How to Transition Your Lab to the Virtual Classroom


The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is forcing colleges and universities around the world to transition their classrooms online. While engineering lab work can be especially difficult to transition to an online learning environment, some instructors are finding creative ways to recreate the activities virtually.

Best practices from Stanford University advise lab instructors to transition whatever aspects of their physical labs they can and save the rest for when students can return to the classroom. They also advise instructors to leverage online resources, like Merlot, for virtual labs and simulation tools as well as to check with textbook makers to find out if they already provide online resources for students. 

Transitioning to an Online Environment

For any lab instructor who isn’t familiar with conducting online classes through digital tools such as Zoom or WebEx, David Joyner, Executive Director of the Online Master of Science in Computer Science and Online Education in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, has five solutions that can help ease the transition. His number one tip for novice online instructors is to pre-record lessons instead of trying to conduct them live. This will help you avoid mistakes as you acquaint yourself with the online learning system.

Even when using pre-recorded lessons, you can still feature live interactivity. During your simulive lesson, you can have designated breaks to switch from the pre-recorded lecture to a live Q&A session. This will allow students time to voice their questions as well as a time for you to provide further clarification when needed. 

“It doesn’t have to be purely a canned lecture. You can put your best foot forward on the critical content, and then build interactivity around that,” writes Joyner. “If I was teaching in-person and rapidly shifting online, I would spend the next few days (since this seems to align with spring break for so many) recording all my lectures for the rest of the term.”

Creating an Interactive Virtual Lab

One of the most difficult challenges for engineering instructors as they shift to online learning will be figuring out how to give their students interactive, hands-on learning opportunities.

In a recent video message, Krishna Rajagopal, Dean for Digital Learning at MIT, said some MIT instructors are finding new ways to virtually engage students with hands-on learning.

“They’re working to find creative solutions and silver linings,” Rajagopal said. “They’re figuring out ways of getting at some of the underlying goals that sometimes get lost in all the lab work. They’re planning for CAD projects, and/or they’re thinking about having students build stuff with like cardboard boxes, things that they can find at home.” 

Professor Donna Riley, Head of the School of Engineering Education at Kamyar Haghighi, told Fierce Electronics that she is utilizing a document camera to make it easier to teach Python programming to her students online. By walking through the code and explaining the concepts, her students are able to focus step-by-step on the code as opposed to a more overwhelming amount all at once.

Riley also mentions that instructors may eventually be able to use a teaching module that features a design on a circuit board. Students could use the module to create models of their own circuit boards at home. They would then photograph their circuit boards, and upload the photos online for their instructors and fellow classmates to examine.

If available, simulation software can be a great way to provide virtual hands-on learning experiences for students. Alex Sergeyev, a professor at Michigan Technology University’s College of Computing, is the founder of a number of educational mechatronics portals. While the portals currently support robotics courses at Mich Tech and at several local community colleges, Sergeyev wants to make the portals available to anyone.

“By building the database of the available resources and sharing it with universities and community colleges nationwide will have a huge impact on addressing the students’ needs, especially in the current situation,” Sergeyev told Michigan Tech News.

Free Webinar: Online Delivery of Engineering Programs: Tips You Can Use From an Experienced ABET-Accredited Program

Date: 9 April 2020
Time: 10:30am ET

In 2013, Arizona State University’s (ASU) Electrical Engineering program became the first bachelor’s level ABET-accredited engineering program to be available 100% online. In this live virtual event, Stephen Phillips, Professor and Director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at ASU, will discuss online delivery strategies used in the program as well as highlight lessons learned and specific techniques that can be used by faculty looking to convert to online delivery.

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Free On-Demand Webinar: Using eLearning to Support Distance Learning

At IEEE, we know that faculty at many universities are suddenly being asked to offer courses exclusively online. It can be challenging to create resources that are effective and immediately available.

When adapting engineering and computer science curriculum for a distance learning environment, eLearning courses can be a valuable tool to supplement instruction and engage students. This on-demand virtual event can help you learn techniques that can help you supplement your curriculum and keep students learning.

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Stanford – Tech Anywhere Best Practices

Harlan, Matt. (20 March 2020). Teaching tech online amid the panic of coronavirus. FierceElectronics.

Joyner, David. (17 March 2020). Five Tips for Moving Courses Online Quickly, from an OMSCS Instructor. Georgia Tech News Center.

Mills, Allison. (16 March 2020). MTU Profs Shift Teaching and Labs to Remote Instruction. Michigan Tech News.

MIT Announcement: COVID-19. (11 March 2020). Message from Krishna Rajagopal, Dean for Digital Learning. Teach Remote MIT.

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