With the rapid growth of online learning in higher education in the first two decades of the 21st century, one issue increasingly gaining attention is the crucial role that student engagement may play for the effectiveness and success of technology-enhanced learning approaches. On the one hand, on-demand access from anywhere at any time has afforded students unparalleled learning opportunities and allowed institutions to expand their educational offerings, on the other, especially for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, the incorporation of meaningful learning activities to develop students’ skills through physical manipulation and hands-on experimentation seems to have, so far, only been limitedly possible in the online-distributed environment. One approach that may foster more self-engaged learning and help to overcome some of these challenges is the application of simulation and virtualization technology to allow for more interactive exploration. Nevertheless, a current lack of standards, experiences, and empirical data for their design and implementation make the widespread utilization of such tools difficult. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate the systematic development and implementation of a simulated lab learning experience in an online STEM course.
Founded in a constructivist view of learning and based on a framework of learning through experiences and progressive cognitive development, a virtual learning environment (VLE) was constructed that allows students to systematically develop methodological understanding and procedural application skills for the collection and analysis of data in a lab environment. The VLE was built around the example of the measurement of frequency-dependent radiation patterns for an acoustic speaker and had two components: Directed Training (DT), during which the students are familiarized with the equipment and the data collection process, and Open Exploration (OE), during which students were given a measurement and analysis task that required them to apply their gained skills. Both, the development of the VLE as well as its implementation followed the ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) process used in instructional design, and the required development of students’ competencies was mapped against a desired progress through Bloom’s revised taxonomy. The underlying learning philosophy applied a multilevel cyclical model with increasing complexity, based on experiential learning theory.
Qualitative and quantitative data were collected to assess the VLE design and implementation. Thereby, the goal was to provide both summative information about students’ acceptance of the VLE and their learning objective (LO) achievement and formative information about the usability and usefulness of the VLE and its design features, as well as the implementation and evaluation processes applied. The findings supported the overall validity of the selected approach to design and implementation and allowed for a variety of recommendations as well as continuous VLE improvements.
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