Online labs allow for self-directed investigative learning and are available around the clock. Students must not be present in a hands-on laboratory to be able to perform experiments and test theoretical concepts. Online laboratories also offer a novel environment for collaborative work and an opportunity to exchange experiences with other institutions. The project OnlineLabs4All aims to facilitate the seamless integration of newly developed laboratory apparatus and experiments into a global network of interconnected laboratories and furthermore to evaluate its usage in the classroom. Within the project, the participating students are directly involved in the development and research process through the cooperation with leading international institutions like MIT and the iLab Alliance. They contribute actively to the development of a global online cloud. Students, with the guidance of their teachers, will have the possibility to exchange their experience and get feedback from peers in the international partner schools.
The project identifies three main research objectives:
In this context, an interface is a software component that allows for a seamless connection of laboratory equipment to the World Wide Web (Cloud). Making laboratory equipment online available is not a trivial task, especially when one has to deal with management of users and laboratories in a constantly growing network. The proposed implementation (adaptive interfaces) shall considerably simplify such tasks because they are based on generic software modules and thus provide an opportunity to smoothly integrate any laboratory hardware to the global network. A simple approach based on the “plug, play and share” principle is not yet in place and is being developed as part of this project, together with participating schools.
The user interface of an online laboratory is the space that allows for the interaction between the users and the laboratory equipment. Many online laboratories focused primarily on technical aspects and less on the pedagogical aspects that this user interface should contain to improve the laboratory experience. With the help of the students this gap, which has been largely neglected in recent years can be filled by involving students and teachers directly in the design phases of these user interfaces (participatory design). In addition, students have the opportunity to create mockups (models for the representation of graphical user interfaces) according to their requirements. Thus, the target group may be better addressed and the learning experience with online laboratories can be enormously increased.
The newly developed interfaces are evaluated by multiple user groups. Through this evaluation, important insights can be gained from the perspective of the user, which can potentially make a significant contribution to improving the user experience (usability) for the lab developer. For this special value on the feedback from foreign partner schools (Technical School Centre Kranj, Celje Šolski center and The National College of Computer Science "Grigore Moisil") is placed. All requirements are recognized and considered in the development process by all stakeholders (lab developers, teachers, students, etc.).
The OnlineLabs4All project will integrate students directly in the research area Remote Engineering and confront them with the "state of the art" research tasks in this area. This will be done in an age-appropriate manner and in accordance with the curriculum of each school. Making certain preparations are necessary, such as a requirements analysis, evaluation of these requirements, creation of the interface concept and design, implementation of interfaces, development of laboratory tests, access to the global network, testing of these connections and finally obtaining peer feedback.
The anticipated results of this research include a better understanding of students’ preferences for the design of online laboratories. This might have a positive impact on the usage and utilization of online laboratories.