Remote lab enables practical lessons to continue during pandemic

WHEN Covid-19-ravaged the world, grounding it to a halt, nations all over were forced to impose varying degrees of lockdown to stem the tide of the pandemic.

However, education advocates were unanimous in their calls to ensure lessons continued.

For academics like Monash University School of Engineering lecturer Prof N. Ramakrishnan whose subjects include computer systems, classroom presence is imperative in evaluating students' performance.

Prof Ramakrishnan laid out a plan to ensure lab lessons could continue with minimal fuss.Prof Ramakrishnan laid out a plan to ensure lab lessons could continue with minimal fuss.

Prof Ramakrishnan had anticipated the movement control order (MCO) in Malaysia and laid out a plan to ensure lab lessons could continue with minimal fuss.

For electrical and electronic engineering and computer engineering students, fathoming the complex processes involved in making a microprocessor function is compulsory.

Therefore every student is required to undergo a lab examination as part of the Computer Systems module.

The quest

Lab exercises and lectures have a symbiotic relationship so it was critical for Prof Ramakrishnan to deliver the lessons online and find a way to link lectures and lab exercises together with minimal disruption.

"In addition to preparing video lessons, I brought home two FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) boards to figure out if I could facilitate practical lab exercises online. Sadly, I wasn't making much progress. I then started Googling for solutions, specifically for remote labs."

It was then he stumbled upon LabLands – a commercial remote lab that connects students from universities worldwide with the hardware they wish to engage with for their lab exercises.

LabLands was offering access to their repository of FPGAs for free for a month to help students during the pandemic.

However, Prof Ramakrishnan was running into difficulties calibrating the machines at LabLands to suit the requirements of his lab exercises.

"The subsequent weeks involved hours-long conversations with Dr Pablo Orduña, the co-founder and chef executive officer of LabsLand, to find solutions. He told me to figure out the script codes that would resemble the lab I had in mind. After three weeks, I managed to redefine all my lab exercises to fit into LabsLand," said Prof Ramakrishnan.

When Prof Ramakrishnan embarked on this journey to find a solution to his teaching woes, little did he know that it would culminate into an award-winning initiative.

His collaborations with academics from abroad in devising a solution for ensuring the seamless resumption of lab exercises bagged the 2021 GOLC Online Lab Award for remote laboratory.

To ensure his students do not copy, Prof Ramakrishnan posed a different set of questions involving different sets of combinations on the circuit board. He uploaded videos of his lectures, which also provided instructions on how his students can remotely access the microprocessors.

The luxury of accessing the labs anytime and anywhere proved to be an instant hit with his students. The log sheets showed they were accessing the lab on a 24-hour basis.

Though he prepared challenging exam questions for his students, they did very well. They credited their success to increased practice hours, enabled by access to the lab anytime, anywhere, as long as they had an internet connection.

The future

The remarkable success of the collaboration between Monash University Malaysia and LabsLand will accelerate the path to remote learning, says Prof Ramakrishnan.

When the dust settles, students will return to class. However, they will now have the luxury of time and convenience on their side as more practice time is guaranteed with this remote lab.

To learn more about research at Monash, join us at our Virtual Postgraduate Day on 10 April 2021, from 10am to 1pm.

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