In the sciences, the standard vehicle for teaching practical skills is the lab course. Labs offer students the opportunity to engage with real lab equipment, to analyse authentic data, to experience the wonder of observation.
Today, almost all the lab work is available online through university´s websites such as OpenScience Laboratory. Through the website working scientists and students can collect real data from remotely controlled instruments. Students can also explore real data with simulated instruments such as the virtual microscope, with which they look at high-resolution images instead of real specimens.
However, "You only understand something when you know how to do it,” says Chris Dede, who studies simulations for education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “And that´s not possible to abstract in a lecture.” Almost by definition, practical skills have to be acquired through experience. They require the hands-on, problem-solving activities that have traditionally been the domain of laboratory courses, field trips, internships and, eventually, project work in the lab.
The new online science apps asuch as iSpot and Schatz´s MOOC are trying to engage lectures with practical skills heavily influenced by the philosophy of ´enquiry-based´ learning. Instead of trying to fill students´ heads with knowledge through a lecture or a recipe-style laboratory exercise — telling them the answer, so to speak — enquiry-based learning puts them to work in teams, challenges them with a question and lets them struggle to find their own answer.