The integration of virtual labs into a lab management system is generally easier than integrating remote hardware based labs. Some people are using “remote lab”, “online lab”, “cyber-enabled lab” or “virtual lab” synonymously. But while the first three are the same, “virtual lab” may not be used interchangeable. A virtual lab is a “laboratory” consisting only of a specific piece of software. This software may be a proprietary one, but also a web service or simulated hardware. Most recent example is the developed “Virtual Micro Controller Unit” (VMCU), developed by it:matters, as spin-off of Bochum University of Applied Sciences, which simulates real hardware components; the Robotic HomeLab kit from project Interstudy.
A virtual lab can be accessed like a real hardware lab. The actor is performing his actions from distance by using an ordinary computer system sending his input over a network (in most cases involving Internet transmission) to a receiver system which will be in most cases also directly the virtual lab. In specific cases a virtual lab may involve different virtual machine (like in a network experiment, where students have to set-up a network infrastructure from distance) or additional server systems (database systems among others) which are necessary for the virtual lab. The system itself directly sends the feedback over the communication channel back to the actor’s personal computer. All computations are done in the virtual lab and only feedback to the user input is send back.
Advantages and disadvantages of virtual labs
Virtual labs have some advantages compared to real hardware labs. If the virtual lab is a software service, once set-up the lab can be used by a lot of student’s simultaneously, only affected by computational power of the host computer. It is also more robust than real equipment. A student may not destroy the hardware while adjust some settings or failures in programming. Another benefit is considering monetary issues. The system can be easily duplicated without paying additional costs. Of course virtual labs also have disadvantage in relation to real (remote) ones. A virtual lab may never react in all cases equal to real hardware. It is impossible to include all environmental parameters into the virtualization, thus a virtual lab will react sometimes different from a real one.
The best solution seems to be a combination of virtual and remote labs to get benefits from both of them.
A general approach, also used in our consortium is to use the virtual devices for basic education to teach basic system thinking and to get familiar with the hardware. In later steps the learners are switching to real hardware.