment and advanced virtual learning environment (VLE) options provide new and more exciting learning experiences. The result is more student engagement, better grades, and better student attraction and retention. 

According to a global survey conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on what higher education will look like in 2025, 72 percent of over 27,500 respondents predict that hybrid learning models will be the norm by 2025.

Twenty three percent believe higher education will move mostly online, while around 49 percent think it will be split between in-person and online. Only 29 percent of the respondents think higher education will be delivered only or mostly in-person. 

Transitioning from all virtual back to blended and face-to-face after the pandemic: Incorporating virtual labs 

Some colleges and universities have already adopted virtual environments. Arizona College of Nursing is a great example of how the initial use of virtual labs as a solution to continue instruction during the pandemic became part of the regular curriculum. The reason was simple: Great student engagement and increased active learning. 

Since March 2020, Arizona College of Nursing has been using 45 Labster virtual labs to teach 8,400 students. The private college currently has 13 campuses across the United States. At first, Dr. Amber Kool, Associate Provost,  Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona College of Nursing, decided to start using virtual labs as an alternative during the pandemic. 

However, when she realized that the use of Labster virtual labs translated into increased active learning and more student engagement she decided on incorporating virtual lab simulations in all lab courses as well as in some concept-based courses. About student engagement, Dr. Kool said “they [the students] love the virtual labs, they love the interaction. They love how informative they are.”

Virtual environments and virtual labs push students to use critical thinking since they have to make all the decisions. By learning how and when to take action in an immersive simulation, the experience can help in the future when they need to make a decision in real-life scenarios. This way of learning is more effective than just trying to memorize something.  

This teaching shift trend marks the beginning of a virtual education future, a part of the blended learning and instruction model that is here to stay. It is paramount to remember that learning and collaborating in virtual environments prepare students with the skills needed for the careers they will have to face in the future.