Review of Traditional and Online Laboratories

“I hear…I forget; I see…I remember; I do…I understand” (Confucius -c.500 BC)

Chapter contents

8.1    Introduction

8.2    Background

8.3    Traditional Labs

8.4    Introduction to Virtual and Remote Labs

8.5    Virtual Labs

8.6    Remote Labs

8.7    Home Experimenter Kits

8.8    Other Approaches to Lab Work


8.1 Introduction

There is general agreement in the engineering education community that laboratory work is a vital adjunct to lectures and other work in achieving engineering know-how. Engineering is an applied science that requires considerable hands-on skills and laboratories can be helpful in providing this. There is no doubt, that engineering education has become more theoretically based over the past 50 years and the learning emphasis has unfortunately moved towards lectures and classroom based education from the more practical workshop and lab-based hands-on learning.1


Figure 8.1: Hands-on work is a key part of engineering


The question of just how much “hands-on” experience is required is debatable. Whether an individual can learn effectively using a remote lab where the instruments and equipment are monitored and controlled over the internet is another arguable point. Will remote labs replace physical labs? There is no doubt that we are now at the tipping point for simulations and remote labs, especially with affordable high speed internet links and the computer nowadays being an intermediary for most instruments and equipment.

However, it should be observed that students tend to prefer real practical experimentation to computer simulations even though the latter cover similar ground.2 Research has shown that lab practical sessions can be constructed so that off-campus and on-campus yield similar results.3 The results of the lab reports for both groups were similar.

According to a colloquy on the topic, an instructional laboratory experience was defined as, “personal interaction with equipment/tools leading to the accumulation of knowledge and skills required in a practice-oriented profession”.4

The problem with a purely theoretical education without practical labs is that it is hard to reconcile this and apply to the real world with noisy data, varying (and unknown) component efficiencies and specifications and challenges with setting up equipment and testing correctly.5

The acquisition of qualitative knowledge with real situations such as the behavior of instruments and how control valves operate is essential to a good engineering education.6 Labs can be useful in achieving this although overcrowding, online education and old equipment often make this difficult to achieve.

It should be noted that while having labs built into the university curriculum is vital, they often don’t really live up to their initial expectations.7 For example, students are often so involved with setting up, troubleshooting and running the experiment to spend much time cogitating on the underlying lessons and concepts.

For most reputable universities and colleges, even when the course is 100% online, students are often expected to attend residential labs.8 For example, at the School of Technology at Michigan Technological University, students were required to attend two intense laboratory sessions running over weekends during the Electrical Machinery course.

Remote labs and virtual labs are considered serious options to supplement the learning experience for engineers and technicians as they allow for hands-on experiential training and mean that the equipment can be more efficiently used as it is distributed over more users. This is sometimes referred to as “distance experimenting”.9 Some unusual examples range from nuclear fission reactors which are operated remotely.10 But perhaps more exotic examples of remote labs have to be the orbiting Hubble space telescope and NASA’s exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which operated on Mars in 2004, taking both physical and chemical samples of the Martian environment– and operated well over 50 million kms.

This chapter is oriented towards examining how distance (or online) learning students could access experiments and in terms of engineering education what laboratories are expected to deliver (and indeed, what accreditation authorities are prepared to accept).

It commences with a discussion of the background to training and education laboratory work followed by an examination of traditional labs. This will be followed by a review of virtual and remote labs. For a holistic review of available options, the ubiquitious home experimenter kits will also be discussed, followed by other approaches and applications for lab work.


8.2 Background

Experiential learning or hands-on training is one of the best ways to gain engineering expertise.11 Typical ways to engage in experiential learning in distance learning are via traditional labs, home experimenter kits, simulations, remote labs, scenarios and considerable interactivity.

From the point of view of engineering, the term hands-on learning is used to refer to experiential learning where an interactive approach is used to the learning approach such as using real equipment and hands-on software exercises in a laboratory type environment, as opposed to an instructor merely presenting the materials in a lecturing format without feedback and interaction from the participants. Active learning can be achieved by working with remote or virtual labs and this is especially relevant for online education.12

The famous physicist and educator Richard Feynman stated the importance of tying knowledge to experiment:13

The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.” But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from? Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations–to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we made the right guess.

Students certainly would prefer more hands-on demonstrations to tie the theory to the real world.14 It is also vital that the hands-on exercises are closely linked in with the learning objectives otherwise they will not be effective.15

Labs are critical to engineering education where they allow verification of theory, improve understanding, provide increased hands-on skills and provide motivation and enthusiasm for the profession of engineering, which, after all, is the practical application of the sciences.16 Traditional labs for electrical engineering education are expensive and it is increasingly difficult to fit the burgeoning number of students in the existing labs. The static lab tools are out of pace with the modern student who is accustomed to a mobile high quality multimedia mobile interface (such as an iPad and iPhone).

There is considerable evidence to suggest that remote labs can provide similar or indeed, even better learning outcomes than for traditional campus based labs. 17 Pure hands-on labs are increasingly unusual.18 They are generally mediated by a computer and this is another support driver for remote and simulated labs.

Learners who practiced problem solving in an interactive simulation or hands-on labs environment generally outperformed those who merely worked with examples. This was demonstrated using a simulation software program reproducing the operator’s environment in a water-alcohol distillation plant. The concept is that the operator initially observes the operation of the plant, but the gradual deterioration of the plant components causes many malfunctions that the operator has to diagnose and fix as quickly as possible.19

Labs are important in helping students align their understanding with the real world processes.20 Students often, in building up an understanding of a physical phenomenon, build up their own understanding that is often in conflict with scientific theories. Hence, well-designed labs can help students to form a correct understanding. It was suggested in a review of articles that 100% of articles relating to hands-on labs suggested that they should assist with conceptual understanding and 65% that they should build design skills.21

An important requirement from most organizations that accredit engineering undergraduate programs is that graduates must have the ability to design, conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data.22

One advantage of labs, reported by students, is enjoyment.23 It is easy to see why this is, in comparison with a traditional lecture that’s often quite boring. An approach at Loughborough University was to combine the lecture with a remote lab (the Cambridge Weblab), such as in demonstrating a chemical reaction between phenolphthalein and sodium hydroxide for a graduate chemical engineering course. Student reactions indicated that this was considerably more enjoyable, understandable and motivated them to investigate further.

The use of well-designed computer simulations where the student interacts with an experiment can be effective in improving a student’s knowledge and performance.24

Simulations can be effective in improving and clarifying a learner’s understanding of a concept as the relationships between the different variables are illustrated dynamically under different conditions. However, simulation should never replace a practical hands-on experiment.25

Why tacit knowledge is important

One of the other benefits in working with real equipment is to help in the transfer of tacit knowledge as opposed to explicit knowledge. There were few references to explicit and tacit knowledge transfer in using online learning, perhaps, because easier transfer of tacit knowledge is considered to require a real object (as opposed to a computer) to work on. A good example of the differences between explicit and tacit knowledge is given would be in an operator controlling a process plant.26 Explicit knowledge (or information) can be considered to be the procedures and rules in controlling the plant as opposed to tacit knowledge which is a core part of the experienced operator’s skill in her craft or profession and is built on learning via actual experience and action such as learning from a master over a passage of time on how to run the plant to optimum capacity. Hands-on training could thus be considered a method of transferring tacit knowledge.

There are four basic patterns of creating knowledge in any organization:

• From tacit to tacit. This involves transferring the skills of a craftsman to another apprentice, for example. This skill is gained by observation, practice and refinement to imitate the skills of the craftsman.

• From explicit to explicit. A good example of this would be collecting financial information about a company and then putting this into a report.

• Tacit to explicit. This could be in taking an engineer’s approach to operating a refinery in an optimal manner and encapsulating this into a software program to take over this function.

• Explicit to tacit. This would happen when other employees of the company come to use this knowledge and to supplement and extend their tacit knowledge.


Figure 8.2: Tacit and explicit knowledge


We believe that an excellent application of the transfer of tacit to tacit knowledge is being taught by an experienced engineer via hands-on work in a lab setting on a particular technique. Lab work with hands-on experimentation is an important part of engineering and scientific training and acquisition of tacit knowledge could be considered a key element of the learning experience here. From an industrial automation point of view, this could be the technique, often used in industrial automation, of tuning of a process control loop on different types of processes.

The different types of laboratories (especially online remote and virtual ones so critical for online learning and blended learning) where hands-on experience (as opposed to a pure lecturing approach) can be gained, and thus tacit knowledge can be transferred, will be discussed in the next section.

The shared knowledge generated within the collaborative group working on a remote labs has two forms: tacit and explicit.27The explicit knowledge is created by the instructor in the form of technical requirements such as a plug-in and check of configuration (pre-experiment), lab instructions for conducting the experiment and an outcomes guide required (post-experiment). Similarly the students create explicit knowledge in terms of the results of the experiment and a technical report with conclusions. Tacit knowledge is also built up by the group as a result of the experiment.

The current multitude of online learning courses and online textbook publishers can help a student process explicit knowledge effectively but have greater difficulty in encouraging the key form of knowledge that distinguishes us in truly excellent performance and this is possession of the necessary tacit knowledge.28

As Polanyi, one of the thinkers in the area, pointed out, tacit knowledge is considerably more fundamental than explicit knowledge. The inevitable question arises as to why explicit knowledge can’t be made fully explicit is that it is simply too vast containing an absolute store house ranging from physical skills, social and emotional know-how and vast experience.

As discussed earlier in creating knowledge in an organization, these forms of knowledge can be transformed from one form to another:

• Tacit knowledge to tacit knowledge (socialization)

• Tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge (externalization)

• Explicit knowledge to explicit knowledge (combination)

• Explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge (internalization)

It is important to realize that, in particular, practical knowledge is situated (or having a place or location) and ideally exists in a particular physical and social environment in a context.

Research was conducted around a business course on strategic management over ten weeks totally online comprising reading of a textbook, live online and asynchronous board discussions, assignments, an examination and a simulation game. The results clearly showed that the students derived considerably more tacit knowledge than when they merely listening to a lecture, reading or book or a case study. This course encouraged the development of the four key processes of knowledge creation (and not only individually but dynamically cycling through these processes): socialization, externalization, combination and internalization.

Socialization was facilitated through sharing background information, open ended asynchronous and synchronous discussions and being involved in the simulation game.

Externalization was driven by writing projects, discussions, reflection and the simulation game.

Combination was encouraged by getting students to synthesize multiple elements of knowledge such as a solution to a complex practical problem.

Internalization was driven by a simulation or real world problem that requires group discussions and debate on the key learning points. As this is a strongly personal process, having a mentor to guide can accelerate the process.

A traditional lab will now be considered.


8.3 Traditional labs

What is a traditional laboratory

Essentially, a laboratory is a room containing specialized equipment with a group of students and a demonstrator working in it.29 The idea is that the students conduct an experiment as outlined in some procedure, record the results and then analyze them in a report.


Figure 8.3: A traditional laboratory

Why is this so important for engineering students?

The idea is to improve their ability to observe, manipulate equipment, interpret experimental data and with the added interactivity to increase their interest in the subject.30 In the real world of professional practice, they will encounter non-ideal situations and working in a lab helps to give some experience with this.31 Many physical phenomena are difficult to understand and explain in words or textbooks but must be witnessed in action. Working with real equipment as opposed to simply reading from a textbook and writing up the results of the experiment make for a far better learning experience. The lab experience32differentiates engineering and science from many other academic programs. The principle is to motivate students and compare reality with theory and simulations, work with one's peers and explore the frontiers of knowledge.

In the context of online learning using a remote lab, the additional requirements here are to enable students to share expensive computing resources with no restrictions as to location or time.33

What should a laboratory experience provide?

An excellent summary of what an engineering student should gain from working in a lab (and what a distance learning program would have to deliver), was listed in a colloquy.34 Typical skills you should gain would include:

• Working with instrumentation to make measurements of physical quantities.

• Assessing how good a theoretical model matches its real world analog.

• Designing and executing an experiment, analyzing the resulting data and drawing conclusions on the characteristics of an event or component.

• Collecting and analyzing experimental data and drawing conclusions from this data.

• Designing, building and assembling a part or system.

• Learning from failure by identifying and correcting failures.

• Demonstrating a significant level of (independent) creativity in problem solving.

• Showing competence in one’s psychomotor skills in selection, modification and operation of engineering tools and resources.

• Identifying safety and environmental issues and taking appropriate corrective action.

• Communicating effectively both verbally and in written form.

• Working and collaborating effectively in teams.

• Understanding ethics and applying the highest possible standards.

• Showing acute powers of observation in gathering and assessing sensory information to make high quality engineering judgments.

Learning objectives for science and engineering labs

Rice University suggest the following requirements for objectives for working in labs.35

Acquire basic laboratory skills

• Develop useful skills and know-how such as physical manipulations, observations, and problem solving.

• Learn to measure, to transform raw data into useful information and analyze it effectively.

• Work safely in a lab environment, recognize unsafe situations, follow lab procedures and troubleshoot problems as they occur.

Communicate and record effectively

• Communicate the results of the lab effectively in both written and verbal form.

• Be able to research and access supporting information to enhance the understanding and definition of the experiment.

Demonstrate maturity and responsibilty

• Prepare for the experiment.

• Work both independently and as a part of a team showing initiative.

• Reflect on mistakes and be able to learn from these.

Place the experiment into context

• Place your lab (and its associated results and data) in the broader more generalized context of the scientific method (e.g. hypothesis and objectivity).

• Underst and where seemingly minor mistakes / oversights in an experiment can have serious consequences.

Integrate knowledge and experience

• Apply scientific critical thinking skills in science and engineering.

• Apply science and engineering logical processes and thinking to current and future work.

• Assess whether labs results and conclusions actually make sense or not and be able to make modifications to ensure that they do. They can also reinforce course concepts through demonstrating them and providing a higher level of clarity.

Objectives of lab work

A further set of suggestions are made that students need to go well beyond simply learning about the use of specific equipment and should aim to:36

• Develop design, experimental, problem solving and analysis skills.

• Build up data recording, analysis and report writing skills.

• Improve know-how and skills in working with equipment and materials.

• Provide a practical skill base.

• Improve communication and collaborative working skills.

• Develop professional practice and judgment skills.

• Integrate theory and practical applications.

• Energize and motivate students due to working on real hands-on exercises (and well away from dry theory).

Stages of student lab work

Generally, student lab work has the following stages:

• Preparing for the Lab.

• Conducting the Lab.

• Analyzing the results.

• Preparing the practical report.

• Assessing.

• Evaluating and reflecting.

The authors suggest that collaboration in student teams is ideally conducted during preparation, the actual lab session and analysis of results.37 It’s likely that the last three stages would also be done collaboratively.

Different formats of labs

Labs can be conducted in a number of different formats ranging from a demonstration (from an instructor), an exercise (traditional with a rather rigid structure and defined outcomes), a structured enquiry (students are provided with a problem and suggested resources), an open-ended enquiry (students are only provided with problem) to a fully fledged project (which is more akin to real-life research or work).38

Disadvantages with traditional labs

Besides the usual list of suspects, there are some disadvantages with labs that are overlooked:39

• Students can generally only see the inputs and outputs to an experiment and they are thus limited in the intuitive understanding of the real physical phenomena and underlying principles.

• Only a limited number of tests and lab exercises can be undertaken in the time available with the limited resources.

• When experimenting in novel and unfamiliar circumstances, safety can be compromised and accidents can happen.

Online tutorials to boost lab achievement

While there is general acceptance that labs are a key part of engineering and scientific education, the performance of students in the actual labs can be indifferent.40 Some of the reasons suggested include:

• Resource limitations for operating the labs (from lack of money and shortage of equipment to paucity of time for lab instruction).

• Rapidly changing technology, meaning that the students may need to become familiar with multiple platforms.

• Backgrounds devoid of “tinkering” experience (in electronics, for instance) result in a lack of familiarity with equipment (particularly measurement) when entering college. Most students today, however, would have had experience in using computers (and perhaps programming and configuration experience).

• Text-based lab manuals can be hard to learn from. Video and graphical approaches to teaching the required know-how are often more effective.

The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology used a set of short (one to two minutes) video tutorials to educate students before commencing a lab session. These ranged from explaining the connections in a standard breadboard / use of a digital multimeter to measure resistance, voltage and current to adjusting time and voltage scaling for an oscilloscope. These were created using Camtasia with a webcam capturing video of the equipment as well as a digitizing tablet for the instructor to write notes on (similar to use of a whiteboard). As a result, instructors were able to reduce the time in instructing a lab group on use of the equipment and students were able to achieve better and quicker results in the lab. The most productive use of the videos was identified for students with a lower level of skills and know-how and in being used in conjunction with other lab resources. This approach should increase the confidence in working in a lab for these weaker students.

Labs and an online engineering degree

As at the time of writing (November 2012), there are still very few engineering undergraduate degrees presented using online technologies available in the USA, with the University of North Dakota being the only one to offer ABET (formerly Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accredited bachelor degrees in chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering (but also working with other institutions to provide part degrees).41 There is a perceived need in courses targeting mature age students who are in the middle of their careers and who may not yet possess an undergraduate engineering degree. There are, however, a number of online masters degrees in engineering.

The major challenge with engineering undergraduate education continues to be the integration of suitable laboratory and design components into the program. A suggestion (or hypothesis) is put forward that those mature age students who have had extensive experience with engineering (e.g. an electrician or mechanical fitter) are in a completely different situation to a young high school graduate who has never worked in an engineering environment before and thus do not require extensive hands-on laboratories.

A proposed remote laboratory could comprise:

• Low cost: it is for students and has to be replicated many times.

• Easy to use: communications over a distance necessitates simplicity.

• Reliable: especially designed for students and numerous students queuing to use.

• Compatible with communication standards.

• On an independent platform.

• Modular and reconfigurable

• Scalable and expandable

This will be discussed in detail later.

External factors affecting the effectiveness of a lab

The typical factors that could impact on the effectiveness of a lab experience include:42

• Prior knowledge and investigation of lab. If the student is familiar with the lab theory and practice, either from prior knowledge or active research into the experiment, this will have a significant impact on the learning outcomes.

• The preferred learning style of the student, which will tend to favor a particular mode of lab whether it be remote, virtual or proximal.

• Demographic elements such as age, gender, skill in language used, nationality will impact.

• Interactions with other lab participants, which will tend to influence the learning outcomes as this tends to contribute to the student’s knowledge level.

MOOCS and tacit knowledge

While there are numerous examples of large scale presentation of courses (e.g. MOOCs) with Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University being a great example, a question has to be posed: Do these online courses transfer tacit or is it simply explicit knowledge? As most apprentices will testify, being closely taught by a superb craftsman in a strong hands-on manner is where they become enormously skilled and knowledgeable. Surely this is what we have to try and replicate in an online or blended learning environment?

Mixed (campus labs with online education): pros and cons

These naturally replicate all lab objectives with hands-on activities intense activities over short periods of time.43 However, their disadvantages are that they negate the convenience of online courses, require excessive travel, increase usage of the institution’s labs and thus costs, don’t align experiments with coverage of concepts in online sessions, increase student fatigue to the intensity of the experiment and may have an unrelenting focus on getting the experiments finished in the short time available rather than understanding the concepts.

Lab courses with residential sessions on-campus

Deakin University in Australia has over 40% of its enrolments working off the campus with all courses in the BE and BTech being offered off-campus with identical materials to that of the on-campus students.44 The lab sessions are challenging and are approached in a number of ways:

• Weekend lab sessions are conducted (for physics, materials science and statics/dynamics courses).

• There’s a mixture of kits and computer simulations (microcontroller kit and simulation program for PLCs).

• A simple robot is built at home (final year mechatronics).

• Remote labs are offered, on a limited basis (flow of water over a weir and measuring height of waterfall).

For the lab programs, the emphasis is flexibility with students allowed to change procedures based on their circumstances.

An example of a course is Materials Science for first year students. The list of supporting resources for this course include textbook, study guide, video, micrographs of lab samples (with a virtual microscope), lecture and tutorial notes and assignment solutions. The virtual microscope allows students to observe specific microstructures at different magnifications in the steel samples.

It is proposed that, in the future, a week-long residential schools for off-campus students could be offered.


8.4 Introduction to virtual and remote labs

At present if you are designing labs for distance learning students, you have four options open to you:

• Videos of lab sessions. This doesn’t provide the student with much in the way of real hands-on interaction.

• Condensed lab sessions on the main campus or some satellite campus. This has merit, but it is expensive for the students and the quality of the labs may be variable on the satellite campus with varying degrees of lab expertise provided.

• Portable kits shipped to the student. It is likely this will be a compromise as these have to be affordable and portable and the expensive lab sessions will be left out.

• Simulations (generally running on a student’s machine). These are often rather limited and students often regard them as unrealistic.

However, many distance learning students find that traditional lab experiments on-campus are not an option due to inconvenient geographical separation. Portable kits also are difficult to cover the full range of experimentation and have logistical difficulties (apart from keeping the kits up-to-date and repaired), resulting in two possible approaches:

• Virtual labs comprising the simulation software running on a host machine. Often very powerful and expensive servers are required to make the simulations as realistic as possible.

• Remote labs are equivalent to the traditional lab environment in using real equipment but situated at a significant distance from the learner.

Herewith a diagram of the classification of the various types of labs discussed in this section.45

Figure 8.4: Digram of different types of labs (adapted from Auer, Zutin, & Maier, & Niederstatter .45)

The two approaches will now be examined: virtual and remote labs, as illustrated in Table 8.1.

Table 8.1: Different types of labs and their characteristics46
  Local experimenter Remote experimenter
Real experiment Traditional lab Remote lab
Virtual experiment Local simulation Virtual lab

Remote and simulated labs are an excellent way to share specialized skills and resources over a wide geographical area and thus reduce overall costs and improve the educational experience. The first remote labs of significance were initiated in 1996.47

Kolb's theory indicates value add from simulations and remote labs

Kolb’s theory on experiential learning indicates that optimal learning takes place when a student moves through four phases: Concrete Experience Ability, Reflective Observation Ability; Abstract Conceptualization Ability and Active Experimentation Ability.48


Figure 8.5: A diagram showing Kolb's four phases


Optimal learning occurs when the learner first detects or grasps the knowledge with a construction phase following to cement the learning process and thus create a mental model. The learning process proceeds through concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The vertical axis is the knowledge grasping dimension (apprehension or concrete experience and comprehension or abstract conceptualization). The horizontal axis is the knowledge transformation or knowledge construction dimension (intention or reflective observation and extension or active experimentation). This led to the important concept of learning styles, but this is not considered here.

An eminently reasonable suggestion that was made (and confirmed) is that the poor learning outcomes in lab sessions (frequently reported in the literature) is due to poor use of the prehension dimension before engaging in the actual hands-on lab. This results in a mere mechanical execution of the lab procedures without any learning occurring. A virtual lab used as a precursor to the main hands-on lab can help with a better activation of the prehension dimension thus resulting in better use of the transformation dimension. This was demonstrated using PID Control at Loughborough University. As an added opportunity, further in-depth higher order learning can be achieved using associated remote labs.

According to Shavelson, there are four types of knowledge in scientific and engineering endeavors: declarative (“knowing that”), procedural (“knowing how”), schematic (“knowing why” including principles explaining) and strategic (“knowing when, where and how our knowledge applies” used in troubleshooting and problem solving).49 Virtual labs and presumably remote labs mainly use schematic and to a certain extent, strategic knowledge.

To those that comment that remote labs are not sufficiently “real enough”, the blunt truth is that the workplace is becoming less real.50 Much of what we do in our working life is done through a computer over a remote communications and the use of virtual instruments (being software) are detached from the “physical tweak the scope’s dials”. Remote engineering is a rapidly developing field and engineering education must keep up with this reality.

A comparison between real labs, remote labs and experiments has been made in the modified table below.51

Table 8.2: Comparison between traditional, virtual and remote labs

(Adapted from Deniz, D.Z., Bulancak, A.,& Oczan, G.51)

Feature Real Lab Virtual Lab Remote Lab
Hands-on experience The “Real McKay” Varies in quality from poor “toy” to realistic (e.g. aircraft simulator) Close to reality but often appearing through a “darkened glass”
Degree of realism High Low High if camera and audio used
Perception of control High High (e.g. PID loop control) Medium to high
Degree of freedom in experimentation High. Limited by lab facilities and safety. Limited by program Limited by pre-configuration
Support from Lab Instructor Only lab/office hours. Communicate 24/7 with email/live chat/audio/video/ and access to LMS for support
Lab Support Only lab/office hours Communicate 24/7 with email/live chat/audio/video/and access to LMS for support
Access Times Timetable (generally only in academic period) Limited by lab manager; but it is potentially 365 days/year
Access limits Lab period only with minor increases No real limits but queuing possible (esp. near submission date)
Supervision Driven by lab instructor/assistants present. More laissez faire with frustrations possible with no immediate support.
Lab Progress Monitoring Submitted lab reports with strict time limits motivated by peers and instructors to submit on time. Discipline required to work on report and submit on time.
Supplementary lab enhancements Assistance (often informally) from Instructor and peers Often feeling of isolation and lack of spontaneous informal contact can be tough.
Virtual and remote labs vs. traditional

While it is difficult to compare the effectiveness of traditional, virtual and remote labs, research shows that students tend to prefer the more hands-on traditional ones.52

There is considerable research that indicates that the effectiveness of remote labs is equivalent to that of traditional face-to-face labs (although inevitably, perhaps the devil is in the detail in precisely defining “effectiveness”).53

Qualitative research on ‘cyberlearning’ articles in the Journal of Engineering Education from January 1999 to October 2008 supported, to some extent, evidence that there were no negative impacts on student learning in substituting remote labs or simulations for traditional labs.54 Obviously, “the devil is in the detail” in this assertion as well.

A comparison was made between a virtual lab (based on Java) and normal hands-on lab (a spectrophotometer) in terms of student learning for a test given immediately after the experiment.55 There were no differences in outcomes.

Three different labs were compared, two physical and one virtual, in terms of intended learning (metacognition) and actual learning (cognition).56 Metacognition is essentially the student thinking about and assessing their knowledge gain and cognition is the actual learning that has occurred. The two physical labs were an ion exchange and heat exchanger, whilst the virtual lab was selected from either a virtual chemical vapor disposition or a virtual bioreactor lab. Analysis showed greater awareness of experimental design and more cases of critical thinking and higher level cognitive thinking with the virtual than with the physical labs. There was concern about students regarding the virtual lab not as an authentic experience and how this may impact on how they construct their sense of reality and thus their learning outcomes.

Student's learning outcomes in remote laboratories

Remote labs have been extensively investigated over the past decade from the point of the technical merits and benefits they can provide, but the effectiveness of remote labs from the point of view of students' learning outcomes has only been briefly examined.57 An investigation was conducted on the learning effectiveness looking at two groups of students using the same computer interface, with one group situated remotely and the other locally (or proximally) in an aerospace engineering strain gauge experiment. Two labs from a stand-alone lab course for 42 third-year undergraduate aerospace engineering students at the University of Toronto comprized the course. The first lab demonstrated the applications of strain gauges using pre-gauged cantilever beams to determine Elastic Modulus, Poisson's ratio and the material loss factors for a range of materials including advanced composites. The second lab, which was used in this research on the effects of remote labs, investigated a subsonic wind tunnel using static and dynamic pressure measurements to determine the section lift and drag coefficients of an airfoil. The students were required to fill in two feedback surveys, one at the beginning of the course and one after completing the airfoil lab.

No significant differences were noted between students who performed the experiment locally in the lab or remotely from the lab, but no details are given on the number allocated to each type of access and associated statistical analysis. The number of students who preferred either mode (local or remote) increased once they had undertaken the specific lab. This suggests that students who prefer proximal experimentation do so simply because of their comfort and familiarity with this approach. The type of writing style was also related to the type of access. The vast majority of students noted that remote labs should be included in the undergraduate engineering curriculum but not replace the traditional local lab experience.

A very valid comment about all the above comparisons is that although much effort has gone into demonstrating the technical feasibility of remote labs, much more needs to be done about demonstrating the impact on student learning, especially comparisons with traditional labs.58

Virtual environments

Hands-on training on real equipment (as opposed to reading a book, website or attending a lecture) is key to successful transfer of knowledge of students.59 A computer-based virtual environment is a second best solution to achieving hands-on experience on real equipment, but nevertheless it is considerably better than anything else. The advantages are:

• This represents flexible learning, allowing learners to access the system 24/7 whenever it is convenient for them.

• The student can set their own pace in learning.

• A high level of interactivity and engaging training environment can be achieved.

• There are no problems with student injury or equipment damage.

• Training costs can be minimized as there is no real equipment, instructors or consumables.

• Greater insight can be provided into equipment or processes (e.g. taking an instrument or pump apart is easy to do virtually as opposed to the real equipment).

• Non-interactive real equipment “dead-time” processes can be sped up (warm up of a machine).

• Improved (artificial) visualization of processes and equipment (such as cutting planes) can be provided for greater insight.

• Improved decision making training in providing artificial scenarios which may not necessarily arise in real-life training.

• Proactive adaptation to new equipment and resources before the equipment arrives on site.

• Real-time detailed course management information (such as statistics)

This will be assessed in more detail in the following sections.


8.5 Virtual labs

Simulations can be subdivided into four different types, namely: branching stories where students make multiple-choice decisions, interactive spreadsheets, game-based models (such as computer-based Solitaire) and virtual labs/virtual products, which are the focus of this discussion.60

Software packages such as PSPICE, Proteus or NI-Multisim are excellent as virtual labs (or simulation) but don’t teach practical skills such as in assembling circuits, soldering and hands-on handling of test equipment (e.g. the vagaries of contact resistance in applying a probe at different points to a circuit).61

Differences between a simulation, virtual experiment and virtual laboratory

The differences suggested between simulations, virtual experiments and virtual laboratories are essentially:62

• A simulation simply models the process or a learning situation (e.g. showing the impact of insulation with varying thickness, types of materials and inside and outside temperatures).

• A virtual experiment allows a student to proceed through a specific activity with step-by-step instructions (e.g. running a reactor from start up to full operation and shut down and observing the various parameters). A complete virtual experiment would include learning objectives, background reading, quizzes, outcomes, learning criteria, assignment details, step-by-step instructions, worksheets / logs and assessments and report writing.

• A virtual lab includes a range of related virtual experiments which share simulations and learning resources.

Advantages and disadvantages of virtual labs

The advantages of virtual labs can be summarized as:63646566

• Reduced costs (e.g. no facility costs).

• Increased safety (and thus no liability issues).

• Increased availability.

• Ability to present the learning material on a more expanded scale.

• Ability to record results automatically by the software.

• Reduced administrative burden on staff in recording the student activities in the lab session (the software does it all).

• Ease of reconfiguring the experiments.

• High range allowed in the inputs (with no destructive impact on lab equipment).

• Non-linear range of experiments can be more easily handled.

• Ability to run the lab experiments multiple times.

• Allowing modification of experiment parameters without any risk of safety violations or damage.

• No equipment or component failure to compromise the experiment.

• Ability to allow users to work at their own pace with greater in-depth learning possible.

• Boring theory can be invigorated with more practical and realistic simulations of real world scenarios.

• Varying degrees of detail (micro to macro) can be selected in undertaking the simulation.

• Less obvious relationships between experimental parameters can be studied in detail.

• The ranges of the experiment can be extended into rare and abnormal extreme regions.

• Multiple “What if?” scenarios can be explored.

• Simulation data can easily be gathered and compared to that from real situations.

• Students like them as they are easy to use and feel like computer games.

• Ease of setting up online (e.g., with no intermittent equipment connection problems).

• Usefulness as pre-lab sessions to prepare for a physical lab and reinforce concepts.

The disadvantages are:

• Probably the most important shortcoming of lab simulations is that they can’t teach proper lab techniques and lab safety.66

• Simulation is often unrealistic.

• Virtual labs are often poorly designed with minimal learning outcomes.

• There is a lack of student control over the lab with it running in a fixed sequence.

• The process of making errors in the lab as part of the learning experience is not easily replicable in simulation software.

• They often don’t meet all lab objectives.

• There are no real hands-on activities.

• They are often too passive for deep learning.

• They may not be challenging enough.

• Many institutions will not accept courses based around them.

• It can be very expensive to achieve appropriate level of quality.

• There can be poor efficacy for students due to poor replication of realistic lab environment and students’ perceptions that this is merely a simulation.67

Simulations are especially useful for pre-lab familiarization exercises (coupled with a video on the actual lab procedure) and post-lab clarification of concepts learned during a complex tactile lab.

The development of complex numerical modeling on fast computers has allowed the engineer considerable more flexibility in use of simulations to replace traditional experiments in achieving outcomes that are highly representative of the real world.68

In consideration of the 13 ABET objectives (ranging from instrumentation, models, experiment and data analysis to sensory awareness), based on a refrigeration experiment, achievement of all objectives were considered equivalent for a physical lab and virtual lab apart from safety in which virtual labs provided no training, teamwork which was not possible with the current hardware setup and sensory awareness which was of medium achievement in physical labs and low for virtual labs. Hence, it is possible to replace the physical lab with this virtual experiment. However, it would probably be optimum to provide the virtual lab as a pre-lab exercise before the main physical experiment.

The challenge with teaching some engineering subjects (such as structural failure) is the difficulty of finding instructors with the necessary knowledge.69 A solution is to use a simulated environment with all the required information built into the scenario in which to conduct the learning experience. The key principles in constructing a simulation such as this included:

• Any training on a computer should involve the student in some process of “doing”.

• There should be several ways of supporting the learning.

• A key part of the learning process is in failing and making mistakes.

• An expert (or presumably an appropriately software driven response) should be able to answer questions when the students make mistakes or are seeking further information.

• The learning environment should be of interest to students and should be in the appropriate professional context.

Structural failure of a steel tank was placed in a simulated environment with the students’ task to identify why the failure occurred. This was well received with suggestions for more context to the failure by using additional photographs. A series of screens are provided which pose questions and allow selection of various alternatives.

As alluded to earlier, the most powerful application of simulations and virtual experiments are those that are immediately followed by a hands-on activity to contrast the theory and practice, and to provide a solid work-related context for the student.70

As with a flight simulator, which is considered to be extremely usefuland, indeed, indispensable for airline pilot training, virtual labs are useful in allowing would-be engineers the opportunity to practice their skills.71


Figure 8.6: A typical flight simulator

A major advantage of virtual labs is that data collection is performed virtually, thus reducing the student's cognitive load and allowing all the student's effort to be focused on developing their knowledge in the analysis and interpretation of the data.

In addition to simulations, another key part of online learning courses in engineering is the provision of remote labs.72 Effective learning in engineering can only be achieved with theoretical courses combined with lab work. Simulations generally present an idealistic result, whereas a remote lab is dealing with real equipment and real physical phenomena.

An interesting comment about remote or virtual labs, was that it was effectively “second best to being there”.73 Remote labs have become easier to set up because of cheap computing power, the broad reach of the internet and easy-to-configure data communication capability of most instruments and lab equipment. An important issue to emphasize is that although remote labs are often regarded as “second best” to physical hands-on labs, they really provide a different set of learning outcomes.74 A benefit of doing experiments with equipment has often been stated by students to be the “hands-on” nature of this work, even though this on occasion may be done remotely.75 However, it is possible that for the latest generation of students that “hands-on” means something different to earlier ones. Remote labs will be discussed in more detail in the following section.


8.6 Remote labs

There are four main application areas for remote labs:

• Expensive Equipment, where for example an expensive electron microscope or telescope needs to be remotely accessed.

• Access to 24/7 labs for students to work outside hours or repeat sessions.

• Distance education access for students who need to perform labs but are remotely located.

• Convenient assessment of new instruments remotely.

Today, most instruments used in basic engineering courses are easy to control and monitor remotely, thus ensuring successful implementation of introductory electrical engineering courses specifically for remotely located students.76

There are two types of remote labs. This first is the queued or batch experiment where the user uploads the experimental parameters which are then queued and executed.77 This type of experiment is suitable for extremely fast reactions (msecs or shorter) or very long (more than an hour).

There were some doubts expressed in the use of the batch mode of remote labs as this failed to provide participants with a real feel of presence; they felt disconnected from the experiment.78 As the term would imply, batch mode labs are based around batch processing; the sequential execution of a series of jobs in an automated fashion (using a computer).79 The main advantage of batch mode labs (compared to those which operate in real time) is the easier sharing of resources between many users. The time of execution is somewhat more flexible and there is better amortization of the costs of the lab resources.

The second type is the interactive one that is generally shorter than an hour and is generally preferable to the student. These will be the focus of this book.

Components of remote lab environment

Individual components of a remote lab environment include sensors, actuators, data acquisition and control unit, computer, web cameras, database (for authenticating users and for experimental data), a web server and chat room (with audio and video).80

Recently on the market there have been instances of an embedded web server with microcontroller and data acquisition functions embedded in the one chip (e.g. Freescale).


Figure 8.7: A remote lab environment


One potential web interface structure for accessing remote labs would have different access points. The first access point would be where the student is granted log in access. The second one is where the documentation for the experiment and related work is kept. This would include theory notes, procedures for the experiment, videos of the associated lectures and demonstrations. The third access point is where the student downloads the software resources required for the experiment. The fourth point is where simulations can be performed in a virtual lab setting. The fifth access point is the physical remote lab.81

Remote labs are examined in some detail in the following discussion. They could be a key to providing hands-on practical interaction with real equipment and thus providing an opportunity for more interactivity, and as discussed earlier, the transfer of tacit knowledge.

The advantages of remote versus virtual and classical labs

There has been some conjecture about the merits of the various approaches to hands-on lab work. If one breaks up the educational goals of a lab into four sections, such as conceptual understanding, design skills, social skills and professional skills, then with hands-on labs, all goals are catered for.82 Simulated (or virtual labs) focused on conceptual understanding and professional skills whereas remote labs were oriented around professional skills and conceptual understanding.

Another point to consider is that the modern lab has most of its equipment mediated with computers meaning that although the learner may be next to the equipment he is working through a computer to control it.83 It is also important that the learner has belief in the effectiveness of the technology. This is far more important than physical issues such as separation. Finally, other factors that are important to effective lab sessions are motivation, peer collaboration, “sensemaking”, quick and effective feedback and excellent media.84

Good simulated labs are widely considered to be as effective as traditional hands-on labs.85 There is an opportunity for raising the level of interactivity considerably, reducing the risks of possible hazards, communicating difficult concepts and perhaps reducing the expense.86 However, there was some concern about the disconnection between the real and simulated worlds, oversimplification and the significant costs of simulation systems. Others remarked on the fact that they might be perceived to be simply a mathematical model where certain inputs always result in the same outputs and no uncertainty (such as electrical noise) giving the wrong impression of working in the real environment.87 Many have commented that despite a virtual lab being an exact replica of the real world, students can be wary about them, as they don’t believe they are real and thus are a substandard experience.88

Remote labs go some way to addressing these deficiencies of virtual labs.

It is also important for the student to make mistakes when working in a laboratory. This is an excellent way of learning. When the student has an error in what is being done, and then learns how to correct it, some learning will take place. This approach is possible with remote labs and traditional labs; but not necessarily so with simulations.89

Advantages of remote labs

There are a significant number of advantages in using remote labs.90919293

Major benefits

• Students can log onto experiments anywhere and at any time.

• They are easy for remote students (from the equipment) to work with.

• They replace expensive lab equipment.

• They allow easier and wider access to expensive equipment (e.g. electron microscope).

• They allow for multiple students to access more efficiently.

• They give more comprehensive experimental experience.

• There’s a more realistic representation of the experiment.

• They allow for self or flexible learning.

• More meticulous monitoring of lab performance of learners is allowed.

• There’s less overload (greater efficiencies) of lab infrastructure.

• They are safer (lower level of liability) due to distance from equipment.

• There’s quicker and more accurate configuration of circuits, thus building up confidence.

• They allow hands-on learning for distance education students.

• You can run live remote labs during standard face-to-face classes.

• An instructor is able to review a student’s experimental results remotely without a face-to-face meeting.

• They take much less time than a traditional lab format to perform experiments.

• Students spend less “dead time” on instrumentation and extraneous administrative issues.

• They are easily accessed by the disabled.

• They support students who want to learn on their own.94

• They provide easy scalability.94

• They allow experimental data to be stored and reviewed later.94

• They make for easy demonstration of practical experiments both online and in a classroom session.94

• They are more economically feasible than local labs for the same scale and quality. 95

• They ensure a student systematically adheres to the required (presumably optimum) procedure in a lab, such as reading the manual and watching an introductory video before commencing the experiment.96

The capital costs of lab equipment and their limited usage can make the whole exercise in a real lab prohibitive.97 A process control rig at Loughborough University chemical engineering department for the instrumentation and control course cost £15,000 and was only used for 30 hours per year.

A further opportunity is to observe a student’s work in a remote lab unobtrusively and monitor their progress and thus guide them.96

In comparison to traditional labs, remote labs offer students the freedom for extensive exploration without restrictions of close monitoring of supervisors and time.98 However, they do require considerable more responsibility on the part of students for their own learning.

Less important advantages

• They allow your imagination more free rein.

• They concentrate valuable lab resources in one location.

• There’s better reinforcement of training concepts for working on real equipment.

• Students are coached to work in remote mode–a useful job skill in the future.

• They allow students to follow their own pace and learning style in tackling the work.99

• They generally meet most lab objectives.

• They provide support for traditional hands-on labs.

• They provide a richer experience than mere simulations as real equipment still has surprises and imperfections.100

• They stimulate skills in working in a (often virtual) team.101

• They stimulate presentation skills.

• They allow for an increase in experimental schedule and location flexibility in previously rather rigid lab timetables. 102

• They are excellent examples of new technologies and philosophies that work. 102

• They can help to coalesce in practical reality, concepts covered in lectures. 102

• Students have increased autonomy in their learning (as recommended in the Bologna philosophy). 102

It is important, however, that the learner does not get sidetracked by the user interface and they feel that can connect to the real equipment being used at some remote location.103

It cannot be denied that the hands-on experience with real equipment is still critical for engineering education and training.100

Other remarks

Remote labs with large screen monitors and zoom-pan capabilities may actually be a far more meaningful experience than being crouched at the back of a crowded lab, similar to the perhaps more detailed viewing in watching a football match on wide screen HDTV with multiple views from different angles and detailed slow motion replays of critical incidents.104 In addition, multimedia features (including augmented reality) with interactive simulations to illustrate the theoretical concepts may actually contribute to a far more meaningful learning experience. Naturally, if these approaches can be built into a classical lab with dedicated and experienced lab assistants, this would be the best.

Remote labs are great for students commencing their engineering studies as they avoid being inundated by the usual trivia in connecting up wires and other unrelated problems to the experiment.105 This can build up their confidence and enthusiasm for the topic. However, in the real world, arguably dealing with the so-called “trivia” is perhaps the most important item in a successful engineering project. The fact that one wire hasn’t been correctly earthed via a screw terminal resulting in intermittent communications failures could count for the difference between success and failure in a project.

There is strong evidence that students who undertook physical and simulation based labs in their courses performed equally well in a test in a physical lab.106 In addition, there was no difference in the physical time taken to complete the physical labs. Simulation and remote labs are especially appropriate for those mature age professionals who have already trained in using general electronic test equipment such as oscilloscopes, function generators, power supplies and digital multimeters.


A list of disadvantages is as follows107108

• Slowness in the response due mainly to the telecommunications links can be irritating.

• There is difficulty and extra thought that has to go into their construction and operation compared to a simpler classical lab.109

• They can be costly.

• They are not widely available.

• They sometimes do not meet all lab objectives.

Other concerns were that a student receives minimal experience in handling real equipment, there are less real world problems such as broken wiring connections and the complexity of connecting up the equipment correctly is hidden from the student. The suggestion was thus made to use remote labs before engaging in the more challenging residential labs.110 Delays in communications between the learner and the remote lab and the lack of immediate access to a tutor who is a fixture of a residential lab are other concerns.111

When the experiments are pre-determined, the variation of the work can be limited.112 Other comments relate to adding another software layer between the real equipment and the learner.113 Some authors even believe that remote labs actually restrict the learning process.114

Other approaches to handle the distaste for only having a web browser and no physical equipment was to provide each student with a intelligent breadboard, electronic components and some microprocessor based circuitry, thus allowing the student to interface to a remote lab in this way with a more hands-on experience with real cables and components and thus variation in the experience.115

The lack of hands-on experiments and in handling real instrumentation such as oscilloscopes, power supplies and signal generator is a problem for remote labs.116

The next issue is the lack of unpredictable disturbances in the measurements in remote labs, whereas in real world labs, conditions are more realistically unpredictable.

Most remote labs are based on simple scenarios such as only PID control for control engineering as opposed to the more realistic industry-wide usage of cascade control, feedforward compensation and state-feedback.

Hands-on traditional lab work often involves gaining experience with other competencies such as working in teams to deadlines, working out schedules, communicating effectively to others and managing conflict. It is difficult to replicate this in a remote lab.

One concern with remote labs is that the equipment and actual definition of the lab is predefined with a reduced level of variability and uncertainty in the design and construction of the experiment–something which unfortunately is a key part of real life experimentation as most engineering students know when undertaking labs on-campus.117 This is thus an aspect of the student’s learning which needs to be supplemented at some later stage.

It is felt that remote labs and simulations cannot fully replace traditional hands-on labs, with only 4 of the 14 ABET educational objectives achievable.118 Remote labs should never be considered a total solution to the requirement for labs, but rather a complementary solution.119

A telling observation is made that the majority of the literature tends to focus on the technical issues of remote labs rather than the real pedagogical benefits to (distance) learners.120

Many of these disadvantages of remote labs relate to the contempotary workplace. It should be noted that the workplace of tomorrow will contain a significant amount of remote collaboration and control; and experience with remote labs will help significantly in developing skills in this area.121

A variety of remote labs

A variety of remote labs is potentially available, with subtle distinctions between them. These are where the user can:122

• Use instruments to carry out specific defined experiments (e.g. the iLab Microelectronics Device Characterization lab).

• Design and perform practical exercises only with pre-built experiments (e.g. ISILab).

• Modify certain predefined parameters in the circuit under test (e.g. RemotElectLab).

• Build a circuit under test using a range of discrete electronic components (e.g. VISIR or NetLab).

Virtualization of instruments driving remote labs

One other impetus to easing the construction of remote labs is the ongoing virtualization of all instruments especially oscilloscopes, signal generators, multimeters and programmable power supplies using such software package as LabVIEW with their associated Virtual Instruments (or Vis)–replacing (or preferably complementing) traditional instruments.123 At the University of São Paulo, third-year electrical engineering program, virtual workbenches are used to illustrate frequency response of multimeters, designing resistive and inductive bridges, getting acquainted with a digital oscilloscope, RC and RLC responses and transient responses of RLC circuits.

Invalid transfer credits with online labs

Many accrediting organizations refuse to accept online labs and institutions will refuse to accept students who have only performed their labs online with simulation software (e.g. the American Chemical Society).124

Suggested overall strategies in designing virtual and remote labs

As a result of building a simulated environment for a biological experiment (for a classical immunological technique referred to as single radial immunodiffusion), a few guidelines were used:125 The lab should have clearly defined objectives which the student can understand, the student should be able to learn by doing, it should be highly interactive and there should be a high degree of flexibility in interacting with objects– only tempered by a degree of guidance or control in achieving the educational objectives.

Virtual vs. remote labs: which is better?

The inevitable question of which was better was investigated in this research, where a simulation vs. a remote lab for a chemical engineering lab session (on process operations dynamics and PID controllers) were compared.126 There were a total of 8 lab assignments where the simulation comprised using ControlStation and the remote labs comprised level control and a heat exchanger. A survey of the 19 students indicated a preference for the ControlStation simulation and no significant differences between the two approaches in terms of understanding and real life nature of the learning. It would appear that the results may have been biased by the difficulties in accessing the remote lab immediately before the assignment was due, as only one student can access this at a time. Whereas for the simulation, there are no restrictions for the number of students.

To recap an earlier discussion, the educational goals of laboratories include:127

• Conceptual understanding. This helps students grasp concepts espoused in the classroom and to engage in associated problem solving.

• Design Skills. This improves the student’s ability to solve open-ended (ambiguous) problems through design and construction of new elements and processes.

• Social Skills. This helps students to work productively together in teams solving engineering problems.

• Professional skills. It is possible to achieve a level of professional skills to apply in the workplace.

A review of the literature showed that for hands-on labs, all four educational goals are comprehensively addressed (especially conceptual and design skills). Virtual labs tend to be biased towards professional and conceptual skills (rather than design and social skills). Finally, remote labs focus on conceptual understanding and professional skills with a minimal focus on design skills and social skills.

A comparison between remote, proximal and simulated labs

It was found that in comparing remote, proximal and simulated modes in working with lab equipment, different access modes affected the various learning outcomes in varying degrees. 30% of the students preferred the mode that they had experienced and a significant 60% preferred the proximal mode.128

A comparison between proximal and remote labs showed that students with a visual cognitive preference tended to regard being physically present as less important; while students with an aural cognitive preference also tended to find remote labs more immersive.129 Approximately 90% of students found remote and proximal experiments equally effective.

There is a transition process reported for the engineering students in different years.130 When they commence university in the first year, they initially embrace virtual labs (perhaps because these are similar to the computer games which they have an affinity for), and then less so in subsequent years. Remote labs (and traditional labs) show the opposite trend with increasing interest in higher years.

Students tend to show increased comfort with remote labs after having used the system, with the preference of students at the University of Toronto Aerospace Engineering third gear increasing from 33% to 48%.131 Most of these students felt that remote labs should be included in the engineering curriculum but not at the expense of proximal experiments.

In a comparison of virtual, proximal and remote labs, there was a definite degradation of low-level skills for remote control of a robotic manipulator against the other two modes.132

A suggestion on the structuring of labs for each of the four years of an engineering degree was an emphasis on simple real and virtual labs for the first year, an equal mix of all three types for the second and third years and complex equipment-based in both real and remote labs for fourth year.133


8.7 Home experimenter kits

Besides remote and virtual labs, another good solution for distance learning students requiring lab work has been home experimenter kits and intensive residential sessions on the university campus (discussed earlier).134 An example of this approach included an online course for digital signal processing where the hands-on experience was provided using a development kit at the student’s site.135 This particular course used streaming video with synchronized slides. Overall, the students were satisfied with the experience but the lectures did require a considerable amount of time to prepare.

Examples of the different approaches to home experimenter kits are outlined below.

Introductory system dynamics

Two types of take-home kits were created by the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota to provide a home lab to explore concepts in introductory system dynamics and control.136 This was considered far more convenient than relying on a central on-site lab. The major design requirements for the equipment were high learning impact, rugged, small, simple, cheap and easily constructed. The lab kits comprised three parts: Visual Basic program running on a host PC (provided by the student) and communicating to the lab board through a serial port, a controller board and the dynamic system that the student experimented with. Two variants of lab kits were constructed: a fourth-order mass spring damper (showing time, frequency response and resonant systems) and an analog filtering system (showing first order high and low pass networks). Thirty of each type of lab kit were distributed to students and the post lab quizzes showed an increase in knowledge with the students making favorable comments. The only disadvantages were the lack of a detailed manual and the difficulty of installing the software on a few computers. The designers felt that some of the issues that needed to be addressed for the next batch were excessive assembly time of the kits, some of the lab concepts were too advanced (e.g. fourth-order systems are too complex for entry level students), some PCs don’t support all hardware requirements (e.g. line input jack) and software installation needed to be simplified significantly to eliminate support requests.

Analytical chemistry

Online learning and labs applied to higher education provide the opportunity to break some of the barriers in the developing world especially with regard to the few women undertaking engineering and science-based degrees. An innovative approach to distance learning for the Analytical Chemistry course, by creating labs (and providing associated web-based courses) that could be conducted at home for the distance learning students had been constructed. In Sri Lanka, a suggested approach comprised a lab using easily accessible materials / chemicals and equipment.137 An example was given of a home kit comprising flower extracts of the morning glory plant (as a replacement for phenolphthalein, an acid-base indicator) with potassium iodide, test-tubes and filter paper. The feedback from students has been positive.

Affordable portable electronic lab kits

A set of portable lab kits was designed and built for Virginia Commonwealth University students for introductory electronics courses due to concerns about the three other alternatives of traditional labs (too expensive), remote labs (no “hands-on”) and simulations (no experience of real physical phenomena).138 The lab kit comprised a computer controlled instrument interfaced to a computer and controlled through a web browser, with dual channel oscilloscope, chart recorder, dc power supply and signal generator. This lab kit (referred to as an e-lab) was used to construct a robot through 12 experiments. Supporting web-based presentations for this low-cost kit included interactive lab content with questions and immediate answers (with feedback to the instructor for possible help), vivid graphics and photos, custom tutorials, detailed assistance with construction of experiments and templates to help with the lab reports. Feedback on this being an enhancement to the traditional lab experience was positive overall, although there was excessive time in completing experiments and difficulty understanding some of the experiment requirements (such as wiring). Effectively, instructor assistance would have made a big difference.

The mobile lab

Most engineering lectures suffer from the discontinuity between theory and practice.139 The optimum approach would be to bring the lab into the classroom and thus to engage in immediate experiential learning. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Howard University has successfully introduced this concept as a Mobile Studio, which brings the lab into the classroom with a mobile portable computer (or tablet) and associated data acquisition hardware and software (including functionality of oscilloscope and signal generator). There is no reason why this can’t be extended to presentation of tutorial sessions through web conferencing and use of remote labs with students no matter where they are located in a distance learning environment.

Digital and analogue experiments

Deakin University (Australia) has provided a kit for teaching practical skills for first-year electronics to distance students comprising a series of digital and analog experiments.140 The main limitation has been the lack of alternating current (ac) experiments that required an ac signal generator and oscilloscope. Interim but somewhat troubled alternatives have been to simulate the ac components of the practicals, run weekend lab classes, access local labs, and travel to Deakin to attend the weekend classes. An approach was to develop a prototype battery powered ac signal generator and to use an oscilloscope software package that could run on the sound card (but with very limited voltage range).

The solution was to create the Home Electronics Laboratory Pack (H.E.L.P.) comprised of two channel PC-USB oscilloscope (PoScope), audio signal generator, digital multimeter, logic probe and assorted probes and test leads. Not only would the kit be used for first year electronics but also there were also plans to use it in second-year analog electronics courses (comprising small-signal transistor amplifiers and signal processing).

The general feedback from students was that the lab exercises weren’t that exciting and the practical application of the circuits was also missing.141 Hence a robot platform was introduced with various digital and analog electronic circuits used as control inputs to the robot (SumoBots from Parallax). The SumoBots has a breadboard for developing circuits and is mounted on two sensors for detecting obstacles and two other sensors for detecting black and white lines below it. Control is via a Microchip PIC16F57 microcontroller. Each student (on-campus or off-campus) received a pre-assembled robot with the original experiments revised to work with the robot. There was a discernible increase in the scores for lab reports (esp. for the off-campus students) in the use of the robot kits, although there was a suggestion that more assistance needed to be provided to the off-campus students. The students’ response to the use of the robot platform was very positive. Technically there was a problem with the SumoBot’s breadboard being too small and a supplementary breadboard was provided (but this reduced the robot’s mobility). Supplementary videos were created to illustrate the experiments in more detail.

PC-based digital storage oscilloscope and signal generator for home labs

Physics and engineering departments are always striving to find a low-cost methodology to demonstrate basic electronic concepts in a home lab environment.142 An innovative method demonstrated at Edith Cowan University was to use the ubiquitous computer sound card with freely available software (e.g. Zelscope, BIP Electronics Lab Oscilloscope, Soundcard oscilloscope and Virtins Sound Card Oscilloscope). The Soundcard oscilloscope and signal generator was selected. It was also free for public education purposes. The student could then examine the frequency response of ac circuits (and dc transient effects of RC and RL circuits) using the signal generator to sweep the frequency range of interest. The overall cost was low (electronic components and cable from headphone jack). One reservation was that the software interface needed to be identical to the on-campus oscilloscopes and signal generators and LabVIEW software was thus required to develop the in-house software. In addition, it was necessary to investigate other electronic devices such as diodes and transistors; unfortunately the sound card generates a dc offset and thus it may be worthwhile considering a USB data acquisition card.

Electric circuits and digital logic courses converted to online format

At Morgan State University, the digital logic course met for three 50-minute periods each week over a semester and enrolled 80 students per year.143 Topics covered include logic gates, Boolean equations, memory and VHDL with some of the work done in a computer lab where the students (in small groups) demonstrated lab exercises that they have built on a prototyping board and tested.

An online course was then put together based on this traditional face-to-face course. The online course was divided into modules that lasted about two weeks. These were then broken down further into sub-modules that a student could work through in an hour. A lecture capture tool (Panopto) was used to record lectures with video and PowerPoint components. Each lecture could be downloaded through the Blackboard LMS.

The lab exercises were based around the Rensselaer IOBoard™–a small affordable printed circuit board used with the Mobile Studio Desktop software. This could be used as an oscilloscope, function generator, spectrum analyzer, voltmeter and I/O. The board is connected to the PC through a USB port (also providing the power required).

Online students tested their prototype circuits at home and then demonstrated the success of their endeavors to an instructor using Adobe Connect web and videoconferencing software. The labs (and equipment) were identical for both face-to-face and online students.

The lack of interaction in this set up was considered a problem and a discussion forum was put together to enhance this with regular weekly discussions. The online course ended up having about ten students with 15 to 25 in the face-to-face course.

Mobile labs boost learning

Research has shown that students who used the mobile studio frequently with extensive (instructional) support and more time to practice, were more likely to achieve in the content absorption and affective learning areas (e.g. confidence, motivation to learn and self-direction), in contrast to those who rarely used the board or had moderate to minimal instruction time.144

The opportunity with the mobile lab approach is the ability to offer a positive blend of simulations, pencil-and-paper problems, video lectures, online materials and live immediate accessible mobile labs.

The use of mobile labs with low-cost experimental kits travelling with the students means that the lab can be moved to the classroom and the silos between classroom and traditional lab can be broken down.145 Sources of remote lab equipment include not only from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but also from National Instruments and Digilent.

Barriers to implementation of mobile labs included instructors and students’ prior lack of constructivist experience with mobile lab devices. More use of these devices increased the level of confidence and enthusiasm. With less than an hour to set up a mobile lab, the effectiveness tends to increase with familiarity. Two other barriers were the lack of supporting resources and easy access to the mobile lab boards.

Commerically available and assembled lab kits

Science labs (e.g. chemistry) can be constructed using common ingredients sourced from the home environment.146 However, these vary dramatically in quality (depending on student) and perhaps are too simple, they are generally not acceptable to institutions. It should be noted that there have been some notable successes with the “anytime, anywhere chemistry experience” where the students at home outperformed their campus peers. Instructor-assembled labs can be a significant improvement in achieving all objectives and are cheap but require a significant ongoing investment from the instructor for support with potential liability and safety issues.

Thus there has been the development of commercially available labs for students such as Hands-on Labs ( for a range of subjects such as biology, physics and forensics. Other suppliers include: eScience Labs ( and Quality Science labs ( It would appear that if these were available for the appropriate course they would be the optimum approach to follow as an off-the-shelf solution. The only major negative is the cost and often prohibitive shipping issues,and, naturally, the wastage of what to do with the lab equipment when the course has finished. Surveys showed that students have a high level of satisfaction with these labs and perform at equivalent or better levels to their on-campus peers.

Commercially Assembled Lab Kits thus closely replicate the wet campus labs, can meet all lab objectives and be widely accepted, are convenient, flexible and easy to use and provide a complete package (manuals/software and materials).147 The disadvantages are that they can cost significantly more, do not have immediate instructor support and are generally more challenging and time intensive for students.

It has been suggested before that home experiments are only suitable for primitive or basic experimentation due to the availability only of affordable multimeters and soundcard-based oscilloscopes; but nothing more sophisticated.148 However, the cost of hardware and software has fallen dramatically; so this is not necessarily an issue any longer.

Home labs for first-year university chemistry students

Home lab kits for a first-year university chemistry course were successfully employed by Athabasca University in Canada.149The challenge was to balance portability, robustness, safety and cost against achieving university-level quality. The cost of the kit was approximately $C800 and was shipped to each student with no kit deposit but grades were withheld until the kits were returned. The experiments conducted were relatively sophisticated and included calibration and use of a pan balance, assessment of amount of AcetylSalicylic acid using a spectrophotometer and separately using acid-base chemistry, determination of universal gas constant and determination of the stoichiometry of a reaction using a redox titration. A critical part of the lab was the provision of a CD containing video clips emphasizing safety and showing competent lab techniques. The grades showed the home study labs were equivalent to the supervised labs (and were often better). However, the improved performance and success of the exercise was ascribed to a large extent to the more mature distance students, with more experience. An important benefit was the increased ability to “contextualize” the learning for the student reducing the level of intimidation provided in a university lab and emphasizing the universality of chemistry throughout the world (especially in a home environment).

Control system experiments at home

Undergraduate mechanical engineering courses in system dynamics, control, mechatronics and vibrations were supplemented with a low-cost take-home kit costing less than $150. The kits were designed and constructed at the University of Rhode Isl and with three components: the hardware interface board, the experimental hardware and a Windows-based interface.150

The hardware interface board was built around a PIC microcontroller (Microchip Technology) with additional RAM, driver chips for motor and heater control experiments and a USB-interface. The user interface program was written in Visual Basic Express 2008 and the embedded program developed in C. The different experiments developed included: a motor control experiment using a small dc motor with a built-in tachometer. The objective was to calculate the optimal PI parameters and then to compare them with those calculated through MATLAB. A temperature control experiment was conducted based around a copper plate heated by a 10W silicone-rubber heat strip. The model created was used to design a PI controller.

A website with appropriate YouTube videos showed how to set up and run the experiments. Students were satisfied with the labs and there were improvements in test scores. It was claimed that there was also a leap in mechanical engineering student interest as a result of the focus on these laps.

Micro web lab

A suggestion was to combine the National Instruments MyDAQ with LabVIEW together with the low-cost AX-1 experimentation board (Innovative Experiment Company) which provides a dc supply, clock generator (1Hz, 10Hz, 100 Hz and 1kHz), logic switch, binary decoder, pulse switch and breadboard.151 When used in a remote lab setting, this combination of equipment was referred to as a MicroWebLab.

A remotely conducted microprocessor lab with a focus on measurement

It was pointed out that most introductory microprocessor courses comprise lectures and associated labs where the student programs a microprocessor and only interacts through rudimentary I/O devices, LEDs and buttons.152 As an alternative to this, a course and associated lab was created with a focus on measurement of the real-time digital signals of the microprocessor. The objectives were for the students to be able to describe the basic architecture, detail the addressing modes and I/O interface, underst and its timing, analyze a timing diagram of the interaction between microprocessor and memory and synthesize a timing diagram of a given read/write cycle between microprocessor and memory.

It was suggested that this would provide a far greater depth of knowledge of the microprocessor and especially help those students who would be designing microprocessors and associated hardware and software systems in their professional careers. Research was conducted on two variations undertaking the traditional non-measurement lab with one group (20 students) having access to hands-on measurements and the other group (20 students) having access to remote measurements (using a logic analyzer). Each lab station was equipped with a Tektronix 34-channel portable logic analyzer running on Windows XP; thus allowing students to access the instrument online (and remotely) using the Remote Desktop Connection. A Freescale HCS12 microprocessor module was used as the target device. Student programs were developed and downloaded to the project board using the Remote Desktop connection.

Assessments were created comprising self evaluation surveys, multiple choice questions and short answer questions using the Desire2Learn LMS was used. The results showed a greater understanding of topics that required more visualization with the logic analyser.153 There was no significant difference between remote and hands-on measurement in the results.

The Pandora's box for distance electrical engineering students

The authors from the University of Washington felt a low-cost (~$200), portable but effective lab (labeled “Pandora’s box”) was needed for electrical engineering students, either on-site, online or at-home for both the two or four year curriculum, providing a hands-on lab experience, as contrasted to that of the virtual or remote labs.154 As we all know, students learn particularly with hands-on work, even when circuits fail and they have to identify the problems and fix them. I clearly remember working in the university electrical machines lab when Henry, a fellow student, blew up the rheostat in a cloud of smoke due to overcurrent. Despite the irritation of the lab staff, we all learned some key lessons about overcurrent protection. Particularly in 2004, when this portable lab was built, there were not many suitable low-cost solutions for distance learning students, as the standard lab bench with power supply, oscilloscope and signal generator could cost up to $10,000.

The hardware design had five subsystems: power supply (+/-5Vdc), function generator up to 1 MHz (Maxim MAX038 chip), oscilloscope operating up to 1MHz (using an Analog Devices AD9281) transferring data through the USB port to a PC, a controller (Cypress programmable controller CY37128P100) and a communication controller (CY7C64613) from the board to the USB port. The software component running on a PC was the ubiquitous LabVIEW software tool in conjunction with other packages such as SPICE or MATLAB for analysis.

The Pandora box supported a range of labs including circuit theory, linear systems, digital logic designs, analog circuits, analog electronics and simple filter designs.

Student responses to the use of the Pandora box were glowing and it was used in the university distance learning courses as well as with partners such as the University of Alaska and community colleges. Suggested improvements for the future, while still keeping the costs low, included better frequency and amplitude control and settings in the function generator, more memory for the oscilloscope and a more robust and reliable product.

A portable affordable “real” lab kit

The authors at Kansas State University noted that electrical engineering circuits and signals courses rely on coursework and handwritten homework.155 After an investigation into the availability of portable labs for students, they elected to create their own with the following criteria: large enough breadboard for complex circuits covering the full gamut of the course, portable, license-free software, durability and most importantly, affordability (~$200). The challenge with virtual and remote labs is that they do not help the student gain skills in circuit construction and actual use of equipment. This approach addresses this shortcoming.

The objective was to create a signal conditioning and analysis kit independent of benchtop lab equipment (such as oscilloscopes, function generators, multimeters and power supplies). A National Instruments USB-6009 data acquisition unit was selected and combined with a built-in waveform generator (Exar XR-2206) Integrated Circuit for periodic sine, triangle and square waveforms. A free LabVIEW student Edition license was provided with a pre-built Virtual Instrument (VI) for those students who couldn’t create a LabVIEW interface. The cost was $250 (including desktop power supply and parts/tools storage area).

As part of the exercise, students were required to construct, debug and evaluate an active second-order Butterworth lowpass filter and describe the behavior of the filter with different input sinusoids and square waves. A survey indicated that the students were satisfied with the experiments and kit–even those who had no experience in building electronic circuits.

Further work on this project by the staff at Kansas State University Electrical and Computer Engineering Department who collaborated with the East Carolina University Department of Engineering to develop a mobile hands-on lab for use off-campus and at home as a supplement for the lecture- and lab-based courses on a traditional campus.156 The rationale for developing this included:

• Lectures and labs should be tied closer together (especially in terms of time) to improve the learning process and make the lectures more interesting.

• Traditional labs are hard to scale upwards for greater student demand and thus result in overcrowding (and significant costs).

• An improved pre-lab experience is required with real equipment.

• Time is not effectively used in undertaking lab sessions due to overheads and inefficiencies in using the time efficiently.

• Labs should be open for use at any time.

• Labs have to be wide ranging in covering material from many different disciplines.

• Labs that are based around virtual instruments (such as software running on a PC) can be very effective and affordable.

• It should satisfy students who are culturally attuned to being connected to consumer electronics.

A low-cost Rapid Analysis and Signal Conditioning Laboratory (RASCL) kit was successfully built and demonstrated, and the next RASCL version 2.0 and latterly 3.0 was then created based on the experiences here, with twice the prototyping area, better function generator controls, improved layout and audio input/output jacks. The latest version of National Instruments' USB-6009 portable myDAQ unit was created with an estimated costing of ~$225 but with far more features than earlier versions.

Typical learning modules that have been created for the higher level engineering programs of Linear Systems, Biomedical Instrumentation, Electric circuit Analysis and Instrumentation and Controls include circuit analysis, RLC circuit responses, filters, Fourier series, op-amps and data acquisition.

This approach is scalable for any number of students and allows for labs to be built into the classroom lecture programs without any changes or cost impact on the existing educational labs, as these kits are very affordable. It is hoped that National Instruments will commercialize these kits thus making them available on a considerably wider worldwide basis.

Further research was conducted into the next iteration of these labs with the PEEK (portable electronic equipment kit); based around National Instruments’ ELVIS drivers and their myDAQ data acquisition hardware as well as the RASCL board.157 This set up was used at home in conjunction with the normal university labs to undertake an introductory circuits course covering introduction to test equipment, op amps and design of a temperature alarm project.

A number of problems were encountered:

• Expecting students to switch between bench and the portable equipment was simply too demanding.

• The exercises and RASCL board should have been tested more exhaustively to eliminate bugs before exposing the kit to the students.

• There was insufficient preparation time for the instructors to learn about the portable kit and its associated experiments.

• The RASCL tool had some ambiguities about connecting components (e.g. power and ground) and this confused the students.

• The virtual support (using Skype and Facebook) outside classroom hours was not as comprehensive and helpful as anticipated.

For future courses, a demonstration video would be created in use of the portable setup, lab support would be made available on campus to help students and only the portable virtual equipment would be used to minimize confusion between both sets of equipment.

Videoconferencing and lab in box

The Virginia Tech Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering used a standard lab set up called Lab-in-a-Box (LiaB) for labs outside the classroom.158 The LiaB comprises an analog/digital trainer (including PC-based oscilloscope), digital multimeter, typical electrical components such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, LEDs and operational amplifiers. The Virginia Tech takes on 20 to 30 transfer students from community colleges that often have a weakness in working with basic circuits in a lab environment. Two issues made it essential to change to a distance learning format for this course: a huge financial burden for students remotely located to relocate to Virginia Tech for this course and lower enrolments from Virginia Tech residential students presumably due to the economic downturn. Hence the LiaB was altered to use for distance learning students as well. The lectures in the form of PowerPoint slides had audio embedded in them for use in the online course using Adobe Presenter. An emphasis was placed on tying together the analysis of the circuit, the PSpice simulation and the experimental observations. As each experiment is allocated, the appropriate lecture is placed up on the web.

One of the key reasons for the success of the program is having one-to-one communication with the course instructor and the student especially where the student has to demonstrate a particular aspect of the circuit’s operation. Three software packages were assessed as to suitability for this function. These included Saba Centra (video was too low resolution and there was complexity in establishing a bridge at a specific time), Adobe Connect Pro (ideal, but university administration had made no commitment to purchase) and Skype. Skype was selected, as it was effectively free and provided excellent video. The only disadvantage with Skype (and Centra) was that they couldn’t handle more than 25 participants. The students used either a Tablet PC (with a built in 1.3 megapixel resolution camera) or the Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000 2 megapixel camera. The Logitech model was preferred as it was easier to focus on the experiment with a stand alone camera.

It was found that less than half of the students weren’t at ease with performing the experiments at home; hence a weekly one-hour in-class lecture was added to the mix to go through the basic mechanics in designing and constructing circuits.159 It was found that as students progressed through their second year they tended to build up confidence in undertaking labs on their own and tended to dispense with the need for in-class lectures and reviewed the presentations online (with audio).

Lab course converted to online format

An engineering electrical circuits lab-based course at Binghamton University was converted across to an online format with mixed success and with some useful recommendations for future courses arising from this.160 Initially, the one-hour lectures were pre-recorded from the previous on-campus course. Discussion forums were used for communication with some use of email and instant messaging. The examinations were initially created to be open book, but unfortunately there was evidence of unauthorized collaboration. The students had considerable difficulty with undertaking the labs at home. The typical lab equipment set comprised a quality multimeter, oscilloscope, signal generator and bench power supply (-15V, +15V, 6V adjustable).

The ABET/Sloan Foundation defined the following objectives for a lab experience and the three elements that could not be reproduced included instrumentation, psychomotor and sensory awareness.

Table 8.3: Abet / Sloan Foundation objectives for a lab experience
No. Objective Description
1. Instrumentation Apply instruments to measure physical quantities
2. Models Identify limitations of models as predictors of real world behaviors
3. Experiment Devise an experiment, implement and interpret results
4. Data Analysis Collect, analyze, and interpret data
5. Design Design, Build, or assemble a system; test and debug prototype
6. Learn from Failure Recognize failure due to faulty equipment, parts and re-engineer
7. Creativity Demonstrate creativity and capability in problem solving
8. Psychomotor Select, modify, and operate equipment.
9. Safety Recognize and deal with safety and environmental issues.
10. Communication Communicate effectively about laboratory work.
11. Team work Work effectively in teams.
12. Ethics in lab Behave with highest ethical standards.
13. Sensory awareness Formulate conclusions from information gathered through human interaction.

As the initial experience wasn’t that good, the following main changes were implemented: The Moodle LMS replaced Blackboard as it was considered slow and somewhat awkward to use. A live whiteboard was used in Moodle to conduct the office-hours sessions. A lower cost set of lab equipment was procured for home use with shorter easier-to-execute home labs conducted. Recorded lectures were reduced to 20 minutes (from an hour), comprising slides and audio. Forums, instant messenger and the electronic whiteboard were used for communications. Testing was based around quizzes and Liability for home kits

There are inevitably safety (and liability) issues in providing students with home kits and associated resources (such as chemicals).161


Figure 8.8: Safety and liability issues are important


Check carefully for government regulation and safety issues when providing any home kits, both in the shipping process and in the home of the student. We had an unpleasant situation many years ago in shipping a kit that contained (unbeknownst to us) a small amount of alcohol, thus breaching all airline regulations with transporting flammable liquids. Iodine is a familiar component in chemistry and biology labs (as a stain) but in concentrations of greater than 2.2% it is banned in the USA as it is used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. In any event, Material Safety Data Sheets have to be provided on all chemicals provided and a detailed safety section should be in the manual with an online quiz to test the student’s knowledge of safety with their experiments and kit. When purchasing commercial kits, the purchaser should check that the vendor has liability insurance for any legal action from a disaffected student. It is also suggested that a signed waiver is obtained from the student indicating that they are familiar with the safety instructions and do not hold the institution responsible.


8.8 Other approaches to lab work

Arguably, remote and virtual labs act to complement the optimum approach of the traditional labs and to a lesser extent, home experimenter kits also do this. However, there are other alternatives that could be considered.

Alternatives to specific hands-on practical work in a lab

Many of the objectives of lab work can be achieved by using some of the following approaches:162

• Design a procedure or policy.

• Select and design an item of equipment.

• Troubleshoot equipment that is malfunctioning.

• Design a solution to a case study of a real world industry problem.

• Analyze raw data from industry and report on the link between theory and practice.

• Perform an error analysis of the data and make suggestions for improvements of equipment.

• Investigate raw data and comment on further investigation required.

• Perform a simulation or undertake a remote lab session.

Powerpoint with distance learning laboratories

Cliver remarked on the difficulty of teaching practical electronics to distance learning students undertaking degrees in Mechanical, Mechanical / Electrical and Manufacturing Technology who had no practical experience.163 This was for a course in Electronic Principles for Design. Distance learning students had to perform the labs at home with electronics equipment sent to them. This lab equipment included such items as a multimeter, resistors, potentiometer, capacitors, power supply and wire. The students were expected to attend on-campus labs for one 8-hour session every quarter where they used somewhat more sophisticated equipment such as an oscilloscope and function generator. However, the students became quite frustrated with the home labs as they were generally unfamiliar with the equipment and components; even putting a patch wire in the right socket on the prototype board was a major mission. Approximately 20% of the students had problems and referred back to the instructors with the usual delays occurring in a distance learning environment. A solution was to use PowerPoint to create tutorials using real pictures of equipment to show them what to do. This reduced the number of questions to 1 in 40 students. PowerPoint also allows animation to show the progress in an experiment with text instructions what to do next. Typical errors were also pointed out. Many students had difficulty understanding how to measure current in the circuit and this was showed graphically. It also showed typical problems with the fuse of the multimeter blowing and how to fix them. Overall, this was a very successful addition to remote labs and something that should be encouraged.

Distance learning students achieve better results

Research was conducted into comparing the performance of on-campus (68) and distance learning (43) students undertaking lab courses at Old Dominion University.164 All confounding variables (or extraneous factors) were eliminated from the comparison

between the two with the same instructor presenting both lab sessions and setting and marking the assignments. The first series of labs comprised a digital electronics lab using a Multisim 7.0 electronic simulator and an associated hardware lab comprising design, build, test a real lab with real components. The distance learning students had to do the second part of this lab at their local community college or using their firm’s resources. Lab reports had to be produced and these were graded. The second major series of labs was an electrical power and machinery course with motors, generators and transformers. These lab sessions were videotaped and the students observed these and “made measurements” as the camera panned the instruments. On both lab sessions, the distance learning students performed better than the on-campus students.

An interesting set of conclusions was drawn as to why the distance learning students do better than their on-campus colleagues. Suggested reasons for distance learning students performing better included:

• They’re more mature and motivated.

• Most students are part time so more time to concentrate on fewer classes.

• Most are currently working in technical jobs so their technical writing skills are good.

Apparently, this marked difference in performance has been a consistent trend for more than 15 years at the Old Dominion University.

Video tapes of lab sessions

Old Dominion University has developed one of the largest distance learning education programs in the USA with over 40 remote sites.165 Students undertake an associate degree at their local community college and then attend the Old Dominion University programs through the so-called Teletechnet system to gain a bachelors degree in technology. Lecture courses are delivered in synchronous mode and this reportedly works well. However there are three lab courses: Testing and Inspection of Construction Materials, Soils Testing and Inspection, and Computer Applications in Structures that do not fit the synchronous delivery format as they require lab equipment and a computer. The approach followed with here has been to videotape the Testing and Inspection of Construction materials labs with all discussions, measurement and testing recorded.

The distance learning students were required to write a lab report based on these videos. The initial assessment mechanism was to evaluate the students’ reports. Interestingly enough, in the earlier paper, the distance learning students actually achieved better results than the on-site students. As the result of suggestions from the ABET auditors, instructional objectives and a final written examination was added. The weighting for the grade assessment for distance learning students was 80% for the lab report and 20% for the final examination, against that for the on-site students who received 10% for the preparatory assignment/quiz, 70% for the lab report and 20% for the final examination. A video was made of the introductory Soil Testing and Inspection course lab and structured with 80% for the lab report and 20% for the final exam for both on-site and distant delivery students. The Computer Applications in Structures course was also similarly organized.

A comment was made about the objective of “hands-on experience” relating to on-site labs where the students would not get a consistent experience of “hands-on” work for each labs as they were arranged in groups of four with one handling the equipment (and thus getting hands-on experiences), while the ‘observer’, ‘recorder’ and ‘calculator’ students definitely did not get this experience. These roles were rotated for each experiment so that the students all got the opportunity to work in the different roles. It is obvious that the distance learning students would definitely not get much hands-on experience while viewing the video tapes, but they did get the opportunity to view the experiments on the videotapes repeatedly–something that the on-site students don’t get. A later observation was that the on-campus students received better exam results than the distance learning students with videotapes. It would appear that the videotaped course delivery is not as effective as the on-site sessions in the delivery of the “how and why” concepts relating to the lab sessions.

Bring the lab into your traditional classroom

It is important during traditional face-to-face lectures to keep the attention of students as long as possible. Some have suggested that student attention wanes after the initial 10 minutes of lecturing. A suggested method of heightening attention166during face-to-face lectures is to get an individual student to do a brief five minute presentation on a topic of interest such as (for a robotics course) a robotics-related news item. This topic is then discussed, providing opportunity for active learning. Other lab topics that can easily be taught in a classroom lecture session are a 15-minute image processing session where each student works with images (e.g. using MatLab in experimenting with thresholding using “canned” images). This reinforces the lecture material. One could extend this to using remote labs during the actual lectures–whether they be using face-to-face or through synchronous online learning.

Key points and applications

Chapter 8

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Review of Traditional and Online Laboratories.

1.  Experiential learning or hands-on training is one of the best ways of gaining engineering expertise.

2.  Tacit knowledge is the core part of the experienced operator’s skill in her craft and is built on learning via actual experience and action such as learning from a “master in the craft”.

3.  As an example, explicit knowledge can be considered to be the procedures and rules in operating a plant.

4.  Tacit to tacit knowledge transfer is by being taught by an experienced engineer (“master”) via hands-on work.

5.  Some skills expected of a student working in a lab include:

• Working with instrumentation to make measurements of physical quantities.

• Assessing the fit of a theoretical model to its real world analog.

• Designing and executing an experiment.

• Collecting and analysing experimental data.

• Learning from failure by identifying and correcting failures.

• Developing psychomotor skills.

• Working in teams.

6.  Different formats of labs include:

• Demonstration from an instructor.

• An exercise (rigid structure with defined outcomes).

• Structured enquiry (provided with problem and suggested resources).

• Open-ended enquiry (only provided with problem).

• A fully fledged project (real life research).

7.  Options open for distance learning labs include:

• Videos of lab sessions.

• Condensed lab sessions on a campus.

• Portable kits shipped to a student.

• Simulations.

• Virtual labs.

• Remote labs.

8.  Virtual labs comprise simulation software running on a host machine. Remote labs use real equipment situated normally at significant distances from the learner.

9.  Some advantages of virtual labs are:

• Reduced costs.

• Increased safety.

• Ability to exp and coverage.

• Reduced administrative burden on staff.

• No equipment failure.

• Ability to work at own pace and multiple times.

• Exploration of multiple “what if” scenarios.

10.  Some disadvantages of virtual labs include:

•  Inability to teach proper lab techniques and lab safety.

• Simulations being an often unrealistic portrayal of real world events.

• Inability to simulate the real process of making errors in the real lab.

• No real hands-on activities.

• Expensive to achieve.

11.  Some advantages of remote labs include:

• Students can log onto experiments anywhere and at anytime.

• Easier and wider access to (expensive) equipment.

• Less overload of lab infrastructure.

• Less time than a traditional lab.

• Ability to provide a richer experience than simulations with unpredictability and real world equipment.

• Less dead time for students in working on lab infrastructure.

• Ease of reaching distance learning students.

12.  Some disadvantages of remote labs include:

• Slowness in response because of telecommunications links.

• Lack of real hands-on experiences.

• Limited variability and uncertainty in the operation of the lab.

13.  The ongoing virtualization of instruments (e.g. oscilloscopes and signal generators controlled and viewed from PCs or tablets) is another impetus to constructing remote labs.