Freiberg (GER), October 2019 - Sebastian Zug is a professor at the TU Bergakademie Freiberg. His research interests are focused on outdoor robotics and self-describing, intelligent components. Based on broad experience in bachelor and master courses he offers in programming and embedded systems, he develops new concepts for practically oriented engineering courses. These include new open source course materials, including interactive programming sessions, simulation tools, and remote access to laboratory equipment. At OEB Global, he will speak in a panel discussion entitled "Real or Remote? Next-Level Laboratory Education" on Thursday, 28 November, from 12.00 to 13.15.
What is the difference between "Laboratory Education" in the 21st century and the education of earlier generations?
Sebastian Zug: Teaching laboratories offer the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge gained during lectures in a "real-world" scenario. The performance of manual experiments sharpens the methodological understanding and improves professional interaction with instruments and devices. Within the fault-tolerant environment of the laboratory, the student receives realistic, multi-modal feedback.
On the downside, the design and preparation of laboratory tasks demand significant effort on different levels. First of all, the implementation, maintenance, and coordination of access to laboratory equipment is costly and resource binding. Secondly, the task definition has to be precisely adjusted to theoretical AND practical previous knowledge to prevent excessive or insufficient challenges.
Current laboratory education has to cope with these issues in light of a changing student population. Additional management efforts are evident for larger number of participants, but the pedagogical challenges have to consider the increasing heterogeneity of our students, too. In contrast to previous decades, the configuration of a laboratory not only has to include possibly hundreds of students, but must additionally match the requirements of various academic backgrounds, including both people who have completed vocational training and high school graduates, and participants from a broad range of study programs.
Remotely controlled laboratory equipment that facilitates learning with a variable task configuration from anywhere, anytime, can be one approach to coping with this situation. Furthermore, the remote lab approach prepares our students for the requirements of digitized working environments in industry.
What has the range of possibilities made easier and what has become more difficult?
Sebastian Zug: The spatial separation of students and experimental setups defines the advantage of remote laboratories. The learners’ decision as to the time of day and the duration of the work on a task is entirely under their control. This flexibility reflects the various life situations of students today, as well as their heterogeneous learning processes. For example, we have found that 24% of the access to our own remote laboratory takes place outside "office hours". However, this apparent advantage in flexibility can also be viewed as problematic because, whereas a traditional laboratory has human supervisors who support the students in challenging situations, this assistance is not available in remote laboratories.
The integration of guidance systems (e.g., virtual advisors) that recognize individual needs of assistance and automatically provide individual instruction is an exciting, highly topical research field.
In which current scenarios would you still prefer "real" rather than "remote"?
Sebastian Zug: In a previous research project, we analyzed the opportunity to transfer the concept of remote laboratories to machine tools used for courses in mechanical engineering. I was deeply impressed by our partner university’s corresponding teaching laboratory, which looked like an industrial workplace. While the automatic lathe executed a program written by a student, noise, vibrations, and oil mist made the production process tangible. This atmosphere cannot be simulated in a remote-controlled experimental setup. On the other hand, remote laboratories can provide a perfect environment for experiments focused on a specific aspect or learning goal. In this case, just a limited set of experimental information has to be transferred via remote control interface to the student.
Safety issues are another important point. If we control a large-scale robot system or a chemical setup from outside, how can we ensure that the devices and possible bystanders are not somehow endangered? The additional efforts to define a safe set of limits complicate the applicability of the remote laboratory concept.
Based upon your experience, what do students prefer?
Sebastian Zug: In our laboratory for embedded systems, we offer weekly in-class times during which students can discuss with tutors while the real hardware is available. I was surprised that even in these configurations, nobody was interested in interacting directly with the real infrastructure. The students worked with the web based remote control system in the same way as outside the laboratory, although direct access to the hardware was possible. In contrast, in advanced semesters, the same students were happy to work with the hardware directly while undertaking more complex tasks. Hence, students appear to accept remote control experiments only if they are embedded in a comprehensive laboratory concept combining simulated, remote, and real installations. In this way, we have been able to overcome the individual disadvantages and to define the laboratory of the 21st century.