Compared to the post-secondary level, distance education at the elementary and secondary levels has received little attention from researchers (Kapitzke & Pendergast, 2005; Smith, Clark, & Blomeyer, 2005). This lack of attention is of concern given the rapid and broad growth of this form of education. In the United States, online education programs are experiencing rapid growth. For example, during the academic year 2005-2006, more than 90,000 middle and high school students were enrolled in state virtual schools in the Southern Regional Education Board, which represented a 100% increase in enrollments from the previous year (Southern Regional Education Board, 2006). While we might assume that research from contexts of post-secondary may inform K-12 distance education, Cavanaugh, Gillan, Kromrey, Hess, and Blomeyer (2004) caution against this assumption as follows: “The temptation may be to attempt to apply or adapt findings from studies of K-12 classroom learning or of adult distance learning, but K-12 distance education is fundamentally unique” (p. 4). The authors further observed that, although research in this area “is maturing” (p. 17), it has only been studied since about 1999. The current “explosion in virtual schools” (p. 6) creates a compelling rationale for continued efforts to conduct research on K-12 distance education.
The ability to provide the student with an excellent laboratory experience is crucial in disciplines like biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering, which traditionally have a strong laboratory component. It is also one of the more challenging components to deliver effectively at a distance (Kennepohl & Last 1997). There is no one correct solution in delivering laboratories for distance students and often an assortment of methods are used in concert to overcome challenges (Kennepohl & Last, 2000). However, some educators have directed their efforts towards allowing students remote access to real experiments via the Internet. Remote experiments are increasingly appearing in a variety of disciplines at different institutions. In addition, various consortia have evolved to share costs and benefits of remote laboratories.
For example, a consortium of primarily undergraduate teaching institutions in the United States entitled the Science Teaching and Research Brings Undergraduate Research Strengths Through Technology (STaRBURSTT) provides a network of shared resources to carry out structure determination using single crystal X-ray diffraction (Szalay, Zeller & Hunter, 2005). Although not operational since 2003, the PEARL project (Practical Experimentation by Accessible Remote Learning) was a consortium of European Union (EU) institutions developing remote experiments in spectrometry, cell biology, manufacturing engineering, and electronic engineering (Scanlon, et al., 2004). Another EU consortium called Network for Education – Chemistry uses mostly interactive simulations, but it is also exploring online remote process control using a residence time distribution experiment (Zurn, Paasch, Thiele & Salzer, 2003) and the German LearNet initiative consortium of eight German universities provides a variety of engineering laboratories (LearNet, 2007).
In some cases, the focus of the remote laboratory is to facilitate observations both large and small. For example, the astronomical camera called “Stardial” delivers images of the night sky in real-time (McCullough & Thakkar, 1997), whereas the “Bugscope” project provides electron microscope images of mailed-in specimens (Potter et al, 2001). In other remote experiments the core activity is to carry out measurements. Reported examples include measuring the elasticity of a metal beam as a function of temperature (Alhalabi et al, 2001), measuring and analyzing remote sound waves (Forinash & Wisman, 2005), and thermal conductivity experiments in food engineering (Palou et al, 2005) to name a few. One recent remote laboratory example in animal behaviour, involving following a mouse in an arena, employs observation, and measurement, along with collaboratively pooling individual results (Fiore & Ratti, 2007). The idea of using remote laboratories to facilitate collaboration has been around in the research context since the early nineties. It is described as a “collaboratory” and also affords benefits when used in an instructional context (Johnston et al, 2001). In addition, some remote experiments will also involve physical control of objects such as an electric motor (Yeung & Huang, 2003) or more robotic operations such a ball drop experiment in physics (Connors, 2004) or moving a toy vehicle through a maze (Gröber et al, 2007). Finally, remote laboratories are ideally suited to accessing sophisticated instruments that are already controlled locally by computer (Kennepohl et al, 2005).