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October 2000, Vol. 3 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
The Virtual Laboratory Platform as a Form of Internet-based Apprenticeship
 
Bok Shung Hwee, Sim Vee Ming, Andrew Nee Yeh Ching
Department of Mechanical & Production Engineering
Goh Eng Lim
SGI, Inc
 

Rapid changes in technology have led to the recent development of internet-based virtual laboratories. In this article, we would like to examine the impact and potential of virtual laboratories in the area of engineering education as a useful tool for learning curricula and experiencing real-life work situations.

Traditional vs. Virtual Laboratories

Traditionally, the laboratory has been an integral component of engineering education for relating fundamental concepts to basic real-world phenomena. Conducted largely within the confines of the lecture-classroom format, the laboratory involves the use of largely pre-determined or recipe-like experiments that simulate basic phenomena found in real-world situations. Unfortunately, the lecture-classroom-laboratory system has its flaws or demanding requirements: time-space dislocations of what is taught, what is explained and learned, and what is practised and internalised, as well as the need for large amounts of space and complicated logistics to create and maintain an appropriate learning environment.

However, the role of conventional laboratories for training and understanding engineering problems is presently being challenged. The advances made by Information Technology has led to some learning processes being replicated to varying degrees in the form of courseware available through the Internet, thereby overcoming some limitations of the traditional lecture-classroom-laboratory system. As web-based learning systems improve over time, the concept of an e-Learning community that embraces a Learning-on-Demand culture is likely to be eventually realised.

The Roles of Virtual Laboratories

Through a collaboration between the Department of Mechanical & Production Engineering and SGI, Inc, we have devised a three-dimensional virtual experiment structure of a simple beam-cantilever case study. The virtual beam-cantilever experiment can be carried out anytime, anywhere over the Internet using web browsers and other Java programming technologies.

To improve upon the design of this virtual experiment structure, we are in the process of developing a facility to support the direct manipulation of objects in the setting up of virtual experiments. Such a capability is vital to avoid running virtual experiments in a recipe-like manner. For example, beam-cantilever parameters (e.g. shapes, dimensions, loads, properties) can be adjusted freely to allow for an analysis programme to calculate results (e.g. stress, deflection) in such a way that is easy for students to visualise mechanical phenomena. Because such experiments are virtual, they can be safely conducted when certain extreme parameters are used, unlike in the real world where such experiments could be dangerous and life-threatening.

In addition, the virtual laboratory has the potential to be an e-Learning and e-Training hosting infrastructure that can align with the needs and practice of curricula programmes and industrial attachment scenarios. Hence, we are currently identifying the necessary architecture and key details that will allow us to develop the virtual laboratory as a computer environment that can support different kinds of experiments and analytical requirements over the Internet. The aim is to make the virtual laboratory a reasonably extensible and reusable platform that can be used collaboratively by large groups of students through a distance-learning format, thereby overcoming more weaknesses of the conventional laboratory-based educational system.

If real-world experiments, via equipment, sensors, video streaming, etc. can be integrated into the virtual laboratory, there will then exist an excellent means to compare and evaluate real-world property behaviour with the virtual form. Technological advancements (such as web-server-on-a-chip and the embedded Java) will allow this scenario to soon become a reality and will transform the way real-world objects are accessed and managed. Experiment farms may be possible. Conceptually speaking, this can be described as a kind of convergence between what is taught and what can be simulated together with what can be practised and observed.

As the infrastructure for setting up virtual laboratories improves, the inherent capability within virtual laboratories to allow links between experiments and real-life phenomena (and thereby compare and reinforce learning) can enhance operator training. Like flight simulators and game playing environments, virtual laboratories can provide opportunities for trainees to learn skills and be assessed in real time over the Internet. Consequently, training apprenticeships in the future could be conducted through internet-based learning platforms.

Conclusion

There is still much to be done and explored if a flexible and reusable infrastructure for virtual laboratories, integrating experiments and courseware-like materials with communication support, is to be realised. Although we realise that virtual laboratories may not necessarily have universal applications and can never totally replace real-world processes, we believe that when students can interactively learn, play, and make mistakes in an integrated and rich setting that combines ‘textbook’ knowledge acquisition, evaluations as tutorial questions, and hands-on interactivity, we will have a useful tool at hand. This will overcome some of the constraints of traditional engineering education.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Organising Apprenticeship Programmes: Methods, Pitfalls and Optimisation
   
Setting Up the Department of Biological Sciences' Professional Placement Programme
   
Practical Training Scheme at the Departments of Building and Real Estate
   
The Applied Chemistry Professional Placement Programme
   
The Virtual Laboratory Platform as a Form of Internet-based Apprenticeship
   
Civil Service Internship Programme for Political Science Students
   
Internship for Arts Students in the Talent Development Programme ogramme
   
Apprenticeship in Postgraduate Orthodontic Training
   
Student Responses to the Pharmacy Practice Preceptorship Programme