The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 47: 231 - 236 (2003)

Vol 47, Issue 2-3

Special Issue: Teaching Developmental Biology

Virtual labs: a substitute for traditional labs?

Published: 1 January 2003

Rebecca K Scheckler

Department of Computer Science, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060, USA.


Current technologies give us the ability to enhance and replace developmental biology classes with computer-based resources, often called virtual labs. In the process of using these resources, teachers may be tempted to neglect the simpler technologies and lab bench activities, which can be labor intensive. In this paper, I take a critical look at the role of computer-based materials for the teaching of developmental biology in order to aid teachers in assessing their value. I conclude that while digital tools have value, they should not replace all of the traditional laboratory activities. Clearly, both computer-enhanced activities and traditional labs must be included in laboratory exercises. Reliance on only one or the other is inappropriate. In order to determine when it is appropriate to use a particular educational tool, the goals of the course and the needs of biology students for an education that gives them a realistic and engaged view of biology must be understood. In this paper, I dispel some of the myths of computer tools and give specific guidelines for assessing their usage, taking into account the special needs of a developmental biology class and the difficulties of observing all the developmental stages of subject organisms in the timescale of class meetings.

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