LabXchange is a free online learning platform built by Harvards’ best minds to facilitate discovery and authentic experiences of the scientific process. Their world-class digital content is delivered on a platform that seamlessly integrates the sharing of learning and research experiences, putting users and teachers in control of their learning. In this interview, LabXchange Head of Content Martin Samuels discusses the development of interactive online learning content and simulations, and the opportunities they bring to students and teachers across the globe.
Please describe the story behind LabXchange: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?
LabXchange is the brainchild of our faculty director, Professor Robert Lue, who I’ve had the great pleasure to know since 2011. We’ve been colleagues in the Harvard Molecular & Cellular Biology Department for the past 9 years.
LabXchange went live in January 2020. Rob’s vision was to use the resources that we have in Boston and Cambridge with faculty and alumni from Harvard and MIT and a lot of other great places, to make a ton of great teaching and education resources, and to share them freely across the entire planet. Our goal is to make a global impact on how science is taught and learned and how people teach it.
Our mission is to have more people fall in love with science, understand what it is, and make it more transparent so they don’t just see it as something that is reserved for geniuses who were born that way, running around in their lab coats. We want to empower everyone to feel like they can do it too.
At the heart of our website, we have virtual lab simulations, which were designed to allow someone who might never have the opportunity to join a science lab, either because they didn’t grow up next to one or their high school or college did not have internship opportunities for them to get lab experience.
We provide opportunities for anyone who might not know what happens in the science spaces, to develop those skills and practice them. They can do science experiments and practice analyzing data to understand why they’re doing the experiment and what they learned from it.
We build common mistakes that we all go through all the time into the experiments, so people have opportunities to do real-life troubleshooting. When they finally hit the lab, they can feel much more confident and capable because they already did a few experiments.
Here’s a quick introduction to LabXchange lab simulations:
What kind of courses do you offer, and how are they structured?
LabXchange is almost like a deconstruction of the course. It was designed by Rob Lue, our founding director, who was also the founding faculty director of HarvardX, Harvard’s university-wide online education initiative that includes the edX partnership with MIT. Our managing director, Gaurav Vazirani, also had extensive experience in the edX program.
One of the challenges that we’re seeking to address with LabXchange is the fact that we’ve developed amazing resources for a lot of these Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but if you develop a resource for a week-5 of a MOOC, a user might never see it, or it might not be particularly accessible for a teacher who wants to use that in the classroom.
LabXchange wasn’t designed to have exclusive courses or an explicit certification, but instead, to provide a ton of modular options that you can use either as a teacher or a student to develop your own lessons.
We have about 6000 assets on the platform currently (including a group of assets on biotechnology, available in 11 additional languages). Most of the assets on the platform come from our collaborators. We currently have collaborations with Khan Academy, the Concord Consortium, PhET, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Wellcome Genome Campus. So a lot of our content comes from our collaborations, and some of that content includes overlapping approaches to learning the same topic.
One asset might talk about entropy and enthalpy from the perspective of a physics or engineering textbook, another asset might talk about it from the perspective of rational drug design, another asset might talk about it from a more introductory perspective.
We really have a big tent approach where we are trying to have lots and lots of high-quality resources that teach a topic, and it’s up to the user or the instructor to think about the interests and background knowledge of their students, and figure out the kind of application for it that they are going to find meaningful and readily accessible to them so they can choose their favorite ones.
There are easy ways in which a user can build a pathway, which is what we call a sequence of learning content on LabXchange. When you build a pathway, you can search through the 6000 content assets, find one you like and get started, and then look to the next one to further your learning. When you come up with your favorite sequence of assets, you can share that sequence with a class of students.
At LabXchange, we feel strongly that the time in your life when you learn the most is usually when you have to teach the topic. What’s nice about LabXhange is that it has the flexibility to allow every user to toggle between both roles: the teacher and the student. That speaks to the fact that we are all teachers in one capacity, and learners in another capacity.
You could build a pathway to teach a friend and mentor a colleague or student of yours, but you could also read someone else’s pathway and learn something from them. Everyone can (and in our view, should) wear both hats, as a student reading pathways and clusters designed by others, and as a mentor, instructor, teacher, or guide who gets to design those pathways for others to learn from.
I should mention that we have lots of members of the team who are current high school or college teachers. We beta test things a lot when they’re in development and often co-develop the materials with high school teachers and industry scientists. We ask teachers to use examples of materials in their classes and to get feedback about what they think is going to work best in their classrooms.
These interactive assets take about three to four months to develop from original drafting through lots of rounds of iteration because each asset is a collaboration between scientists, developers, graphic designers, accessibility specialists and UX designers.
We have an amazing graphics team that makes complex topics look gorgeous, and then we have an equally amazing development team that makes it super fun and interactive to play with.
Each person offers input, and each input is key to creating content for the online environment. After that, everything goes to beta testing, and we often have to start over. But we believe in this process and in incorporating all of these perspectives because ultimately, for online education to work, we need to modify the pedagogy and the development approach.
It’s an amazing process, but it does involve tons of conversations back and forth. The diversity of our team and the different skills it brings into the development process is a real strength of ours.
How do you feel COVID-19 impacted the academic community and its institutions?
The pandemic is of course so awful and has caused so much human suffering, I think it is important to acknowledge that, first. I think the way that it impacted Harvard is by helping us learn how to teach better by providing opportunities to engage with the whole planet and by understanding what are the ways that education can have the biggest impact.
It’s really formative for the faculty that we work with to think about how they can redesign their teaching, either in a classroom or in a lab setting. Maybe the converse of that is how LabXchange empowers the faculty by providing them a platform to share their research with students and lifelong learners.
In this way, we try to provide the faculty with a way to increase the impact of their research. For example, if you discover a lot of amazing data, you can use LabXchange to share it with the world. The users will be able to engage with that data in a meaningful way by developing their own interpretations and being inspired to ask questions and to think about what they’d like to do to study it further. LabXchange is a really powerful way of doing that because you can put your novel research right next to foundational content that’s necessary for a young user who’s just trying to learn that content themselves.
We are a Harvard initiative and we are sponsored by the Amgen Foundation, so we’re proud to be able to give voice to both Harvard faculty and Amgen scientists and experts. Some of our favorite things that we’ve developed are assets co-designed with Amgen scientists, so that they can share what they care about, their research, and to make the work of pharmaceutical companies more transparent.
We don’t just offer a basic scientific concept or the kinds of basic research that the faculty at Harvard is focused on, but we can also support users who want to learn about translating that research into applied technologies and medicines and the additional careers that scientists can venture into.
Which trends or technologies do you find to be particularly interesting these days around your line of work?
A lot of biology involves understanding how the structure of a molecule, a tissue, or an organism gives rise to a function. You can read about 3D structures in a textbook that has a 2D image, and try to imagine what it would look like in 3D. We use virtual space to allow users to understand what does the shape of the cell or a protein or DNA do that dictates how it operates?
Particularly, my background is in the structural biology of DNA and DNA mutations, so I really care about how the body detects and then fixes mutations. Those are really tangible topics that seem complicated but they’re actually very visually and intuitively understandable if you have the right platform.
We’re thinking about how we can support the understanding of molecules and organisms that explicitly exist in 3D. One way is that we can look at those things on the website platform, using things like Blender or other technologies that allow you to engage with a molecule, move it around, measure something and make a discovery, based on a 3D module or structure.
Another thing we are excited about is virtual reality and augmented reality. Can a user look at a 3D model on their phone? Can they engage with the world around them in a way that continues to evoke science lessons in real life that make the learning transparent and practical?
We want to figure out what technologies allow people to teach and learn at a distance, in a way that makes that distance a benefit.
As a student, you can find a mentor and as a mentor, you can find a mentee. What would you want to read with the mentee to help them learn a concept? If you want to read a paper together, there are different annotation tools you could use to understand those papers or add content you want to share about it.
So those are some of the things we are most excited about.
How do you envision the future of online learning?
I mentioned that several of us have experience in online learning, while the rest of us have a lot of experience in physical classrooms. What we are realizing is that the future of education, either in physical classrooms or through virtual teaching, is going to have to apply evidence-based principles of education.
We imagine online teaching is going to be embracing a lot of principles that we learned from evidence and research about the best teaching practices in physical classrooms. It’s all about engaging in interactive opportunities where students don’t just have to watch a video or read a text, but can make decisions and choose what kind of experiment they want to do, what kind of observations they want to make, what kind of data they want to collect and how they want to interpret and how to communicate it to other people.
To the extent that active learning is a well researched and powerful tool in the physical space, we think that’s going to be where a lot of online education will go in the future as well. That’s why we’re putting supreme emphasis on virtual labs that apply the evidence about what the best college laboratory experiences look like, and make use of guided inquiry as a basis. We want to keep giving users engaging opportunities to choose what they want to study and how they want to study it, as well as the scaffolding necessary to understand what each experiment does and how they work.
A lot of teaching happens because of how we were taught. As teachers, our experience when we were students in class, 20 or 30 years ago, was that we were lectured at by some brilliant person, and in turn, we assumed that’s what our teaching should look like when we first started teaching. We need to know what we are assuming and bringing unwittingly into our design of content because it’s how we have been taught and therefore we think of it as “normal.” Investigating deeper into those assumptions and constantly looking at data (including data about where we need to improve), is the future of online education.