Virtual Labs – Reviews and Previews

While we’ve all been rapidly propelled into online learning in recent months, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines have had the additional challenge of bringing what are normally hands-on labs to the virtual realm.

Many different solutions have been implemented by U of T’s resourceful instructors, who deserve our thanks and admiration for coming up with effective solutions that are in line with target learning outcomes, yet still successfully engage students in authentic activities.

As described on the OLS Virtual Labs for Remote/Online Courses resource page, there are many innovative examples including the following:

  • Using open source materials that have been shared at no cost and creating interactive labs within Quercus modules.
  • Creating custom labs or activity guides using video clips of course lab demonstrations and accompanying data sets for analysis.
  • Licensing rich content that includes real-time virtual lab simulations and formative assessment available from publishers and other discipline–specific providers.
  • Using common objects found at home or easily purchased for DIY activities or sending physical kits for experiments directly to students.

Lab Simulations

Many of the learning objectives of laboratory courses can be achieved with lab simulations and DIY solutions, and there are additional affordances unique to the online environment.

Some of the benefits of incorporating lab simulations into courses include:

  • Allowing laboratory courses to move online and increasing student engagement — Many of the virtual lab options incorporate elements of gaming and storytelling.
  • Enabling students to go at their own pace — Online labs help close the knowledge gap by allowing students to finish labs when they want and at the pace they need.
  • Improving understanding of the concepts by students — Many of the interactive labs incorporate pedagogical techniques proven to facilitate better understanding of the theoretical information presented.
  • Offering options to replace, prepare for, or supplement in-person labs — Virtual labs can familiarize students with the techniques, skills, processes, protocols and underlying theory in lieu of or in preparation for in-person labs.
  • Broadening access to science education — May give students virtual access to experiences that would not normally be part of their undergraduate course due to size of class/lab space limitations.

Virtual Lab Pilots at UofT

Beyond Labz

Beyond Labz offers virtual labs in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics and Biology.

Developed at Brigham Young University through 20 years of research, Beyond Labz offers research-based, open-ended virtual lab experiences that provide students with opportunities to experiment, practice, fail, discover and learn without the limitations, expense and safety constraints of an in-person lab experience. The simulation platform is built upon actual experimental data and the most advanced models available. The aim is to teach students how to be scientists by allowing them to experience real outcomes and learn from their failures by not having such simulation constraints.

The virtual lab settings are designed around different lab benches that are specific to experiment types (i.e., for the Organic Chemistry virtual labs, the Synthesis and Qualitative Analysis lab benches are different).

Throughout each virtual lab experience, students can record/report data in a virtual lab book, copy their data, and even take snapshots so that they can then analyze their results in a Google sheet or Excel (for submission). For more information:

Online Learning Strategies has recently shared eCampusOntario’s call for Expression of Interest submissions and has since coordinated a submission on behalf of U of T faculty interested in using Beyond Labz simulations in STEM courses for the 2021 Winter and 2021 Summer terms. View Online Learning Strategies website page detailing this initiative.


Labster offers virtual lab simulations that give students access to a realistic lab experience that lets them perform simulated experiments and practice their skills in a fun and risk-free learning environment. Labster, a Danish company founded in 2011, offers virtual lab simulations that include quiz questions and background theory to engage students in an immersive, game-like multimedia experience. The simulations are based on mathematical algorithms that support open-ended investigations, combined with gamification elements, storytelling and a scoring system that highlights the connection between science and the real world. For more information:

Labster lab simulations are being used by several courses at the three University of Toronto campuses. Labster is fully integrated into Quercus as of September 2020.

Labster at U of T Timeline:

Future opportunities

Online Learning Strategies is keeping tabs on any upcoming pilot opportunities involving virtual lab simulations. For a consultation please email

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Interactive Content Creation with H5P

In this new age of remote teaching it is more important than ever to identify strategies to help students stay motivated through active learning. One way to keep students engaged and alert is to incorporate elements of interactivity into teaching materials as enhancements to recorded videos and slide presentations. This article highlights an effective digital authoring method that can be used to create interactive content for course materials and a unique learning experience for students.

Introducing H5P

H5P is the abbreviation for HTML5 Package, and is an open-source eLearning authoring tool that enables educators to create and edit interactive videos, presentations, games, and more. Once created, this interactive content may be linked to from a website or web resource, embedded into a Quercus course, and incorporated into Pressbooks (an online book production tool).

Example H5P Uses

  • Insert true/false questions into video clips of lab protocols to make important concepts memorable
  • Break up longer slide or video presentations with interactive exercises (drag words into correct spots in a sentence) to stimulate thinking
  • Use interactive content to prepare for a graded quiz on the material

In Ontario, educators can explore this tool at no cost on eCampus Ontario’s H5P Studio website.

Using H5P — Quick Start Guide

Go to, click on “Register” at the top right, and sign up for a free account with your email.

How to register an account on eCampus Ontario H5P Studio website


If you are not ready to sign up, explore the catalogue to find out about the different ways educators are using this tool. You can even link to existing catalogue H5P content without an account.

Search the catalogue by title/description, type, keywords, subject, and even by author.

Search the catalogue in eCampus Ontario H5P Studio website


To adapt content already created, select the desired content from the catalogue by clicking on the title. Then click on “Reuse” on the bottom left of the selected H5P content. Another window opens, with two options: download the file or copy. Choose to copy the content.

Once you are ready to create your own H5P content, click on “Create” in the top navigation (you must be logged in). Then you have the option of starting from scratch or adapting content already created.


Once in the creative studio, and if you have copied existing H5P content, click on “Paste” on the top right to start customizing the content to your needs.

Give your work a descriptive title, pick an appropriate subject category (if in doubt, choose “Reference”), and add a short description (optional).


There are tutorial videos and examples accessible right in the edit view for each H5P interactive content type.

Remember to save your work on a regular basis!


Once your H5P content has been created, you can link to it or choose to use the embed code to seamlessly incorporate it into Quercus or another platform.


The example of Drag and Drop H5P Content Type featured here, “Label the Coronavirus Structure Elements”, is an adaptation of “Label the Human Heart”.

“Which is better: Soap or hand sanitizer?” is an example created to demonstrate the Interactive Video H5P Content Type.

Additional Resources

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Managing Mental Health MOOC

Responding to the need for managing anxiety globally due to COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Steve Joordens launched an open course on Coursera titled: “Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19” in March 2020. So far, more than 65,000 learners have signed up for this self-paced course that has already been offered in two different versions. Learners in the “Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19” MOOC represent a diverse geographical scope spanning North America, South Asia, Africa, East Asia, Europe, and South America. Later, 6,500 U of T alumni participated in an exclusive alumni version of this course. 

Image of a brain

Professor Joordens has structured this course into three themes: understanding anxiety; managing anxiety; and managing the effects of isolation. Each theme includes short videos; quizzes; and guided mediation sessions. With U of T buildings closed due to the pandemic, the course production leveraged creative strategies with minimal production equipment, yet the result has excellent good sound and video quality. 

“Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19” emphasizes a community approach to learning with an active moderated discussion forum. Learners are also encouraged to upvote their favorite posts so that the instructor comments on them. Engaging students in peer interaction is an integral component of Professor Joordens’s approach to teaching. In 2013, Professor Joorderns was among the first U of T instructors to offer a popular Massive Open Online Course, Introduction to Psychology, on Coursera. He successfully integrated Peer Scholar and Digital Labcoat educational technology applications in the Introduction to Psychology MOOC, thus enabling learners from a variety of background and knowledge in reviewing their peers’ work and in experiencing the process of scientific research.

Originally offered in English, Professor Joordens’s team of students has translated the course material into Hungarian, Spanish, Arabic, and Serbian to facilitate access to the course to non-English speaking learners.

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Online Learning at U of T – Ready to Reach Out

Computer with (n)ever (s)top learning displayed.As the University of Toronto shifts to increased online learning activity in response to COVID-19, we are fortunate to have an Online Learning Strategies portfolio with a strong track record in exploring and evaluating emergent learning technologies and practices. Since 2012 we have been supporting transformative initiatives that enhance the learning experience and build momentum for a digital learning innovation mindset.

Online Learning Strategies fast tracks capacity development, leveraging the work of a community of instructors who have already introduced effective approaches to course activities in a digital format.  At a recent round table it was acknowledged that the “most important consideration is keeping a connection between the instructor and the student to build community and ensure engagement.”

In collaboration with other units on campus, our portfolio has been building momentum across the following dimensions:

  • Flexible access through fully online, hybrid, and MOOC courses that leverage our academic technology tools
  • Digital content design featuring interactive modules, open educational resources, virtual reality, peer feedback and community-building activities.

University of Toronto instructors are able to access the resources and the know-how to provide a rich learning experience for all our students, regardless of modality of course delivery. We are “ready to reach out” to ensure that our students never stop learning at the University of Toronto.

Online Learning Spotlights

Support within a range of digital learning contexts is illustrated in the innovative initiatives featured below.

French Business Logo

French Language Collaboration with Wikis: Business writing activity focused on authentic and meaningful tasks. [Read more]

Rosa Junghwa Hong, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Department of Language Studies, UTM


symbolic logic text

Symbolic Logic Video and Discussion: Supporting learning at own time and pace. [Read more]

Alex Koo, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Department of Philosophy, FAS


Barbara MurckEnvironmental Science Virtual Office Hours: Live online drop-in question and answer sessions using Bb Collaborate. [Read more]

Barb Murck, Member of the UofT President’s Teaching Academy and Professor, Teaching Stream, Department of Geography, UTM

Screenshot of quizzing interfaceOperations Management Randomized Quiz Questions: Online assessment tool that generates, presents and automatically marks sets of randomized algorithmically generated questions. [Read more]

Gerhard Trippen, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Rotman School of Management and Department of Management, UTM

For more information visit About Online Learning Strategies.

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Open Education Week – Checking in on OER grant projects

students collaborating on computerPhoto by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Last year, the University of Toronto Libraries (UTL) and Online Learning Strategies (OLS) announced the creation of a grant program for the adaptation and use of Open Educational Resources (OER) in University of Toronto courses.

Three currently ongoing projects were selected for their potential to save students money and to contribute to the growing movement towards open education at the University of Toronto, in Ontario, and beyond. The OER textbook projects engage with a range of disciplines that include: courses in Neurobiology, Spanish language comprehension, and Linear Algebra, respectively.

Read more about the ongoing awarded projects here.

Students as creative partners

Aside from their obvious differences in subject matter and focus, the awarded projects all do have something important in common – the fact that students play a significant part in their production.

Whether it be via the creation of textbook content via class assignments, when students participate in online, peer production communities, or via the hiring of student workers to manage these projects, students contribute to open education in a number of ways, performing varied duties such as:

  • Creating content
  • Coordinating tasks with content creation teams (usually other students)
  • Creating and maintaining a consistent editorial style across all parts of texts which may come from multiple sources
  • Finding or designing images and diagrams
  • Creating test banks and other supplementary materials
  • Managing team deadlines and coordinating review and quality assurance processes

Along the way, students gain experience in important areas and develop skills as practitioners in open education, pedagogy, and science communication.

In advance of open education week, the UTL and OLS grant team got in touch with a group of students working on funded projects and asked them to describe their experiences so far. Here are some of their responses, some of which have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Student: Benjamin Martin, Neuroscience and Astrophysics Majors, 3rd Year.

Future Plans: “I plan to go to grad school for research in either pure physics or some cross-over with human biology e.g. medical biophysics.”

Project: Enhancing existing OERs for better adoption and adaptation in neuroscience courses. Project leads:  Dr. Bill Ju (Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Human Biology), Jeff Newman (D.G. Ivey Library), Aneta Kwak (D.G. Ivey Library).

How did you get involved in the project? “Dr. Ju offered the position back in October and I decided it would be an academically beneficial opportunity.”

What surprised you about the open education resource you were adapting? “How consistent in format and style it was. Very impressive!” [See the resource Ben is talking about here.]

What was the biggest challenge in your project? “Finding consistent and fresh ways to present content.”

Screenshot of membrane protein from open textbook

Student: Max Shcherbina, Graduate Student in Cells & Systems Biology.

Future Plans: “I am looking forward to pursuing a career in research and science communication!”

Project: “I am currently involved in the HMB422 Health & Disease companion textbook.” [Max was also involved in the creation of the Neuroscience: Canadian 1st edition textbook.]

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your project?  “It’s been a challenge coordinating and collaborating with the whole class to create a cohesive milieu of topics. However, it’s incredibly satisfying seeing the finished product come together and be used by future classes!”

How about a success? “As a group we were able determine the design language of the entire textbook as it pertains to the figures that we will be using so that the audience that read the textbook will have a cohesive understanding of the material with the diagrams.”

What advice would you give to students considering working on OER? “Working on an OER does take a commitment but it is also incredibly rewarding to collaborate on a project and put it out into the world for all to benefit.”


Student: Jose Villalobos Graillet, PhD Candidate in Spanish Literature and Culture.

Future Plans: “I’m planning to teach at the university level.”

Project: Developing and Improving Students’ Listening Comprehension in Spanish for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced Levels. Project lead: Juan Carlos Rocha Osornio (Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, and Spanish Language Coordinator, Department of Spanish & Portuguese).

Can you tell us about a moment of success in your project? “Once I got acquainted with H5P and found the material for our book was easier to develop different sections. I was motivated at all times thinking about how future students at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese would welcome and use the book to improve their listening skills in a foreign language.”

How did you get involved in working on open education project? “I was invited by Prof. Juan Carlos Rocha Osornio, the Spanish Language Coordinator at UofT. I worked as his assistant from 2017-2018, so it was a pleasure to be involved in this project with him.”

What was the biggest challenge in your project? “Finding authentic and open access videos, pictures, texts, etc.”

Screenshot of open textbook landing page Spanish literature

Student: Beatrix Yu, 3rd year, majoring in neuroscience and immunology.

Project: Enhancing existing OERs for better adoption and adaptation in neuroscience courses.

How did you get involved in your project? “I got involved by being a part of the work study program under the Human Biology department.”

What were some of the biggest challenges in your project? “One of the biggest challenges in the project for me was ensuring that the figures I’m designing are able to visually communicate scientific information to a wide audience and be understood intuitively no matter the depth of prior scientific knowledge they may have. Although challenging, it was a very important learning experience for me as I was able to transfer this skill into my own studies by making simple visual summaries of concepts that were discussed in class to facilitate my own learning.”

What surprised you about working with OERs? “I was pleasantly surprised that open educational resources are becoming more common recently, as I wasn’t aware of the availability of such resources during my time in undergraduate studies so far. Now that I have participated in working with open educational resources, I’d like to promote this more to other students so that they are more aware of such resources and are hopefully able to find them useful in their own studies too.”


Student: Daniela Maldonado Castaneda, PhD Candidate in Hispanic Literature

Project: Developing and Improving Students’ Listening Comprehension in Spanish for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced Levels.

What advice would you give to other students involved in OER projects? “I think training is good, but my advice is that doing the work yourself with the tools that are available will give you enough practice to make something great.”

What surprised you about working with OERs? “It gets easier once you are used to doing it. I think it is a very helpful tool to use with our Spanish students.”

Tell us about a moment of success in your project? “Finishing it!”

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Online Learning “By the Numbers” – OLS Infographic

Last year was another exciting period of growth in online and hybrid learning at UofT.

  • Undergraduate and graduate fully online courses remained steady, with over 11,000 learners enrolled in at least one online course offering.
  • Hybrid course design is a recently funded OUCI initiative and we are seeing an uptick in the development of hybrid courses across faculties
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continue to grow as well and we have passed a milestone in having well over 2,000,000 learners explore a MOOC from UofT.

Have a look at our infographic for the full story of online learning “by the numbers.”

Screenshot of OLS infographic report

Just what is a fully online, hybrid course or MOOC? See a full list of definitions of online, hybrid, MOOCs and more at


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Creator AVR Sandbox Pilot in Winter 2020

A network of four University of Toronto instructors have been successful in their application to participate in the new eCampusOntario’s Augmented and Virtual Reality Sandbox initiative. The aim of the program is to provide the opportunity to explore and report on curriculum integration of 3D models and AR/VR experiences across disciplines. eCampusOntario will provision 120 licences for Creator AVR, a cloud-based authoring environment that allows users to choose from a library of educational 3D models or import an external 3D model to view in AR, VR, or mobile touch screen mode.

Each of participating instructors will redesign a course to incorporate an opportunity for students to create, experience, and share interactive AR- or VR-based learning modules relevant to their area of study. Students will learn by auhoring the learning materials, and also through the process of reviewing the work of others in their course. Support and consultation on use of the platform for design activities will be provided by the Mobile Application Development Lab (MADLab) and the Online Learning Strategies (OLS) portfolio. 

Project Lead:

  • Christopher Garside, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream – Cell & Systems Biology


  • Alexandra Bolintineanu, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream – Medieval Digital Studies
  • Tony Tang, Associate Professor – Faculty of Information
  • William Ju, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream – Human Biology Program

Screen shot of Creator AVR interface

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Spotlight: Quercus Analytic Data Meets Course Design

Successful applicants have been confirmed for a new Data-Driven Design: Quercus Analytics (D3:QA) initiative, funded by the Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education. This program, facilitated by ITS Online Learning Strategies, extends course design programming to examine opportunities provided by the Quercus New Analytics module. We welcome a cohort of instructors from across various divisions/departments, including:

  • Laura Dempster (Dentistry)
  • Andrea Duncan (Faculty of Medicine – Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy)
  • Lynn Ellwood (Faculty of Medicine – Department of Speech-Language Pathology)
  • William Ju & Jessica Pressey  (Faculty of Arts and Science – Human Biology)
  • Sandra Bjelajac Mejia (Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy)
  • Safieh Moghaddam  (UTSC – Arts and Science)
  • Karen Mundy  (OISE – Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education)
  • Heather Thomson  (Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing)
  • Kathy Vu (Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy)

Computer Screen with Graphs

These pioneers will explore use of student data to make design decisions in hybrid and online courses, meeting quarterly over the course of a year for facilitated workshops related to extracting and making meaning of Quercus data patterns. Instructors will participate in evaluation of tools, and practices, with an expectation of sharing and dissemination of outcomes within the broader university community. This initiative aligns with strategic directions articulated in the IT@UofT strategic plan and the priorities of the VP-IUE, focusing on evidence-informed planning to support the teaching mission of the university.

By the end of the program the instructors will have:

  • Participated in cohort workshops and program evaluation activities
  • Redesigned a fully online or hybrid course
  • Shared examples of use of the Quercus New Analytics module
  • Presented a poster or presentation at the annual Teaching and Learning Symposium

We look forward to beginning the program this November. Stay tuned for updates.

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Engaging Students Through Teaching Presence In Online Courses

Communicating clearly with students is important in any teaching and learning scenario, but it is a unique skill to apply masterfully in a fully online course. Since students will not be seeing the instructor live, face-to-face, it’s important to establish a teaching presence and offer students a sense of who the instructor is and demonstrate that, though at a distance, the instructor is there to support student learning.

Barbara Murck has been teaching fully online courses for many years and in a recent survey of her course, she found that 93% of her students identified that they felt as connected with her, and their peers, as a regular face-to-face course. Her key to success is varied communication. She offers many ways for students to engage with her as she engages and messages them in multiple ways and through multiple channels.

Chat Icon

Some of her techniques to communicating with students and encouraging community include:

Taking a consciously informal approach to lecturing online

Although she has much experience teaching online Barbara admits that she is not that technologically inclined. She embraces that and produces online lectures that are somewhat informal and low-tech. However, she sees that students relate more to her videos when, for example, her dog wanders into the room and she says hello to him.

‘Clickbait’ material that offers fun connections to the course

Barbara tried a number of – what she refers to as – “clickbait” approaches to engage students. These were intended to get students to click through to course-related material, some of which was fairly serious but much of which was just for fun (e.g. “Test yourself…” links).

Virtual office hours

A staple in her course is to hold virtual office hours every week. Using webinar software she finds they have been well attended. She notes that she has set up the virtual office with a picture of her actual desk at home, which feels “homey” and welcoming to the students.

Timed regular announcements

Barbara also utilizes Announcements on Quercus. She delivers a lot of the course structure by way of timed announcements. For example, she has timed announcements every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9 am. These really help guide the students to where they should be in the course at that point. Monday is “what’s happening this week”; Wednesday is the “Challenge” for the week; Thursday is “see you soon in my Virtual Office; and Friday is a “Weekly Checklist.”

Responsive to questions

Finally, she is also responsive to student questions in discussions. Being responsive means students feel that if they reach out that she’s going to answer them quickly which also means that they understand that she’s there with them.

Chat Boxes

Of course, a balance of some or all of these techniques can help any instructor connect more fully with students. While communication is key, it is also important to manage expectations with students at the beginning of the semester (e.g. indicate how long students should wait before they can expect a response). Understanding the when, where and how of communication goes a long way to establishing a teaching presence and connection with your online students.

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Say Hello To UofT’s Open Education Fellows

The University of Toronto continues to promote Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open UToronto is our initiative that promotes the discovery, use, creation and sharing of open content, resources and courses. We have produced dozens of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), made available numerous open modules and published several open textbooks.

Through eCampusOntario, we are now thrilled that two pioneering UofT instructors have been accepted as Open Education (OE) Fellows. A total of six new partners were recently welcomed, to lead action research focused on open education and contribute to the broader development of the open community in the province.

The eCampusOntario OE Fellows program has the following goals:

  • Promote awareness and increase use of open resources and open practices by Ontario educators working at post-secondary institutions
  • Support and advocate for increased diversity and choice in education content
  • Reduce resource costs for Ontario learners
  • Provide OE-focused professional development opportunities in partnership with post-secondary educators and learners
  • Conduct and share an open scholarly practice project related to Ontario post-secondary use of OER

Laptop with word Open on screen

The two fellows from UofT are William (Bill) Ju and Xinli Wang.

William (Bill) Ju is an Associate Professor, Teaching stream in the Faculty of Arts and Science where he teaches courses in neuroscience and health/disease. He has a variety of different interests to improve student engagement in the learning process but is currently interested in social justice issues in STEM, educational equity, mental health in the classroom and, of course, how Open Educational resources can be used in all of these areas. You can often find him posting his thoughts, concerns and interests on Twitter using the ID @NeuroscienceUT.

Xinli Wang teaches entry-level mathematics courses at University of Toronto, Mississauga, and Mathematics of Business and Finance at Seneca College. Her love of teaching started when she was a graduate student. After she received her Ph.D, She taught full-time as a math lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic for five years. Her current interests include flipped learning, blended learning, problem based learning, student engagement and open education resources. She does acrylic paintings to destress. She can be found at

See all of the OE fellows at

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