Post Boxing Day Dreaming – integrating technology into the laboratory properly

I was contemplating purchasing an Amazon Echo this morning. Well I was working out what one was then thinking about what I would do with it, and I was reading some very entertaining reviews of the product that were simultaneously illuminating and distressing. Let me clarify that I haven’t bought one, and probably wont. Yet.

If you don’t know what one is, go look it up. You need the context for the rest. Or one of the other major brands – the concept is the same really.

I spent 10 minutes explaining to R what one was and what one might do. At the end of this somewhat enthusiastic ‘oooh shiny technology’  list, he looked non-plussed, and to be honest, so was I. Somewhat enthusiastic yet oddly reluctant. I quite liked some of it – music on demand but then balked at the set-up cost (in terms of time). Yes I could see that it works really well with Spotify, but I don’t use Spotify so I’d have to get that and set it up and…and…and…. I think we nailed it with the question of whether all of the set-up cost would be worth it 9 months down the line and a major software upgrade later. What would still work? But our discomfort extended beyond the investment of time to make it worthwhile. It extended into the realm of what affordances the technology offered. What could I do with this device that I actually needed to do but could not currently do? And this is a familiar internal debate with me: I don’t want different, I want revolutionary.   When different = better when it comes to technology, our expectations shift around it and no real benefit is found. The usual analogies for this come in the realm of household items – as technological innovations moved into the home, they didn’t fulfil the promise of being ‘labour saving devices’. Rather our expectations of home and personal cleanliness shifted to demand as much, if not more, time devoted to the act of maintaining a home. Instead of being a liberating force, they became a new noose of expectations.

So if I’m going to hook up my wee house to the internet of things and put Major General Alexa in charge of it all, I want to know what I can do with it all that I can’t do right now. And I don’t mean go out and replace all my home devices to be wireless capable so I can monitor the state of my washing cycle or whether the oven’s come on from my phone. What does it let me do that I can’t do already? And that I’d actually want to do.

In any case, I started thinking that such a thing would be far more useful in a laboratory context.  A laboratory assistant. There are a few places that are building computers into teaching laboratories for laboratory notebook keeping, or electronic laboratory manuals with multi-media components. And hopefully with all the new teaching labs springing up, there are increasingly innovative ways of incorporating electronics into the laboratory environment. Let’s face it – building a new lab without sophisticated computer tech is pointless. We invest heavily in cutting edge kit, developing brilliant experiments and we still expect students to read from an A5 printed lab manual and take notes in a hardback note book. How very 19th century. We’ve incorporated better innovations into pre-laboratory exercises (videos, online quizzes), and data analysis sessions (crack out the laptops folks and make sure they are fully charged) but there could be so much more in the actual doing of the experiments.

I think some of the major drawbacks are chemicals + computers = broken computers. And also because some still cling to the notion that you can’t have electronics like smart phones in the lab because it’s a spark risk like at a petrol station (which is nonsense – the distraction if the phone goes off is a risk  but should be weighted against a generation who are well used to phones pinging, beeping and vibrating at any odd moment).  So if we had a lab equivalent of Alexa (or GoogleHome) we could go hands-free and have a very nice multimedia setup.  Combine with a lot of the automation that already exists (emailed NMR files, voice activated software for dictation).*

“Alexa display video for chromatography column set-up”

“Alexa has NMR sample 20 finished running?”

“Alexa record lab diary entry: 20 mL of diethyl ether was spilled so some idiot could cause a spark with their mobile phone”.

And the argument that a lab is noisy so how would each screen know who was talking to it…well it’s called a bluetooth headset. Equip each student with one (to allow audio on the videos, to record notes at a specific workstation, to interface with the computer…). We could fully integrate tech. Small screens at each workstation (fumehood or lab bench – make them tablets and the students could move them between stations), larger screens for group work where each individual could project their own stuff as required, interactivity beyond the dead-tree approach we currently use and possibly in a more natural manner than the 19th century scientific method thinking currently allows. We could more easily incorporate images and videos into lab reports and lab diaries which a lot of folk are doing this already, getting students to record their practice for assessment if our labs were designed with this kind of technology rather than trying to fit it in after construction in the traditional manner. Any new lab being designed should be carefully considered from the point of view of technology – we’d future-proof fume hood specs yet we’d content ourself with turn-of-the-millenium standard IT set-up where a radio microphone would be considered innovative. Not really good enough, is it?


*do not underestimate how valuable this could be for students with learning difficulties or disabilities.


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