Online labs: under development

Remote research presents new opportunities for developmental psychologists to understand how children learn
Nenad Stojkovic Flickr.com CC BY 2.0
Nenad Stojkovic Flickr.com CC BY 2.0

Decades of research have refined developmental psychologists’ labs into carefully controlled spaces. Labs provide the most sensitive settings for children to reveal their knowledge to us. Could our research now move into children’s natural habitats, those rather uncontrolled spaces we call home, and still allow us to discover the cognitive and neural underpinnings of children’s learning?

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a suspension of in-person interactions and left us developmental psychologists with a challenge: How do we do science when the tools and settings we’ve always relied on are no longer available? The solution was at once obvious and yet uncertain: Like so many others, we turned our attention to online methods for collecting data. But could we test infants and children online, just like we do in the lab?

Fortunately, these newly urgent questions are not so new. Developmental psychologists have been rigorously exploring the promises and limitations of online testing for the past several years. I for one began exploring online data collection about three years ago as an alpha tester for the online platform Lookit, created by developmental psychologists at MIT. We started by translating an in-lab study on basic shape perception for infants to one in which families could participate online, at home, without an appointment, simply by using a computer with internet and a webcam.

“Online platforms allow scientists to study infants’ and children’s behavior, perception, and learning in the noisy environments in which they typically take place.”

Much of what we learned was unexpected and caused us to rethink, or at least refine, every step of our research process. For example, it now seems unlikely that we can simply convert in-lab studies to online studies and expect everything to turn out the same way. The subtle manipulations presented to infants and children in highly controlled lab settings may not be translatable to online platforms. But lab studies also have their limitations, perhaps revealing areas where online studies might not just be a quick fix but an important new tool for developmental science.

Lab studies do not reveal, for example, whether the abilities they measure are detectable or harnessed in the complex and noisy environments of everyday life, like a home, where a lot of learning happens! In contrast, online platforms allow scientists to study infants’ and children’s behavior, perception, and learning in the noisy environments in which they typically take place. Online platforms may also allow for more easily collected repeated measures from the same infant or child — something which is rarely done in the lab — and they have the potential to reach more diverse populations. Although participants are limited to those who have a computer and stable internet connection, they are no longer restricted to those who are physically able to come to the lab.

“If lab studies serve as the most sensitive measure of infants’ and children’s knowledge, online studies might reveal whether such knowledge is expressed in everyday life.”

As developmental psychologists continue to transition to online data collection, we should not treat it as a replacement for in-person data collection. The different strengths of lab-based and online studies should instead lead to complementary goals: If lab studies serve as the most sensitive measure of infants’ and children’s knowledge, online studies might reveal whether such knowledge is expressed in everyday life.

Interested in participating in online developmental research?

The Lab for the Developing Mind has several studies available for infants and children, all probing developing intuitions about the spatial phenomena at the heart of school math. Eager participants can now access lots of research studies online on a wide range of topics, from neonatal imitation to how children form social groups. Lookit, The Online Child Lab, Discoveries in Action, and Children Helping Science are all great places to find research studies online. For an in-depth discussion of online data collection, see this recent webinar hosted by the International Congress on Infant Studies.

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