Managing an Online Undergrad Lab [Spring 2016]

Author(s): Brandy Perkl, Ph.D.

Originally posted: February 5, 2016
Tech Recommendations Disclaimer: The tools the University pays for change periodically so this advice may go out of date easily or not apply other places than the University of Arizona or my lab specifically, I always recommend using the tech your school supports so you can call them for help and so it's free to you. Unless you're planning to go to graduate school, then find what works best for you and get comfortable with it fast because you'll be using it for YEARS.

This semester I am very happy to be running a lab with Dr. Laura G. Lunsford and our wonderful Lab Manager, Christina R. Kalel (however, this lab is not run via my personal website).

Our basic structure is to parse students on to projects, assign the work each week, then we all split up to do the work, and then come together live on Fridays to report progress, set new goals, and do any problem solving and brain storming needed together at that time.

The lab has grown a lot this last year and so have our needs - the main one being that I cannot be the only account holder for apps or software we are using to manage our meetings.* Given that the UA provides all students with a Google Apps for Education account, we had already started dabbling in Google for collaboration...

Which is why this semester we've gone full Google and so far I think it's going very well, here's a rundown:

  • Using a Google Doc as an ongoing Meeting Agenda which all members update with their goals for each week and their progress on said goals (we live review it in our weekly meetings)

  • Using a shared Google Drive folder for all projects and files, ensuring transparency and access for all

  • Using a Google Site as an intranet - it's our 'home' for more static information and keeps all of our links to all of the above in a stable place everyone can bookmark and access wherever and whenever they need to, this has the added advantage of being able to be nested in D2L which is where all of our student's other classes live - making it easier for them to stay on top of their varied responsibilities and access our University supported meeting tool each week (Adobe Connect).

Having a Lab Manager is indescribably helpful (this is our first semester with one), if you can make that happen in your labs I can't recommend it enough. Here's one example of how having one has been a game-changer:

  • Last semester in our final meeting with students they reflected and came to the conclusion that they really should have set up a backchannel. So this semester we passed along this nugget of wisdom and our current group chose to set up a private Facebook Group and exchanged phone numbers so they can more easily get in touch with each other with the little pain points that can come up during the week. They also are much more likely to send those things to Christina early vs. waiting too long to try and figure it out and then missing a deadline due to their reluctance to send me/Dr. L the 'little things' (their words, not mine). Given how much I appreciate their consideration for our time, I'm much happier that this batch of students is not being hampered by it and is instead getting support on many levels which should in turn allow us to have our most productive semester yet. Our productivity has definitely improved this semester over last, and we're only 6 weeks in.

Image sourced from the author.

* When it was a smaller lab and I was handling all the legwork on this end, I used and loved it, but when I stopped being able to get it free and stopped doing all the management, it stopped being the best tool for my labs.