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Dayalbagh University in India develops ON-DEMAND Remote Laboratories

Challenged by the government of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) under its National Mission on Education through Information & Communication Technology (NMEICT) to increase accessibility of education via information technology, 10 universities initiated a pilot in 2009 with the objective to provide engineering students in remote locations with a valuable and useful electrical engineering laboratory experience. Their ambitious goal was to provide educational access to students in all regions of the country including urban, rural, and tribal.

Project Focus

The Indian team took a different approach from other remote laboratory offerings. Many remote labs offer a simulated lab which gives the student the sense of setting up an experiment, but in effect only runs a computer simulation. Another popular approach is to have students remotely login to test equipment that is pre-configured to run specific tests. While this gives students “hands-on” experience, it limits the number of students that have access to the equipment, since a single student will typically reserve a 1 hour slot with the test gear.

The One-Second Batch Mode

A unique virtual lab methodology was developed by the Indian team, headed by Dr. C.M. Markan, Department of Physics & Computer Science, Dayalbagh Educational Institute (Agra). Their implementation utilizes a ‘one-second-per-lab’ batch mode approach to solving the problem of managing a large number of students trying to access a given test setup. This is accomplished by having the student set up their lab experiment using an animated-simulated lab interface to interactively: 1) configure the instruments, 2) set up the experimental hardware and execute the tests, and 3) record the observations. This front-end process generates a sequential list of commands for wiring a circuit, specifying instrument settings, and configuring data recording instructions.

Dr. C. M. Markan displaying remote labs in an International Conference

Backend Methodology

“The command summary generated on the animator-simulator is executed on the actual test hardware in a rapid ‘one-shot’ batch mode on the remote triggered hardware backend,” states Dr. Markan. This is enabled by a fast relay matrix that wires the circuit to the students’ specifications. Then the instruments, such as LXI-based power supplies and function generators, are connected and configured, stimulus is applied to the circuit, and the requested data is acquired by an oscilloscope and transferred to the client computer in one quick step. The acquired data is then displayed on an animated instrument at the student’s computer for analysis and report generation. To avoid any conflicts due to simultaneous requests from multiple users, a queuing protocol manages requests and executes them in a first-in-first-out (FIFO) manner.

Student Benefits

There are numerous student benefits of a remote lab environment including:

  1. The labs can be run from a location that is convenient to the student, such as home or remote learning institution.
  2. Learning tools and labs are right at the student’s computer, and can be run at any time of day or night without reserving the equipment in advance.
  3. Students get exposure to high end instrumentation and industry standard hardware and software technologies, something not generally available to most engineering students.
  4. A teacher can log onto the remote lab in the middle of his lecture and demonstrate on hardware a concept he or she is teaching. To ensure time is not wasted in setting up an experiment, it is possible to store a setup and recall it at a later time.
  5. In most other remote labs, if an experiment fails to complete in one session the user must set it up all over again in the next session. In the India configuration, an “incremental save” functionality in remote lab allows a lab to be completed over many sessions.
  6. This concept of remote lab permits collaborative learning among partners distributed over remote geographical locations. This is great for debugging an issue as all concerned see the same setup and results.
  7. In combination with video conferencing via Skype, the remote lab permits a remote oral exam with student and examiner sharing the same GUI. This has been tested at DEI.
  8. An “Intelligent Breadboard” tool, built as part of this lab, compares the topology of a pre-stored circuit with that being attempted by a novice student. It highlights the mismatch between the two and provides suggestions to improve.

Benefits to the University

One of the key advantages of this approach to virtual labs is that a given university can handle a large number of requests from remote students, without the need for the users to schedule specific time on the equipment. And while the test setup is more expensive (including the switching, higher end equipment, etc.), the “one-second batch execution” can provide access to thousands of users per day. In addition, there is less wear and tear on the equipment in this model compared to the standard hands-on bench environment, reducing costs in the long run.

Figure on the left: Dr. Markan’s team working on the remote lab application. LXI instrumentation has made it possible to give ready and complete access to sophisticated instrument to a remote user.
Figure on the right: Keysight Technologies instruments such as the 34980 (switching matrix), MSO7000 Series Oscilloscope, 33210A function generator, and other instruments being used in the Virtual Lab rack.

Positive User Feedback

To gauge the experience and relevance of this new technology after deployment in 2011, a survey of students and faculty was conducted with favorable results. More than 35% of surveyed students from 10 universities rated the remote labs as “Outstanding” and another 45% rated it as “Very Good”. Perhaps even more surprising were the faculty results, with 80% of staff rating the labs as “Outstanding” and another 15% as “Very Good”. The initial feedback has demonstrated that the remote labs were found to have excellent acceptance in terms of innovation, technique and user experience.

Keysight’s Role

The remote labs are built with sophisticated instrumentation that may cost many times more than traditional classroom instruments. These labs require faster data switching and more precise data acquisition in comparison to traditional test gear. LXI instrumentation has made it possible to give ready and complete access to sophisticated instrument to a remote user. “Keysight Technologies’ instruments such as the switching matrix, digital signal analyzers, function generators, and other gear have provided us a hardware platform that helped us to overcome many hurdles and challenges in this project to a great extent,” noted Dr. Markan.

Looking Ahead

Having built a highly successful methodology for delivering an ‘on-demand’ remote triggered laboratory, the team is looking to the future. Dr. Markan elaborates, “We are now in the process of assembling a hierarchy of labs for various stages of the Electronics & Communication Engineering curriculum.” These labs include such topics as Basic Electronics, Analog Communication Electronics, Signal and Systems Lab, and a Fiber Optic Communications Lab. “Furthermore, it is only a matter of time where equipment manufacturers will see the benefits of collaborating with universities to provide services in the form of ‘on-demand laboratories’ that can be accessed by various universities and students at nominal costs, much like mobile or internet access services,” concluded Dr. Markan.

Remote Lab Links

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