Best Practices for Online Labs

This document is a general resource for teaching teams seeking to incorporate lab activities in their remote courses. It has been adapted from guidelines developed by the University of Toronto shared by that institution with a CC BY 4.0 CA license. 

For many programs, laboratory and experimental work help develop technical and psychomotor skills essential to the workplace, as well as to higher education. This document aims to provide guidance to promote these essential skills and learning objectives in light of the shift to remote teaching. All resources should be explored and vetted before incorporating and promoting them in learning activities.

Keep in Mind:

  • Migrating labs to a remote environment requires creativity. The challenge is finding an online option to achieve your learning outcomes and not necessarily an exact replication of the face-to-face lab. Erik Brogt, University of Canterbury, has compiled a list of conventional learning outcomes and proposes alternative online modes of achieving them.
  • Focus on the foundational learning outcomes that can be achieved online, such as data analysis and interpretation, or hypothesis testing by means of an online simulation.
  • Where possible, focus on active learning strategies and provide feedback to students.
  • Create authentic assignments relevant to current events such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Where possible, use materials available at home or outdoors. The article How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online emphasizes promoting lab safety at home.

Sourcing and Creating Lab Content:

Remote teaching requires creativity, adaptability, and intentional design. Learning outcomes guide this design process, and while many out-of-the box solutions and resources exist, these should be contextually tailored to match specific objectives. The following can be incorporated into lab design:

There is a temporary Covid-19 adjustment to the ancillary fee policy at Waterloo.

  • Create your own labs or activity guides using simple video recordings of lab protocols and accompanying data sets, Studio courses or other practical labs.

Designing Your Own Lab

  • Draw upon Universal Design for Learning so learning opportunities are maximized for all students during the design process. Students may be learning remotely with different levels of access to resources.
  • Consider pros and cons of asynchronous and synchronous learning strategies when determining the method of delivery.
  • Guide learners through an experiment. Where a choice, prediction, or observation would have been made, poll the class. This can be done asynchronously or synchronously, although if synchronous, provision should be made for students unable to participate live.
  • Use real examples and current issues as case studies for students to reinforce the relevance of their learning. Assign a “Design your own experiment” unit using common materials found at home or have students share their ‘at-home’ lab equivalent for peer feedback.

Choosing Effective Assignments

Online assignments must capture pre-defined learning objectives and be intentionally integrated into your lab activity. Certain common deliverables can still be preserved such as a formal lab report, research paper, or numerical calculations. However, online assignments can afford a greater level of creativity and resourcefulness to students and instructors.

Substitute activities can include:

  • E-portfolios/Blogs capture a timeline of student progress and can be invaluable to scaffolded labs. Students can sequentially present their plans, results, analyses, and reflections, and are encouraged to actively engage with their learning throughout the entire lab process. PebblePad is a useful tool supported by the University of Waterloo for e-portfolio creation.
  • Infographics encourage students to creatively present their results and observations visually. They must deconstruct complex concepts and become comfortable with abstract topics enough to distill information to a general audience. Additionally, it facilitates multiple assessment pathways for learners who prefer to share their knowledge visually.
  • Video or Narrated Presentations can feature students presenting their results, individually or as a group, based on research, case studies, experiments, and other activities.
  • Submission of Evidence of the test setup and results can be used for simple physical labs which students can carry out at home, or simulations which allow screen capture and recording.

Experimental Demonstrations

You can teach complex or key concepts using webinar tools such as Bongo or WebEx, in conjunction with input tools such as a tablet and stylus. You can also use screen recording software, such as Camtasia or Sreencast-o-Matic to create your own videos. Perhaps you can convert the lab to a larger interactive lecture where you demonstrate or show a video sequence of the process and protocols. Refer to the Tools and Technology table on the Keep Learning website for tool information.

Simulations and Animations

You can use online simulations to replicate in-class activities and hit learning outcomes. This may be especially useful in labs where students must observe processes or results to draw conclusions, develop specific technical skills, or gain familiarity with laboratory apparatus. You can also consider simulations for labs that are too dangerous to perform at home, such as high voltage electrical labs, or where students may not have necessary equipment like multimeters or oscilloscopes. Additional activities such as data analysis, Q&A sessions, or lab reports based on the simulation can be incorporated. You may find useful:


Another avenue that can be explored is using VR/AR technology for labs that involve visiting sites. For example, The Faculty of Environment’s Ecology Lab and Mapping, Analysis & Design (MAD), Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) and Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) worked together to create the “Spongy bog 360 VR project”, a virtual field trip experience.

Lab Kits

At times, there really is no substitute for a physical lab. In such cases, consider supplying your students with lab kits, or asking them to purchase readily available components from local stores or online. If you want to mail pre-made kits to students, the University provides an e-commerce serviceUWStore, or departmental stores to help you with sourcing and assembling, and in some cases shipping. If students are to procure their own materials, ensure you give sufficient notice ahead of time. Some students may not be able to buy materials at all, so have a backup plan such as mailing components to those students.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

You can provide opportunities to interpret data similar to what students would have encountered in a lab. If students cannot collect their own data using online simulations or simple live experiments at home, consider providing datasets from experiments conducted by lab staff or locating online open source datasets. Students can then perform analysis as previously intended. This example from EPFL can provide more insight into migrating experimental work online, and gives alternatives to datasets.

Further reading:


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.

teaching tips

 This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Best Practices for Online Labs. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.