An article in the New York Times discusses a review by the College Board of the role of virtual laboratories in advanced placement.
“Professors are saying that simulations can be really good, that they use them to supplement their own lab work, but that they’d be concerned about giving credit to students who have never had any experience in a hands-on lab,” said Trevor Packer, the board’s executive director for Advanced Placement. “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”
I think as a pedagogical tool these virtual laboratories are a great tool. They tend to constrain the mistakes that students can make. Becoming skilled in a laboratory is an important hurdle for future scientists, but for non-scientists it the effort is probably too much work for the benefit. In a previous post I mention the advantage of doing a bunch of conservation of momentum measurements. I think simulated collisions would do a very good job at teaching the concept.