Under the (Virtual) Microscope

A 3-D virtual microscope developed by Oregon State Ecampus closely replicates the real thing -- and could be a harbinger of innovation in online science courses.

November 8, 2017
 
Oregon State Ecampus

Institutions hoping to take their science programs online often run into the same roadblock: how to translate a discipline built around tactile lab experiences to a digital environment.

Oregon State University Ecampus believes it has developed one solution that could be a template applied elsewhere. Its 3-D virtual microscope allows online students to interact with a digital replica of a crucial equipment piece, instead of having to purchase an expensive physical version or go to a lab on campus.

An added bonus: proponents say the online microscope allows students more self-directed, independent time to get acquainted with the tool than they would get in a limited classroom session, even without the experience of handling the physical object.

Launched in 2015, the digital tool has earned three formal plaudits: Eduventures’ Innovation Award, WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies’ WCET Outstanding Work honor, and the Online Learning Consortium’s 2017 Effective Practice Award.

Administrators and instructors think the success of the virtual microscope portends a bright future for online science education, provided that institutions invest in further innovation.

“We know we’re not going to be able to make [an online science course] identical to the on-campus experience,” said Andrew Bouwma, an instructor in Oregon State’s integrative biology department. “We want it to be comparable and equally meaningful. What we’ve done is come up with a way that [students] can do all of the things they would be asked to do with a real microscope.”

Earlier attempts elsewhere in the U.S. to translate science online include allowing students to purchase or rent microscopes for home use, and operating a physical lab which students could manipulate from afar.

The Oregon State Ecampus virtual microscope appears to be more promising than a 2013 initiative at several Colorado community colleges and four-year institutions in Montana and Canada. In partnership with the North American Network of Science Labs Online, that model enabled students to manipulate from their computers physical microscopes located in a lab.

After grant funding ran out, the Colorado community colleges determined the model wasn’t scalable or cost-effective and decided not to proceed with it, according to a spokesperson for the system.

Time for Change

Before 2015, admissions to six fully online Ecampus degree programs -- agricultural sciences, environmental sciences, fisheries and wildlife sciences, horticulture, natural resources, and rangeland sciences -- required online students to take face-to-face biology courses at Oregon State (or an equivalent) as a prerequisite. But over the years, Ecampus administrators kept hearing complaints from students that it was a hassle to get to the Corvallis campus or to find the equivalent biology courses locally, according to Shannon Riggs, director of Ecampus’s course development and training unit.

In 2014, Riggs’s team took these concerns to the biology department, which was initially skeptical that the face-to-face experience could be satisfactorily replicated online, Bouwma said. Obvious solutions like using text and images seemed insufficient, and forcing all learners to purchase a microscope would restrict access for lower-income students.

After a six-month research process, during which Ecampus consulted with its technical staff and scoured programs at other institutions for online science initiatives, several ideas emerged, some more practical than others.

One abandoned idea was to host a virtual lab where students could log in and watch and manipulate a microscope via a webcam. Lab space and equipment challenges killed that proposal, Riggs said.

Instead, the team landed on a more technologically ambitious concept: an entirely virtual microscope, rendered through a painstaking process of 3-D images captured by a digital camera. Bringing the vision to fruition took a year -- but Victor Yee, Ecampus’s assistant director of multimedia development, wasn’t cowed by the challenge.

“I was thinking in my head already, ‘This is pretty simple,’” Yee said. “Obviously the biology department didn’t know about 3-D at that time. We wanted to show them the wow factor of what we could do.”

On the faculty side, Bouwma helped developers understand each part of the microscope and contributed ideas for certain features, such as a red warning buzzer that appears each time an online student attempts to manipulate the virtual device in a way that would cause damage to the physical object.

The hardest part was capturing images close up enough to be realistic but not so close that thousands of pictures would be required, he said.

“We limited them to a certain portion of the field that they could zoom in,” Bouwma said. “It’s not as realistic as if they could go anywhere, but it’s still quite realistic.”

Riggs said the team’s “investment in this project was … above and beyond the scope of an ordinary course development.” However, she said, the exact cost of the virtual microscope is “difficult to pin down,” due to involvement of various tech and faculty members at different points in the process.

Benefits and Challenges

The 3-D virtual microscope has been incorporated into two online biology courses and one online animal science course; the institution hopes to add it to more courses soon.

Enrollment has increased in all six online science programs since the virtual microscope was introduced, but Riggs noted that those increases could also be attributed in part to across-the-board enrollment increases.

According to Bouwma, instructors teaching face-to-face classes also have expressed interest in using the tool as a “prelab” exercise before students get physical devices.

Faculty members see the virtual microscope as equivalent in educational value to the physical microscope -- and some even identify benefits of the virtual one. Unlike in a classroom, where students often have to share microscopes with classmates and can only use them for a limited time, online learners can go at their own pace. Online students also don’t risk breaking expensive equipment in the trial-and-error process of learning to use the microscope.

“Some students who have had on-campus labs could never figure out how to focus something,” Bouwma added. After using the virtual microscope, “they said, ‘Man, now I know what I was doing wrong.’”

Students also get more time to reflect when they’re working virtually, the professor said. Discussion boards encourage students to post questions like whether they can wear glasses, how to prevent damaging the microscope stage and how to manage the brightness of the lens.

In written feedback to instructors, students reported that work with the virtual microscope was challenging and time-consuming, but also rewarding. Some students miss the tactile experience, Riggs said -- but others who might not plan to work in a lab during their careers learn just as much from the virtual implement.

More images are still being added to the virtual microscope. Plans are in the early stages, but Riggs thinks the success of the virtual microscope could inform Ecampus online chemistry courses.

Meanwhile, an online tutorial offering microscope basics is available online or residential students and has attracted interest from other institutions. Oregon State Ecampus currently has no plans to make a virtual microscope available to other institutions, Riggs said, though the institution is "always open to exploring new possibilities," Riggs said.

The virtual microscope project was taxing for its creators, but rewarding, Riggs said.

“It’s not something that we could do for every single course that we’re developing, this size and scope of a project,” she said. But, she added, “there was such a great need for it -- it was worth a disproportionate amount of effort to create.”

The virtual microscope strikes Susan Finazzo, president of the National Association of Biology Teachers and assistant professor at Perimeter College at Georgia State University, as a worthwhile effort to increase access to science courses. She cautions, though, against the spread of online tools at the expense of physical equipment.

“I don’t want to see biology majors graduating with a biology degree and never having used a microscope. I think that would be inappropriate,” Finazzo said. “I think if we’re looking at students in an intro course, giving them exposure to good-quality tools, I think that’s much better than not having them have any exposure at all.”

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