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Virtual And Distance Experiments: Pedagogical Alternatives, Not Logistical Alternatives

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

On Pedagogy of Lab Courses and Their Design

Tagged Division

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1431.1 - 11.1431.9



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Paper Authors


Euan Lindsay Curtin University of Technology

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Euan D. Lindsay is a Lecturer at Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia. He has recently completed a PhD in Engineering Education at the University of Melbourne, Australia, investigating the effects of remote and virtual access to laboratory hardware upon students’ learning outcomes. His research interests include engineering education, telecontrol (particularly internet-based telecontrol), animatronic puppetry, and technology-mediated interfaces for deaf-blind communication.

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Malcolm Good University of Melbourne

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Virtual and Distance Experiments: Pedagogical Alternatives, not Logistical Alternatives Abstract

Remote and virtual access to laboratory classes are increasingly prevalent in undergraduate engineering courses, but as yet there have been few, if any, studies, that adequately evaluate the learning outcomes of these alternative access modes. The move to alternative access modes has been driven primarily by logistical imperatives such as increased flexibility of delivery, and potential cost reductions. This focus on the “how” of implementing the laboratories has come at the expensive of the “why” – the impact upon the students’ learning has been largely overlooked. This paper reports a study into remote and virtual access to laboratory equipment, and shows that there are statistically significant differences between the students' achievement on a number of learning outcomes. In particular, it shows that certain types of learning outcomes are impacted differently in different modes. This fine-grained analysis avoids the common pitfall of simply comparing overall aggregated marks, and shows that rather than no effect upon outcomes, there are instead multiple changes in learning outcomes whose combined effects upon the students' marks cancel out. The transparency of the interface was found to be a key factor in determining the quality of learning outcomes in the remote mode; however, it was not found to be significant in the simulation mode. This finding, whilst surprising, is explained when the theory pertinent to separation is considered. The take home message of this paper is that moving to remote and virtual access to laboratory hardware leads to significant changes in the learning outcomes of the students who experience this laboratory. In the face of such changes, these alternative access modes must be considered pedagogical alternatives, rather than simply logistical conveniences.


Laboratory classes are a key element in undergraduate engineering teaching. They serve a number of valuable roles, such as validating analytical concepts, and providing exposure to professional practice 1. One of the drawbacks of laboratory classes is that they are expensive, in terms of both time and money. Another drawback is the significant logistical challenge of scheduling access to hardware for potentially large groups of students. Remote and virtual laboratory classes provide an attractive solution to these drawbacks. They offer flexibility in delivery, with students able to access their laboratory class whenever and wherever they wish.

Since the first remote laboratory classes in 1996 2, there has been a steady climb in the amount and variety of laboratory hardware that is available online. The field has matured to the point where there have been overview summary papers published in the literature 3, and even conferences dedicated to the area 4. MIT in Boston are pursuing a world-wide network of remote laboratories – the iLabs project 5.

Whilst there has been substantial technical growth, the pedagogical aspects of the field have lagged behind – “Unanswered is the question on the effects of learning outcomes” 6. This absence of proper evaluation is highlighted in its absence even from the summary papers dealing with the field. Trevelyan 3 refers to the preliminary publications from the present research 7 as “an unusual experiment” dealing with evaluation of outcomes, with no other

Lindsay, E., & Good, M. (2006, June), Virtual And Distance Experiments: Pedagogical Alternatives, Not Logistical Alternatives Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--298

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