Laboratory classes are an essential part of the education of undergraduate engineers. Laboratories provide the opportunity to acquire a range of skills and knowledge that are not available through other avenues (Feisel & Rosa, 2005). Providing these opportunities can be very expensive in terms of equipment and consumable costs, as well as the time and energy of academic staff required to prepare, supervise and assess these laboratories. As the size of engineering cohorts has grown, providing laboratory experiences to all students has become more challenging, with purchasing more and more equipment no longer a feasible solution.
One alternative solution is to provide web-based remote access to laboratory hardware. Remote access to the hardware can relax many of the constraints of the in-person experience: scheduling, supervision and directness of control can all be achieved much more easily when students can connect remotely via the internet, rather than requiring synchronised attendance in a physical laboratory
Remote laboratories were first introduced in 1996 (Aktan et al, 1996) and since then remote laboratories have become a relatively mature technology. The field has developed to the point where the literature contains reviews of remote laboratories (Ma & Nickerson, 2006), and the challenges have moved from technical implementation through to pedagogical design and frameworks for interinstitutional sharing of equipment.
The focus of remote laboratory development is now moving towards more sustainable models. Rather than individual academics custom building equipment for their specialised subjects, remote laboratory development is increasingly being carried out by multi-institution consortia such as the Australian Labshare (2011) project. These groups allow academics considering remote laboratories to take advantage of pre-existing tools to implement their experiments, rather than having to begin from scratch.
Even with this support for development, however, some kinds of equipment are more prevalent in the literature on remote laboratories. Topics dealing with control theory, such as proportional-integralderivative or programmable logic controllers, seem common. Simple mechanical systems like pendula or linked masses also appear often. The domination of the field by some kinds of laboratories raises questions. Are these laboratories more prevalent because they are better suited for remote conversion? Is there some combination of attributes of these experiences that makes them better suited for use in the remote mode? Or is it that the academics who teach these classes are more likely to be the kind of people who want to build remote laboratories?
There are pedagogical arguments to support the shift from an in-person experience to a remote-access mode, and the literature contains a number of references to the evaluation of student learning in the remote mode. The earliest evaluations, which only compared marks, found the modes to be equivalent for learning (Ogot et al, 2003), however, more fine-grained evaluations have found differences in outcomes for the students. Lindsay & Good (2005) showed that some learning outcomes can be enhanced through a transition to a remote mode, while other learning outcomes will be degraded. There are frameworks for evaluating the learning outcomes of remote laboratories (Mohtar et al, 2008), for example, however, the emerging consensus is that "direct comparison [between modes] is not appropriate or productive" (Hanson et al, 2009).
Depending on the balance of which outcomes are desired from a laboratory, it may be that remote access will provide a superior learning opportunity. To determine this, a range of factors - the type of learning required, the nature of the experiment and the willingness of the instructor - must be considered. By considering these factors, it should be possible to provide a metric for determining whether a particular laboratory experience is suitable for the remote-access mode, or whether it must be performed in the face-to-face environment. …