Labs Move Online with LabsLand’s Remote Engineering Labs

LabsLand allows students to access real labs online across more than 100 universities.

As classes across the world have gone online, engineering labs have also had to shift online. Many universities are now investing in remote options for performing experiments typically completed with in-person labs. Although this sometimes means recreating experiments with simulation, options that allow students to perform physical experiments are becoming available.

The company LabsLand offers real laboratory space remotely to schools. By real, LabsLand means that students can access and manipulate real objects and view the experiment in real time. The actual lab is hosted at a university. Students can book time in the remote labs to ensure that the equipment is available.

(Image Courtesy of LabsLand.)

(Image Courtesy of LabsLand.)

Alternatively, LabsLand also offers Ultra-concurrent labs, where an experiment is recorded in a real lab. An interface is then created to simulate the experiment in real time. This option is suitable for lessons that require a large class of students to see the same experiment and have the same results.

This might seem like new technology developed in reaction to COVID-19, but Pablo Orduña and Luis Rodriguez-Gil, the founders of LabsLand, have been work on this concept for some time. They met while working on their PhDs at the University of Deusto. Both of their research involved working on the remote hands-on labs at the university.

Even then, they recognized the potential of remote labs. In 2015, they began working on their own version. Orduña told IEEE Spectrum that “We saw that as our university’s [remote lab] was growing, there were some [pieces] missing, and [it also] needed technical and organization support.”

Before COVID-19, LabsLand worked on increasing lab access for students in remote areas. In October 2019, the company formed a partnership with the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in South Africa. It creates Arduino remote labs on campus that High School students in rural areas can access.

(Image courtesy of LabsLand.)

(Image courtesy of LabsLand.)

After COVID-19 closed schools across the world, LabsLand’s focus shifted to helping educators transition to online environments. At the time, widely available options for online lab learning were limited. Typical options included online simulations or experiment kits that could be sent to students. Neither option is ideal.

Although simulations are good learning tools, they cannot replace the laboratory experience. An important aspect of laboratory assignments is teaching students laboratory workmanship. Experiments are vital to the sciences because they determine if a theoretical concept is robust enough to work in the real world. 

Although student assignments do not discover new knowledge through experimentation, they do impart important skills that are necessary to conduct experiments. Lab workmanship skills encompass lab procedures, methods and other processes.

Another critical experience of a lab experiment is the opportunity for the experiment to go wrong. Simulations offer idealized versions of a concept or model. Real-world variables cannot affect or derail the experiment. This is not true of work done in labs. This helps students understand the differences between theory and practice. It highlights the robustness, or lack thereof, of models and calculations.

To support institutions during COVID-19, LabsLand offered schools free access to available resources from March through to September. Since that time, 120 universities have accessed the company’s services and the labs have been used more than 150,000 times.

The instructor feedback has been positive. Dominik May, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, told IEE Spectrum, “They are a perfect way to customize learning experiences and to prepare students for an environment in which remote working is becoming more important.”

Beyond COVID-19, remote labs are expected to continue to play an important role in student learning. The landscape of education is changing. Students no longer necessarily live near their universities. Rania Hussein, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, says that “educators need to think differently given the new circumstances such that they provide the same experience as much as possible to the students without the hassle of the logistics.”