Virtual learning environments and practical chemistry labs: A guest blog from Prof. Dudley Shallcross

Prof. Dudley Shallcross
April 11, 2022

Professor Dudley Shallcross is a professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry and the current president of the education division of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Previously, he was a co-director of Bristol ChemLabS, the UK Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) for practical chemistry, as well as CEO of the Primary Science Teaching Trust. He’s a UK national teaching fellow, and has won several science education awards, including the Nyholm Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the George C.Pimentel Award from the American Chemical Society. He was awarded a DSc. from the University of Warwick for his contributions to science education in 2020.


I was a Director of Bristol ChemLabS, the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the UK for practical Chemistry, from 2005-2010. Bristol ChemLabS developed and pioneered the use of the virtual learning environment to enhance the laboratory experience for students, build confidence in practical skills (not replace the actual lab.) and chemical concepts, through virtual instruments, videos of experimental set ups, rehearsing calculations and providing an effective environment to assess health and safety (Harrison et al., 2009; 2011; Shallcross et al., 2013; 2015). Working with the newly formed LearnSci (then known as Learning Science) ca. 2005, at the start of the CETL’s journey, I have continued to work closely with LearnSci for many years and developed foundation and post-16 LabSkills packages for school students and Higher Education students, as well as The Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM) for practical Chemistry (Shallcross et al., 2015). In this overview, I consider the current state of virtual learning in practical Chemistry, consider lessons learned in the last few years in the wake of the pandemic and look forward to the future of virtual enhanced learning.


When I was an undergraduate in the late 80s, computer-controlled instruments and /or automated logging of data from such experiments in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory was the state-of-the art. Now academics are experimenting with setting up live experiments that can be controlled and run remotely (Soong et al., 2019; Saxena and Satsangee, 2019). Such innovations are excellent for students on distance learning courses, working with students who have disabilities that restrict laboratory work, working in a pandemic where access to laboratories is restricted and can be extended to working with and in industrial settings. Here, health and safety and/or security issues make accessing such industry-based instruments in person very hard (Famularo et al., 2015). The downsides of this approach include, the setting up of the instrument, its control programming and connectivity with the user require much time, expertise, and planning. The experiment is locked out until the student(s) have logged in and completed the experiment and of course it needs to be reset before it can be ready for another user. Therefore, unless it is a simple and cheap experiment, there will need to be a strict timetable for its use and time required from technical staff to reset quickly and mend any faults or replace breakages. These types of experiments rely on good connectivity, and it would be fair to say that this will work well with some ‘physical chemistry’ type experiments, where the load is on the control of an instrument and experimental conditions. An experiment that involves carrying out a synthesis is much more challenging in this mode and indeed, research chemists are only now experimenting with such synthesiser technology (Blair et al., 2022). 

Back in the 80s, the thought of videoing an experiment was pretty daunting, and even with camcorders, how would you provide access to the video to students easily unless they were on campus and in a room with a video player and the relevant video tape? Now, videos, showing how to set up an experiment, have become much easier with the advances in mobile phone technology and some clever adaptations to bring in forms of assessment, where students themselves record videos of their experiments using smartphones are emerging (Benedict and Pence, 2012; Harwood et al., 2020). Although current students are very skilled in videoing using smartphones, problems of compatibility of video formats and losing functionality when systems update can be drawbacks to using these materials to aid future students. In addition, as an assessment exercise, it is a powerful way to interrogate what students did, but if their procedures are incorrect and/or dangerous then their training use is negated. Indeed, there will always be at least one point that an experienced academic would want to make during the video that would be missed by a student, asking students to watch several videos and amalgamating all the good bits is somewhat time consuming for all parties. Many academics have turned to videos during the pandemic (e.g. Wang and Ren, 2020) and there is no doubt this is a very useful method to support practical science. Watching videos is very useful and has been shown to enhance students’ ability to answer questions about the experiment, compared with TA instruction (Jordan et al., 2016), build confidence in setting up and using experiments (Schmid-McCormack et al., 2017) and the playback feature allows students to go over parts they are particularly unclear about many times (and if the academic has a playback feature and can follow the student’s use of the video, they can also learn about such issues). As part of a pre-lab experience, it has been shown that videos of the setting up and running of experiments can enhance learning (e.g. Teo et al., 2014; Fung, 2015; Shallcross et al., 2013;2016).  However, video is a passive experience, even with enhancements such as multi-perspective filming (Cresswell et al., 2019) and GoPro cameras (Fung, 2015), a student cannot interact with the video per se and so there are limitations. Demonstrating experiments live to an online audience was another alternative method (O’Malley et al, 2015) that would fall into the video type idea and if run by experienced teachers, can help to solve the problem of missing out key points.

Other forms of visualisation (Hayes, 2014) have been used for some time to enhance understanding of the underlying theory of laboratory-based experiments and include watching reaction dynamics and mechanisms. These types of approaches are good for supporting the underlying understanding of the experiment itself but not so much on the practical skills and concepts. 


The pandemic threw laboratory chemistry teaching into a maelstrom, where many solutions to the problem of inaccessibility to labs were generated. Some used online worksheets, quizzes and discussion boards to supplement closed laboratories (Forster et al., 2020, Santiago, 2020). Others decided to develop and design practicals that could be carried out remotely such as cooking based ones or ones that used kitchen-based components (Aguirre and Selampinar, 2020, Doughan and Shahmuradyan, 2021, Radzikowski et al., 2021). Understandably, the use of videos, either generated in-house or freely available were used to supplement practical teaching (Valle-Suárez et al., 2020, Santiago, 2020). Data analysis from labs was a sensible stop gap used by many (Fergus et al., 2020, Santiago, 2020). However, new to some, the use of virtual experiments expanded quite dramatically and will be the focus of the rest of this opinion piece.

The virtual lab environment, pre-labs and student preparation

Experience from 17 years working in Bristol ChemLabS and seeing the difference between students with and without virtual labs is quite striking. First, as a fully-paid-up chemist and current President of the Education Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry, I am not inclined to replace labs with virtual ones, that was never the point the of the Bristol ChemLabS project (Shallcross et al., 2013, 2015, Abdulwahed and Nagy, 2011, Sansom, 2020). Second, we all know the many reasons why labs are an important and non-negotiable component of a Chemical Sciences based degree (Hofstein and Lunetta, 1982, Johnstone et al., 1994, Boyer, 2002, Wickman, 2004, Hofstein et al., 2005, Buntine et al., 2007, Hofstein and Mamlok-Naaman, 2007, Reid and Shah, 2007, Reid, 2008, Abdulwahed and Nagy, 2009, Abraham, 2011, Galloway et a., 2016, Bretz, 2019, George-Williams et al., 2019). Therefore, the point of the virtual labs used as part of the pre-labs (Veiga et al., 2019), from the Bristol ChemLabS’ philosophy, was always to enhance the laboratory experience. During the time of the Bristol ChemLabS CETL (Shallcross et al., 2015) we have seen the confidence of students engaging with laboratories grow, especially for those students who were in deficit regarding practical experience from school or college. The type of experiments that students could tackle by the end of the two-year laboratory program for BSc. undergraduate students and three-year program for undergraduate MSc. students were noticeably more complex. Simple metrics such as the number of breakages in the chemistry labs. dropped, feedback from demonstrators evidenced a continued upturn in student competency, where demonstrators felt that they were more facilitators after Bristol ChemLabS, responding and posing questions that engage higher-order thinking skills.

Before Bristol ChemLabS, demonstrators felt they were instructors, guiding students in basic practical manipulation and set-up and helping the students to ‘get through’ labs. (Limniou et al., 2009). Post the introduction of Bristol ChemLabS, in the first year labs, students were finishing ahead of the end of the lab. official closure time, in the first term, whereas before the introduction of the virtual based pre-labs, students always needed the full allocation of time. Final year projects were more ambitious because students were more confident with the use of experimental techniques and better trained. Health and safety was not a case of signing a sheet that a student had (or had not) read and whether they understood the risks associated with each experiment? Post Bristol ChemlabS, students had to engage with the pre-lab safety material and pass a test to be able to enter the lab. and undertake an experiment. In the virtual labs it was possible to bring out important features of the set-up, zoom into a part of the apparatus, turn virtual taps and dials, experiment with the instrument, have fun in a totally safe environment, Schlenk line experiments, were not, ‘turn tap A, then tap C, under no circumstances turn tap B’. Being able to be transported into the molecular world for some simulations was an extremely powerful way to enhance deep level learning (Winberg and Berg, 2007, Chiu et al., 2015). I admit that I finally learned why I was never able to recrystallize compounds in year 1 of my undergraduate degree, as a result of using our own laboratory simulation for this experiment (I was adding too much solvent). Having a discussion with students about the experiment and not being told, ‘we are on page 2 Prof. instruction number 3’ but we are refluxing the … and will then … and we expect  … to happen’ was an emotional moment. Students, in our experience, are better practitioners when they engaged with the virtual learning environment before going into the labs (Jagodzinski and Wolski, 2015) and although we used videos too, the fact that the students interacted with the virtual instruments and experiment were a vital component. It is well documented that some guided instruction is essential (e.g. Kirschner et al., 2006) and the ability of the learner to play back, experimental set-up, run a virtual experiment over and over before, during and after the experiment is educationally enhancing. The role that demonstrators play in the success of practical programs (Herrington and Nakhieh, 2003, Wheeler et al, 2017) is well known but here too, it has been shown that peer assisted instruction is an effective way to learn (Weyrich et al., 2009) and on many occasions in Bristol ChemLabS, we have seen student A showing a virtual experiment to student B and instructing them through this. 

So that is the Bristol ChemLabS experience, an overwhelming yes to virtual labs as a way to prepare students for the actual laboratory, but what do other studies show? If we split this section into pre and post-COVID we see the following.


Dechsri et al. (1997) demonstrated the now obvious value of visual stimuli through pictures and diagrams in laboratory manuals. Being able to carry out large scale experiments in a virtual environment, such as simulating the control of an industrial process provides a unique experience that cannot, in the vast majority of cases, be reproduced in the real world (Murphy et a., 2002). Indeed, Redel-Maćias et al., (2015) has shown that research is possible for students in a virtual environment, where again, no one is injured but the simulations warn students about impending dangers. In this exciting forum, the students can plan the experiments they will undertake in the laboratory by exploring the virtual world. The range of conditions that can be explored in the virtual world compared with a finite set in a limited time in a laboratory and with the concerns of health and safety and availability of appropriate equipment are well noted by Stone (2007). Here, an excellent combination of hands-on and virtual develop the concept of mastery of a skill and/or technique. It has long been a desire to allow students the opportunity at an early stage to develop experimental design and critical thinking skills and Koretsky et al., (2011) demonstrate admirably that a well-designed virtual laboratory environment allows students to do just that.

Donnelly et al., (2013) and Ramirez et al. (2020) demonstrate that the virtual laboratory is a powerful and safe place for students to experiment before coming into the lab., but note that teachers and demonstrators need to have instruction on how to capitalise on this student exploration. This is absolutely true in our experience, it took us a few years to really understand how to be a facilitator and not an instructor as before.

Some studies showed no statistically significant differences between tuition via a virtual platform or via direct instruction (e.g. Hensen and Barbera, 2019). However, Hensen and Barbara noted that in this case the TA giving the instruction was the most significant factor. 


Gao et al. (2020) report that student’s performance score in labs was higher than in online only classes compared with face-to-face laboratories, where they viewed virtual labs as being more approachable. As I noted earlier, we saw the benefit of online experiments as a support to real face-to-face labs and indeed Gao and co-workers suggest that this combination was the next step in their teaching journey. Some academics were new to virtual labs and although developing or accessing such experiments at short notice was a challenge, there was a very positive response (Nataro and Johnson, 2020, Njoki, 2020) and also from those who were more experienced in their use (Worrall et al., 2020). 

Winkelmann et al., (2020) note that the virtual learning environment is not inherently biased and not viewed that way by students. They did not observe any gender bias working in the virtual world and as we noted in Bristol ChemLabS, the virtual world priming helped students with a range of disabilities to be able to experience the world of practicals in some form and to go on and take part in real-world experiments (Shallcross et al., 2013).

Therefore, on their own, virtual labs. provide important support to learning but as a prelude to actual hands-on laboratory experience, provide a significant enhancement in learning. We note all the arguments and comments, particularly during the pandemic that virtual should not replace actual labs. (remember my statement at the very beginning of this piece) and I am not advocating such a move. However, based on 17 years’ experience from the Bristol ChemLabS CETL and analysis of the literature, the virtual laboratory has much to support its use alongside hands-on practicals. 

What next?

Exploration of the virtual laboratory environment, to enhance students’ abilities to design their own practicals, is an exciting opportunity and one that can be introduced at an early stage of an undergraduate degree. In the School of Chemistry at Bristol University, we have used ideas from Bristol ChemLabS, to train Ph.D. students in our doctoral training centres in synthetic chemistry, aerosol science and functional nano-materials. Here, we find chemical sciences students who have not learned in this way before, respond extremely positively and much evidence exists for their rapid progress in mastering core practical techniques that will underpin their Ph.D. research. However, given that Ph.D. programs based in the Chemical Sciences will attract students from a range of science and engineering backgrounds, such virtual environments accelerate the rate of knowledge-gap filling and enhance time in the laboratory for non-chemistry Ph.D. students. Indeed, because the Ph.D. students have had access to the whole techniques manual library, they do engage with techniques that they are unlikely to use. Such rounded education regarding practical techniques, has triggered ideas that have moved their research forward. Therefore, virtual labs have great potential in research training. 

In undergraduate laboratories, the requirement to mark practical and provide feedback promptly is important but can be very time consuming, especially if there are large numbers of students. In this way, we have started to use Smart Worksheets (e-enabled sheets) that support students in their analysis and assessment of data collected in labs. These not only save time spent marking as they auto-mark analysis. Although auto-marking is good, the sheets guide students regarding ways to approach analysis, including the perennial problem of uncertainty analysis. The feedback options allow students to make mistakes but provide instant guidance so that they can reconsider their analysis option. Therefore, there is more time for demonstrators/markers to spend with students on higher order questions during feedback time. 

If you’re interested in supporting your practical labs with virtual learning resources, read more about LabSims and Smart Worksheets, or get in touch with us to discuss your needs at

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