In this post, David Reid and Tim Drysdale discuss the value in developing more non-traditional practicals such as remote laboratories. David is in the first year of his PhD developing remote labs, and Professor Drysdale is Chair of Technology Enhanced Science Education in the School of Engineering. This post is part of September-October’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Innovation in Science Teaching.
Practical work is widely acknowledged as an essential part of STEM education, but also expensive and time-consuming when conducted via in-person laboratories. Provision is already constrained across the higher education sector; it is going to be impractical and prohibitively expensive for the sector to meet the current and future demand for practical work by building more traditional laboratories . With rising student numbers, and a growing interest in reflective practice and authentic assessment, demand for practical work is only going to increase. The rapid digitalisation of equipment used in professional practice in STEM fields, including ever more remote equipment, also means the nature of the practical work we supply must start to change too. Traditional hands-on practical work retains its value, but urgently requires complementing with new approaches.
A promising avenue to explore is non-traditional practical work, such as remote labs, which can run at any time of the day, and serve more students at a lower cost in terms of estate space and demonstrator time. Remote labs can provide students with real-time access to real hardware: students independently control and investigate physical equipment, take measurements, and analyse live data. In our School recruitment events this year, prospective students each controlled a pendulum via an easy-to-use interface (Figure 1). More demanding tasks can be created for advanced students.
Remote labs allow students extra time to do practical work. Transferring one of our traditional labs online has allowed students to complete existing tasks individually, instead of in large groups, and without needing to rush. In future, the extra capacity will support students in undertaking new open-ended activities which provide exploratory experiences that can be assessed using reflective methods. The rich data stream flowing between the student and the experiments also offers new opportunities for authentic assessment, potentially even in real-time (if automated) . Learning gains in non-traditional practical work have so far been shown to be equal or better than traditional equivalents , so as remote laboratories are introduced into a course, the existing in-person laboratory time can re-focus on hands-on skills which cannot be translated into an online format.
Beyond course assessments, remote labs provide important teaching and learning opportunities: lecturers demonstrating live practicals, perhaps in answer to an ad-hoc question from a student; students exploring concepts in their own time; students creating their own experiments as projects; outreach to Secondary schools; undergraduate recruitment events; and creating engaging interactive campus spaces. With the appropriate infrastructure in place, the benefit can be extended across multiple campuses, and around the world. This provides new ways to disseminate and benefit from teaching developments.
In the School of Engineering we are pioneering a system (practable.io) that is intended to overcome a number of issues inherent in existing approaches to remote laboratories, and make the jump to widespread adoption (by lowering the barrier to entry and increasing ease of access, use and administration). One of the key differences in our approach is that we are building a decentralised cloud-based infrastructure that is designed for openness, accessibility, diversity, extensibility and long-term sustainability from the start.
This year we completed a pilot run of a new remote lab for the ‘Controls and Instrumentation Engineering 3’ course. Approximately 250 third year Engineering students were given access to 15 pieces of kit, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for three months. The browser based user interface allowed students to place the hardware in different modes; monitor the equipment over webcam and live data feeds; and collect data that they could then visualise via interactive tools on screen or download for analysis later. “Analogue” measuring tools were also included in an attempt to replicate traditional lab measurements. With only a few modifications, students were able to complete the same practical workbook that they had done in previous years in the lab.
Student responses to the User Experience Questionnaire show that, from a usability perspective, they found the remote lab to be an efficient, easy to use and enjoyable experience. A follow-on survey suggests that students found it easy to navigate the interfaces; easy to collect the appropriate data; felt more confident with the course content having completed the lab; are satisfied they learned what they should have; believed measurements to be accurate; and felt like they were in control of the hardware.
Student feedback has also highlighted some interesting potential research questions, particularly around the nature of ‘control’ in a remote lab and associated perceptions of immersion and authenticity. Future labs will be designed to explore whether a mixed-format (remote, simulations, video, datasets combined) can help improve student perceptions, skills and learning gains.
There is much to explore in the remote lab space, both from a technical and educational perspective. If you want to find out more about the work we are currently doing or are interested in joining us in developing or researching remote labs, then please contact us at: D.P.Reid@sms.ed.ac.uk or Timothy.Drysdale@ed.ac.uk
 Brinson JR. Learning outcome achievement in non-traditional (virtual and remote) versus traditional (hands-on) laboratories: A review of the empirical research. Comput Educ [Internet]. 2015;87:218–37. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.07.003
David is in the first year of his PhD developing remote laboratories in the School of Engineering. His research focuses on how user interfaces can be better designed to promote practical skills; how mixed-format labs, incorporating simulation with remote hardware, can overcome some of the perceived limitations of remote practical work; and how to evaluate remote lab experiences. He was formerly Lead Physics teacher at the British School in Tokyo.
Professor Timothy Drysdale is the Chair of Technology Enhanced Science Education in the School of Engineering, having joined the University of Edinburgh in August 2018. Immediately prior to that he was a Senior Lecturer in Engineering at the Open University, where he was the founding director and lead developer of the £3M openEngineering Laboratory. The openEngineering Laboratory is a large-scale online laboratory offering real-time interaction with teaching equipment via the web, for undergraduate engineering students, which has attracted educational awards from the Times Higher Education (Outstanding Digital Innovation, 2017), The Guardian (Teaching Excellence, 2018), Global Online Labs Consortium (Remote Experiment Award, 2018), and National Instruments (Engineering Impact Award or Education in Europe, Middle East, Asia Region 2018). He is now developing an entirely new approach to online laboratories to support a mixture of non-traditional online practical work activities across multiple campuses. His discipline background is in electronics and electromagnetics.