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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Teaching and Learning Network (TLN) – Ben Hanson and Remote Labs

By Matt Jenner, on 2 December 2010

This week’s TLN had Ben Hanson presenting his work on laboratories which are separated by a physical distance and operated from afar.

Ben shows his work which he started while he was working at Leeds University. When he came to UCL he left behind a lab which was designed to work from anywhere. To test his theory, he can control his lab kit from another location, setup up experiments and watch the results as they come in and he does this with UCL students.

The outcome of the experiments are sent back via video, students can watch the video and see what happened. The experimental data is passed back for further analysis. Most of the supportive teaching is conducted with a lecture before the experiments are performed.Data from all the experiments are stored on a server and can be shared in a collaborative way.

Why this differs from a traditional hands on lab?

* Accessibility – this widens participation to groups and individuals who may not be able to attend physically.
* There is some setup cost but once the kit is running there is minimal running cost. This means the kit can be located offsite and/or access can be opened (or possibly be sold) to others. Although for now access is cost free.
* Other universities contribution to the community aspect of this, bath Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, UCL.
* Users are added to a queue so large groups are scheduled and effectively wait in line for their turn.
* There are minimal time constraints in using the system, so students can be in an environment which allows them more time and flexibility in running these tests and perhaps having more chances to grasp a point.

The system can provide formative feedback from the system which they can then use to learn from, reflection upon and possibility have another go.

Collaboration and communication

Human interaction between the students and the system. How do the students work in groups? They have virtual lab groups.

Using the tool to help with professional communication skills. Students don’t have much of a chance during their education, even at a higher level, so with this in mind Ben has added virtual lab groups. Students use an instant messenger or email to work within a virtual lab group and they work on a lab experiment together. The group data is then fed back to class data so an emergent result can be build on the students input. With this you can also see common mistakes from individuals/groups and then explain how this happens and what to look out for.

Used the learning pods in the Roberts front cafe and were asked to create a frequency response from a vibrating beam, the kit is in the basement of the building. They are asking students to understand a resonant behaviour. The students will only collect a small amount of data each,but collectively (all the groups added together) the students pool their data and build a larger dataset via Moodle and Etherpad.

There were some problems with student’s use of language (International issues and some language was inappropriate)

There was a generally postive student feedback and a high level of engagement. It’s worth considering that students were paid a small amount of money to be a part of the study and worked out of class hours on this. Remote labs can help break the confidence barrier for the kind of person who tags onto the know-alls and are not brave enough to want to break their barrier of anxiety.

Next steps

  • Can this be used internationally?
  • Improve online communication skills.

Missed it?

If you would like to watch/listen to Ben, you can catch up with this session on Lecturecast Echo 360 logo View the recording of this event (UCL authentication needed)

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For more information on the net TLN check out the website:


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