Building virtual geo-labs

Adapting face to face laboratory activities involving rock, fossil or museum specimens for asynchronous distance education courses.

Examples of online activities are listed on a separate page, and tools used are also listed separately. This page summarizes a few thoughts about building effective activities.

Components of an active on-line exercise

  1. Part 1: Students follow instructions built directly within the LMS (learning management system; at UBC, this is “Connect”, i.e. Blackboard 9.x).
    For more complex tasks, we provide paper (i.e. PDF or DOCX) worksheets for structuring the learning tasks that make use of online resources.
  2. Part 2: After a few days to complete the task a “Quiz” is opened in the LMS for entering (and auto-grading) data or observations gathered using the worksheet. Some form of “student product” is desirable but challenging for large enrollments. The online sketching widget is one approach – sketches are much easier to grade “manually” than essays. Other approaches such as Google Earth “pins” will be explored between now and April 2018.
  3. Part 3 (optional): For some exercises; after the “quiz” closes, a small group discussion is enabled that will be based on worksheet and/or sketch work. Small groups are managed within the LMS, and the discussion is run as a “graded forum” with an attached rubric to guide students, instructors and teaching assistants.

Alternatively: Start with an active reading sequence, consisting of HTML sequences built offline but deployed from a folder within the LMS. Active readings have embedded “instant-feedback” questions of various types, including interactive imagemaps. Students take a followup (low-stakes) quiz within the LMS for accountability and grading. LMS quiz questions may be identical to, similar to, or different from embedded questions.

Even simpler: A plain webpage with simple links to resources can serve up the learning task. Embedding Google docs or forms can also help collect student feedback or even “quiz” them, if you don’t want to couple the exercise to the LMS. Here is an example of this simple approach for a minerals identification exercise.

A more sophisticated approach: We had envisioned an interface in which students exploring a virtual museum to address given learning tasks. We do in fact have learning tasks, virtual specimens & exhibits PLUS a virtual tour of the PME museum using Google Streetview. We would like to bring these pieces together so that virtual resources are directly accessible from their correct places within the virtual museum.  But … we’ll need to apply for more funding to see this happen!


There is nothing fundamentally “new” here; components and interactive resources were built using free or very inexpensive tools (listed on a separate page). Some of these may require a little time for familiarization, but all were easy to learn.

Some keys to successful online active learning include:

  • meaningful (i.e. ‘authentic’) tasks,
  • well articulated learning goals,
  • adequate scaffolding of the tasks and task-sequence,
  • resources deployed in settings that are familiar to both students and instructors
  • an open discussion-board space where students can ask colleagues and instructors about logistical or conceptual problems.

We found it important to ‘decouple’ the students’ tasks from the actual resources. In other words to build and store resources separately from exercise instructions. We treat virtual resources the same way as real rocks or fossils that live in a drawer. We do not attach or embed any task-specific information. This way, the lab or exercise can be built and maintained without having to adjust the resource. This approach is to ensure future instructors can adjust learning tasks without having to manipulate the resources themselves.

Within the active learning exercises, some virtual resources are accessed with simple links that open in a new browser tab. Others may be embedded into instructions (or even quiz questions) using <iframe> tags just like you would embed a google map.