Working digitally has taken off in the education space. And in most spaces at this point. But what does a digital only learning environment actually provide? What’s the real value of switching up age old paper tradition? Just talk to Ines Rauschenbach and Ramaydalis Keddis from Rutgers University who have been in the digital only game since before it was mainstream.

The two took their lab courses “digital only” with LabArchives five years ago. And after spending a half decade ahead of the curve here’s what they have to say to anyone considering a move towards digital… “Just go for it and don’t look back.”

Why’d they switch?

Ines coordinates introductory and applied microbiology while Ramaydalis coordinates general microbiology and is in charge of TAs, equipment and technology. Both teach morning to night most days and manage eight TAs.

They use LabArchives to achieve their digital only model in General Microbiology which has 200 students per semester in thirteen sections. They also use LabArchives in Introductory and Applied Microbiology courses. Sometimes the two team teach. But what prompted them to go digital in the first place? 

The convenience factor seems like it would’ve been an obvious motivator for Ines and Ramaydalis who both wear multiple hats within their departments. But biosafety is what pushed them to go digital within their teaching lab environments. Little did they know, the switch would also bring massive benefits in terms of saving them time and increasing efficiency.

Biosafety and digital

In 2012, a CDC study came out linking salmonella outbreaks to undergraduate research labs. The study found that students had likely transported the harmful bacteria from their labs to external environments by way of personal materials like paper lab notebooks. In response, the American Society of Microbiology changed their lab guidelines to essentially say that nothing should be going in and out of the lab. The Rutgers team then colleague, Diane Davis, recognized that a change was in order to stay up to date with best practices. She knew that nothing should be coming in and out of the lab other than the students themselves and she suggested nixing the paper notebooks. 

Ditching paper for digital

The first suggestion? Ines thought of buying five iPads for the lab. Students would keep lab notes on paper, at the end of class each student would photograph their notes, email the photos to themselves via an iPad and then discard the contaminated papers before leaving the lab. 

But thinking about how 20 students to five iPads would create bottlenecks in the lab, Ines wrote a grant to secure enough iPads for the whole lab. Once the tools were acquired, she introduced them in summer courses in 2015 to work out the kinks. Diane researcheded various electronic notebook options and found that LabArchives would work best as their digital lab notebook.

At that point, LabArchives had already been in the digital notebook space for about five years and had the know how and expert customer success team to help the Rutgers team get from paper to digital fast. Ramaydalis joined the team in 2016 and embraced the technology and “paper-less” lab. 

Preparing students for digital only careers

Ines Rauschenbach

One interesting thing they’ve found is that students need to be reminded of the tools they have. “There is this notion that university students are digital natives but we actually have to remind them that they have iPads in front of them sometimes. We make it very easy for our students, even their lab manual is on their iPad inside of LabArchives,” Ines said. But by the end of the semester, she has found that students are comfortable working digitally and have developed seamless workflows that suit their learning styles. 

Ramaydalis Keddis

In her time at Rutgers, Ramaydalis has seen students become more and more proficient with technology in the classroom. Students, she said, don’t realize that “nearly all professional work is done digitally.” If students aren’t learning to work digitally they’re already behind when they enter the professional world. Ramaydalis often tells her students, “This is preparing you for any industry or biomedical career because this is where the world is going.”

“I think the student attitude has changed quite a lot, I think students are now open to using electronic devices for more than just browsing the internet. Everyone is O.K. with typing notes and doing their work online.”

Bringing paper players to the digital side

Since switching to digital, Ines and Ramaydalis also have thought of the positive environmental impact. “We really wanted to reduce the paper used in our courses and LabArchives has helped us do that,” Ines said.

When students do show up with a preference for paper, Ines sees their attitude almost always shifts once they start using the photo taking features. Suddenly the convenience factor is right in front of them. “When they have a project, they have to create their own experiment and analyze their own data. At this point they see the benefit of an electronic record, they have all their pictures and data in one place and everything is available to the whole group. It’s so easy and the pictures help remind students of what they did,” Ramaydalis observed.

Now what to do with the lab manual?

When it came to course lab manuals the teaching duo realized that the Rutgers Arts University was creating open source materials and asked themselves, “Why don’t we just do that too?” Together they wrote and published their digital lab manual within LabArchives. Pretty quickly their course was digital only with a fully integrated digital lab manual. And the benefits of that? Huge.

Suddenly it was easy for them to make changes to their lab manual and to make those changes immediately. “Patrick from the LabArchives support team was a huge help to us as we published our manual,” said Ramaydalis. The pair have just recently published the third edition of their lab manual with LabArchives. It feels “homegrown” and students no longer have to purchase a paper lab manual.

Digital only = convenience

Ines and Ramaydalis have seen how digital makes things seamless and easier for everyone involved. They feel good about not wasting paper, about maintaining a high biosafety standard, and they save even more time with their digital lab manual. And the same rings true  for their TAs. 

Before going digital, weekly meetings required many handouts and TAs that missed those meetings simply couldn’t make up the material that was discussed. Now Ines and Ramaydalis record the meetings and share with the TAs to support their lab preparations.

TAs might just be the biggest fans

“There is ALWAYS feedback from TAs that grading is easier with digital. They like that there’s no paper to fuss with or paper crates to lug around, it’s easy to send out grades and comments and they can do their grading piecemeal.”  And for instructor purposes “LabArchives is essential for record keeping, grading and grade disputes,” said Ramaydalis. 

Students are also on board

The team even uses iPads for the final practical exam as students found this easier than using paper.

On the student front the team has found that pupils don’t miss keeping track of paper trails. Remote access is a favorite feature. Before LabArchives, students took their notebooks home, often forgot them, lost them all together or at the very least finished the semester with a tattered rag of a notebook. Ines and Ramaydalis have also seen how working digitally fosters important life skills.

“We use the time stamp feature all the time. It really helps with personal responsibility. Students are forced to work on their time management.” There are tertiary benefits to working digitally both within and beyond the classroom.

Getting started

Are you ready to get going? Here is Ramaydalis’s advice…. “Get a plan of action down, commit to it. Once you make the initial investment it’s very easy to sell other people on working digital and to grow usage from there. Just do it!” And this holds true at Rutgers. Once Ramaydalis and Ines started using LabArchives with microbiology, other instructors started to see the biosafety, record keeping,  time management and student development benefits. The biochemistry department followed quickly behind to make the shift. Now Rutgers students use the tool in multiple disciplines and are ready for real world work. 

Pushing digital even further

Ines and Ramaydalis didn’t stop with their lab manual. They started to look for low cost, digital textbook options for their courses too. Once they were on the digital only path they truly didn’t look back and everyone’s better for it. In addition to their other digital teaching tools, they use OpenStax low cost text books in introductory microbiology courses. 

LabArchives has recently launched an integration with OpenStax. You can find the very textbook mentioned above right inside of LabArchives. Ines and Ramaydalis are a great example of educators that have invested efforts into working digitally only and as a result they along with their TAs, students and institution as a whole have all benefited. Think you’re ready to start the shift? Give us a buzz, we’re here to help.

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