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New Harvard LabXchange Platform Delivers Free Science Education

LabXchange is an online learning initiative offered by Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Amgen Foundation.
LabXchange is an online learning initiative offered by Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Amgen Foundation. By Aiyana G. White
By Andy Z. Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

LabXchange — an interactive learning platform aimed at bringing science education to students around the world and created by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in collaboration with the Amgen Foundation — launched last month.

Developed for a "digital classroom," the program aims to foster a virtual scientific lab community, particularly for students who do not have access to scientific instruments and experiments.

As a founding sponsor, the Amgen Foundation provided $11.5 million in grants to develop the program. Much of the content focuses on the biological sciences, with course clusters such as “Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9” and “Foundational Concepts and Techniques in Biotechnology,” according to the platform's website.

LabXchange’s platform utilizes open-source infrastructure from edX, a virtual learning website developed by Harvard and MIT. This allows current edX students to connect to the new platform. At the same time, Molecular and Cellular Biology Professor Robert Lue, the faculty director of LabXchange, said it aims to address some of the gaps with current virtual learning, such as the lack of flexibility in course structure.

“Ultimately, instead of going online and taking a course, you can go and find individual assets, be it videos or text or graphics,” Lue said.

“You can actually pick the ones you want, sequence them into a learning pathway, and create a much shorter experience that's really tailored to exactly what you need to learn,” he added.

To increase the reach of its resources, Harvard affiliates who worked on LabXchange said it has developed virtual lab simulations that can walk students through an experiment.

“I've heard of several high school classrooms that do absolutely zero labs at all, just because it's cost-prohibitive for them to get those things going,” Nico O. Wagner, a teaching assistant in the Molecular and Cellular Biology department who helped create content for the site, said. “The good thing about LabXchange is that the students get virtual access to experiments, and all they need is access to a computer.”

The new platform incorporates various types of learning modules that address content delivery flaws in traditional online learning interfaces, according to Tess Gadd, a user interface designer who worked on the project.

“The problem with videos is that if somebody's speaking, you kind of can get lost quite quickly,” Gadd said.

Gadd also pointed to the platform’s “adaptive scrollable” feature, developed to address this shortcoming.

“As you scroll down the page, everything animates as if it were a video, but you have complete control over that speed,” she said. “I think that's a really interesting way to give people more power when it comes to their own learning.”

Some educators have also used the platform to complement in-class education and experiments. At Harvard, the teaching staff of Life Sciences 1a: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences” used the platform last fall to show students techniques ahead of lab sections, helping them become more familiar with lab procedures, according to the course's website.

High school teachers have also adopted the program. Mary S. Liu ’09, a biology teacher at Weston High School, said she first learned of LabXchange through an outreach program for high school educators, and then joined a focus group to develop it.

“I'd put extra resources there for them to access,” Liu said. “I do the pre-lab, so they actually have a virtual simulation of lab techniques that I do in class with my students. A lot of times, it's new for the high school students to do bacterial culture or to work with gel electrophoresis, so they can get familiar with the tools.”

Liu said she understands why her students appreciated the program.

“Kids like digital things,” she said.

— Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com

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