Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at How and Why LabXchange Was Created

A Q&A with Dr. Robert Lue, the researcher who led development of the innovative laboratory platform
Jan 23, 2020 12:00 PM ET
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Introducing LabXchange. Developed by the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and funded through the Amgen Foundation, this free online science education platform allows users to personalize science education using virtual experiments, lab equipment simulations and the ability to create and share learning pathways with fellow users around the globe.

Regardless of whether students attend school in Cairo, California or Cameroon, LabXchange now provides them with access to a virtual lab with simulations that cultivate scientific interest, and these simulations are complemented by high quality and carefully curated learning content. The platform also allows educators to help students experience the scientific process in a way that removes barriers caused by income level, gender, race or geography.

Dr. Robert Lue, principal investigator of LabXchange, Professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the UNESCO Chair on Life Sciences and Social Innovation at Harvard, said the new platform greatly expands support for science learners, which could lead to important discoveries and broader scientific literacy.

We caught Dr. Lue for a crash course in the platform he’s built and the new opportunities it creates for educators and students.

Q: Can you give us a sense of the platform and how the simulations might help students get more comfortable with what happens in a lab?

A: With the lab simulations we have developed, you can screw up. You can make mistakes. You can do it again, again and again and it doesn’t cost anything. Everything is free. You can do it in your home if you like, and all of that allows you to realize, “You know what? I can do this.” It allows you to gain familiarity with “What kind of decisions do I have to make? What does the equipment look like? How does it work?” You open the lid, you press this button, you set these parameters and you can do it without having a $30,000 machine in front of you and that fear you’ll screw it up. There is a gamification element where there are different levels—if you fail, you can try again. And try again. You can also learn the various components at your own speed. I think that really helps you get over that very natural and understandable fear and nervousness.

Q: What have you learned from the several beta programs that have been running so far?

A: We built simulations that allow a learner to tackle techniques in molecular and cell biology. What we’ve learned from those being used by high school teachers and their students, college instructors and their students, is the importance of being clear on what level is appropriate. All of our simulations have different level options. It’s almost like a game, they have level one, two, three, etc.

One way to think of this is a learning playlist. But when you think of, say, a musical playlist, it’s a series of things where you hit the “On” button and they just play. It’s a passive consumption kind of thing. But learning is not passive on LabXchange. It is interspersed among videos and diagrams and podcasts and you actually ask questions. You have to do something. You need to respond to a prompt. You need to make a decision. You need to do a simulation. So we also learned how important it is to provide the tools to build questions you can add it to your own pathways as well.

Another thing that is very important is the real hunger out there for a greater diversity of voices that really speak to who does science, what their experience has been coming to science and what are the range of different opportunities you can have under the umbrella of science. That’s why we created a new asset called “Narratives,” where it allows individuals to share their stories of coming to science. And those of course are all vetted and moderated by us.

Q: Why is LabXchange a different approach to online learning?

A: One thing we’ve learned is that one size does not fit all. People are very varied in terms of their background. They’re very varied in what they bring to the table. And they’re very varied in what they’re interested in. And it’s quite clear that the future of learning is going to be much more personalized. Much more adapted to your needs, your interests and your goals.

Make a comparison to medicine. In the past, you had a specific illness, you took only one medicine and that was it. Now a lot of people have heard of personalized medicine where, depending on your age, your weight, your genetic background, your gender—it may turn out that this medicine is better than that medicine. It’s about time we personalize learning as well.

Q: How does the personalization work?

A: Most online learning platforms are focused on one thing, which is the “deliver” stuff. They deliver the course, they deliver the video, they deliver the educational material. Now LabXchange does all of that and does it with more flexibility than any other platform. But here’s the other thing we do. The world now contributes what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned — their own materials, their own cases and their own stories — back on LabXchange. And those, in turn, continue to enrich what is available to other learners. This notion of personalization will also allow communities and individuals and organizations in very different parts of the world — with very different perspectives and very different challenges — to contribute to a global repository of learning materials that people can use flexibly.

Q: What kind of interest have you seen in LabXchange?

A: There are a number of high schools and universities that are very interested in what we’re doing. We’ve also had expressions of interest from UNICEF [a United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children around the world] in terms of the professional development that they can provide to teachers around the world. We’ve had discussions with organizations like the World Economic Forum around whether our materials can be used to upskill or train workforces. So it’s been quite varied, from local governments to non-profits to schools — basically almost any organization where learning is an important part of what they need to do.

Q: What does success look like to you five years or 10 years down the road?

A: The connecting people piece is very important. If we start to see organizations and individuals connecting with others to learn together, to solve problems, to mentor each other, we will see the usage on the platform. Imagine you have someone who has learned something in Atlanta and it turns out they can share something they’ve learned with someone in Australia and then they learn something from someone in Santiago. Then multiply that exponentially. That would be an enormous measure of success.