24 Hour Remote Access to Laboratories via the Internet

A Faculty Initiatives Fund project by the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics, The University of Western Australia

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Telelabs - Enhancing The Student Learning Experience

The University of Western Australia has established a commanding lead in developing and testing new technologies for student learning using the Internet. Over AU$2.5 million has been invested since 1993, mostly from competitive grants. Just as aircraft pilots are trained using a combination of theory, simulators and training aircraft, we are developing new styles of student learning using simulation, theory, and laboratory equipment. To provide maximum flexibility we have developed ways of using the Internet to make better use of our resources.

Computer assisted learning is not a new concept. However, we have made significant breakthroughs by combining it with automated assessment and student progress monitoring. This allows us to spot conceptual misunderstandings affecting the whole class and correct them while students are still focused on the subject. It also allows us to spot individual students who need additional attention and support so that the difficulties can be corrected early enough. These advances have significantly reduced staff requirements for large first-year courses while at the same time improving the quality of the learning experience for students.

Parallel research on telepresence lead to the first industrial robot which could be operated using Internet browsers from anywhere in the world. Since 1994 an estimated 500,000 users have stacked blocks in our robotics laboratory from around 100 different countries. This research showed how complex machines could be successfully operated by one or more simultaneous users using low bandwidth connections provided by the Internet and dial-up telephone lines. This and other research projects have stimulated a whole generation of remotely operated equipment connected to the Internet. Hardware and software facilities for this are now standard in many ranges of control equipment.

There have been several attempts to provide laboratory equipment access using the Internet. The University of Tennessee demonstrated the use of LabView software as early as 1996. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL) have demonstrated a number of robots and other devices connected to the Internet. Laboratory equipment manufacturers such as Quanser are also developing ways to connect their equipment by the Internet. However, most educational institutions have not yet been able to take advantage of this technology.

The Telelabs project aims to combine our automated assessment and performance monitoring techniques with laboratory equipment available via the Internet to enhance student learning and provide a real return on investment. (Note: Telelabs project was completed in 3 years at a cost of approx. Au$250,000 whereas similar projects at MIT and Open University (UK) have budgets of approx US$3,000,000.)

We know this is not going to be easy. Education theories do not provide satisfactory ways to predict student performance in different learning environments. Therefore, we have had to develop our own theoretical approaches and performance metrics.

We also know that remote access cannot replace first-hand experience. Many visitors to the telerobot laboratory exclaim "Oh! So that's what it looks like!", even though they may have spent many hours operating the telerobot from their home or office.

Remote access to laboratory equipment provides more time for students to interact with our equipment: typically a conventional laboratory class allows each student only a few minutes. By allowing students to operate the equipment for an hour or more at a time, and collect data in this semi-automated fashion, we expect to be able to significantly enhance learning. At the same time, we can also develop assessment techniques to measure this and provide incentives for students to improve their learning techniques. Students will always need exposure to real equipment. The question we need to answer is "how much supervised time with the real equipment in the real laboratory with supervision can be replaced with unsupervised remote access?"

Mechatronics Teaching

There is a further vital dimension to the Telelabs project. The project forms the centrepiece for our new mechatronics engineering degree course. Students in the course will learn mechatronics integration and system development techniques by developing and extending the Telelabs system to equipment across the engineering faculty. To new teaching units (second and third year) will use the project for practical work because it combines so many different elements of mechatronics.

Telelabs has been engineered to enable undergraduate students to maintain and develop new remote experiments as part of their formal project work requirements. This significantly reduces the operating costs: commercial software engineers are not required except for occasional maintenance on the core server and communication software modules. The entire system has been built in LabVIEW so interfacing to industry standard hardware is easy. Special purpose software written in other languages can also be integrated with the system.

Future prospects

We are confident we can demonstrate significant learning improvements using this approach. Once we have done so we plan to make our technology available in selected collaborating universities. We have tested our theory-based courses for first-year mechanics and calculus at the Australian National University and the National University of Singapore, mostly the latter who have also contributed significantly to the project.

By using standard industrial control equipment and software, we hope to develop a technology which can be readily applied to existing equipment in University laboratories around the world.

We are confident that once the are performance advantages become clear, a large number of universities will be keen to adopt the technology as most are facing similar resource pressures to ourselves. Furthermore, many universities who cannot presently afford new laboratory equipment will be keen to obtain access to other University laboratories equipped with remote access.

Just as flight simulator technology has steadily improved to the point where flight training in the simulator is almost as effective as the real thing, we expect steady improvement in using remote access equipment to the point where the learning experience compares to real laboratory equipment.

Installation requirements

Telelabs requires a minimum of one dedicated server with a full development system licence for LabVIEW and interfaces for remotely accessed equipment. Telelabs comes with full documentation to enable undergraduate engineering students with reasonable software skills to develop new remote laboratory experiments. Several theses written by our students are available on our web site.

UWA will require a cooperation agreement before releasing software. This will require any improvements to be shared.

(Updated August 2004)