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Academic Journal of Engineering Studies

From Traditional Hands-On Laboratories to Virtual Reality Lab Environment: Review on Lab Teaching Technologies to Frost Learning Outcome and Mitigate the Negative Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ahmed M Elkhatat*, Majeda Khraisheh and Fares Almomani

Department of Chemcial Engineering, Qatar

*Corresponding author: Ahmed M Elkhatat, Department of Chemcial Engineering, College of Engineering, Qatar University , Doha, Qatar

Submission: June 06, 2020; Published: August 18, 2020

Abstract

Engineering education cannot be performed without practicing in laboratories, as the prime objective of engineering education is to gear students up for practicing engineering. A traditional teaching laboratory is a place where engineering instructions and hands-on practice take place. However, since the early spring of 2020, the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak has hindered face-to-face teaching as well as traditional hands-on laboratories. This pandemic forces universities to migrate from the traditional way of education to an online approach. Despite some concerns about the quality of substitutional approaches compared to conventional hands-on Labs, studies show that these types of laborites simulate critical thinking and lead to higher learning outcomes. This work reviews the important role of experimental laboratories in engineering education. It highlights the innovations in lab teaching, and how remote and virtual labs influence engineering education and mitigate the impact of pandemic COVID-19 on higher education outcomes.

Keywords: Traditional labs;Online labs;Virtual labs;Remote labs; COVID-19 influence on learning outcome

Introduction

Engineering curricula aim to supply students with the required competences to face the challenges of the present and future. While engineering is a hands-on profession that utilizes raw materials using mathematics and science to create benefit for humankind, the foremost objective of engineering education is to assist undergraduates in practicing engineering. Especially, it was agreed that the conventional method of teaching by lecturing is ineffective in science and engineering education. That is, a cycle begins with theoretical conceptualization followed by conducting an experiment that leads to a substantial experience and improves the overall observed reflection [1-3].

Since most engineering practices are performed in the laboratory, theory is coupled with practice to enhance the learning quality and to gear fresh graduate engineers to operate, process, design, and optimize chemical plants. It's worth mention to differentiate between teaching laboratory and other educational development and research laboratories. A development laboratory is essential to guide practicing engineers in rendering and optimizing a product in terms of answering specific questions of immediate importance to assess if the mockup is as functional as planned. While a research Laboratory, on the other hand, is intended to seek broader understanding and boost overall knowlege that can be helpful for other researchers or developers, but often without any particular application in mind. In contrast, teaching or instructional laboratory is a place for students to better undertand and discover a concept or relation through a well-designed learning objective [4].

Teaching laboratory is a vital part of engineering education where engineering instructions and hands-on practice take place in the laboratory [5]. It is worthy of mentioning that the curricular objective of this type of laboratories is to relate theoretical principles and practical experience than just conventional class teaching [6-10]. Moreover, it provides students with a virtual sense of physical items in addition to developing the feel for engineering [11,12]. Expressly, the laboratory fosters the improvement of a deep understanding of basic learning through practice.

Studies have indicated that conceptions of science and engineering education can be categorized into two levels of learning; low or primary and higher or advanced. The primary level ofs learning includes memorizing, testing, and calculating learning activities. These activities are practiced in the classroom, and they enhance reproductive learning strategies that help students to acquire knowlege and accumulate the required content. In contrast, the advanced level of learning comprises higher broadminded learning activities like broadening knowlege, implementing, observing, and considering facts from another standpoint. When these activities of the advanced level of learning are implemented in labs, they promote constructive learning strategies and foster the absorption of more complicated subjects [13-21].

Teaching Lab evolution:  Alternatives to traditional hands-on laboratories

In the early twentieth century, both “American Engineering accreditation” and the “American Institute of Chemical Engineers” (AIChE) indicated the significance of laboratories in the engineering curriculum, and they together started the process of accreditation that impacted the quality of teaching laboratories obviously [22, 23]. Although these concerted efforts are to ensure the quality of teaching in conventional Labs where students conduct experiments by following written procedures in a Lab manual. It is believed that these types of laboratories may not succeed in engaging students in the thoughtful learning activities that required for cognizing the fundamental concepts. Here, three types of laboratories have been proposed as an unconventional approach to mitigate the limitation of conventional Labs, which are Inquiry-based, Fabrication, and Living laboratory.

Inquiry-Based Laboratory

An inquiry-based laboratory permits students to select their conducted experiments. Consequently, students have to impose their experience and knowlege to deal with challenges related to realistic situations [24,25]. This type of laboratory was implemented by introducing it as a Lab module in the biomedical engineering physiology course by Lisenmeier and co-workers [26], and the results showed a significant improvement for the inquiry-based sample in comparison with the control sample. In another study, the influence of the inquiry-based laboratory was investigated on junior students in the environmental Engineering course during the last four weeks of the semester [27]. The study reveals that the inquiry-based laboratory assists students in realizing and understanding the environmental concepts profoundly compared to traditional Laboratories.

Other institutions have implemented a progressive hands-on practice for students to promote and support the instructional laboratory. At “Imperial College London”, the three-stage hands-on practice was implemented for undergraduate students during their first three years of engineering education. The level of freedom for each stage rises with their competencies. In the first stage, students are requested to conduct the instructed experiments safely and accurately under full supervision, then in the second stage, they are given certain research topics, and they are allowed to design their experiments under a monitor's observation to achieve the research goal. Finally, in the most advanced third stage laboratory, students are free to plan their own research goals and project accordingly [28,29].

Fabrication Laboratory

In the last years, a new type of laboratories has emerged that promotes the students' creativity and gives them the possibility to turn their ideas into prototype and products through 3D modeling, rendering, fabrication, optimization, and validation of their projects. This category of laboratories is well-known as “Fab Labs” (an abbreviation of “Fabrication Laboratories”) and become a new trend in engineering education [30,31]. It initiated as an educational module at the “Center for Bits and Atoms” (CBA), and currently, its network covers 30 countries. The importance of Fab Labs has increased in the last years due to the unique features and privileges it provides. For instance, the product can be modified without affecting the design of other parts; also, it can be used for the recycling of waste plastics into valuable products [30]. Introducing Fab Labs in engineering education promotes inspiration and creativity among students. In addition, helping students create their own prototype using novel techniques of digital manufacturing foster a swift improvement in engineering education [32].

Living Laboratory

Another unique type of laboratory that has emerged recently to provide a novel approach to boost teamwork and creative thinking using user centricity's environment is living laboratory [33]. Living Labs have been established in Europe and the United States educational institutions to help students' imagination and creativity by challenging them with uncommon real-life complicated scenarios [34-36]. Results of implementing Live Labs in the undergraduate computer science curriculum reveal optimistic acceptance for use to sharpen students' problem-solving skills [37]. In another study in China, Living Laboratory was introduced to mitigate traditional education limitations, especially in innovation and entrepreneurial abilities [38].

Remote Labs

The integration of computers and the Internet in teaching laboratories, as well as the rapid evolution of the software and network programming, enable remote control of Labs. Accordingly, distant learners are provided with remote access to physical laboratory equipment through computers that are connected to the physical experiments and used for remote controlling of equipment, data acquisition, and collection, which influences the productivity and the quality of student work through distance learning [39,40]. For example, LabVIEW software, produced by National Instruments Corporation, is one of the most comprehensive systems that combine software and hardware to convert a personal computer to a data-acquisition device that can control the equipment remotely [4]. LabVIEW distributes the data to iLab server that can be retrieved via the Internet [41].

Remote Lab offers some exclusive traits like availability, observability, accessibility, and safety [42]. Remote labs help students who are geographically dispersed because they are available anytime and can be installed anywhere. Previously, programs require practicing in their curriculum, and students were forced to either accomplish laboratory practicing at another institution or enroll in an intensive laboratory course on the engineering campus [43]. Remote labs also provide accessibility to students who have some incapacities and may become unable to access or conduct lab experiments. So, remote labs help learners exercise practical experience over the Internet. As a result, they not only magnify the use of sophisticated lab equipment but also provides Lab experience when the hands-on practice is not possible [44]. In a review study to investigate remote labs on cognitive learning outcomes in different graduate schools by Post and his team, results reveal that the conceptual knowlege of students who engaged in remote lab improved due to more available learning time as a result of a simultaneous run of remote labs [45].

Despite safety operation that remote labs offer in terms of distance location of the user away from the physical equipment, a user of the remote lab must undergo comprehensive training to acquire adequate skills to operate the equipment without causing damage to it, which foster the user motivation [46]. Remote labs have the advantage that they can be operated under distance supervision, and the trials can be saved and documented as reference for educational and training purposes [47].

Although there are unique features remote lab controlling offers, it encounters criticisms from opponents of this type of laboratories specifically for undergraduate students. For instance, in remote Labs, there is a claim that writing program codes to provide remote access to laboratories is a major challenge as some faculty have developed their own access systems instead of using commercial software [48,49]. Other institutions provide students the possibility to upload experimental parameters, and after that, they can receive a video that includes the operations using those parameters [50]. Also, the level of computerization in remote Labs might not suit undergraduate students and may, to some extent, deprives them of the direct process of the laboratory practice [4].

Virtual Labs

While conventional practical laboratories offer engineering students the opportunities of hands-on practice with physical equipment, they have some drawbacks such as high asset cost of the experiments, space requirements, and continual maintenance [51], besides the breakthrough in the computers and internet virtual labs emerged [52].

Virtual Labs (VL) evolved from simulation software, which is a result of the swift progression of programing and software platforms that provide engineers with a promised land for practicing a lot of engineering skills such as designing and testing a single operation unit up to designing and optimizing a whole complicated chemical plant. Nowadays, simulation software has become an energetic portion of engineering education and its ability to visualize and demonstrate some parameters and processes that cannot easily be visualized. Thus, virtual labs not only help to reduce the asset and maintenance costs and retain the lab space, but they are a safe substitute for those operations that might include hazards [47,51].

Nevertheless, some considerations are connected to VL with regard to the quality of learning outcomes in comparison with traditional labs. Educators who are reluctant to VL claim that simulation software is limited as it is based on basic models of physical or chemical accuracy, and however, its accuracy cannot reflect and simulate the real scenarios offered by real system. So, they can only be used as a complementary tool that can mimic different engineering processes, especially those involve physical limitation in measurements or safety hindrances, but never recommended as a substitute because they will fail in emulating complex systems. Consequently, despite the increased power and efficiency of simulation programs today, they cannot entirely replace traditional lab experiments [53-56].

However, while some educators state that remote laboratories lead to more isolation among students, which harmfully affects learning outcomes, others mitigate this isolation from the learning process by creating teams to provide a collaborative involvement for students [49, 57]. Moreover, most empirical studies declare that the learning outcome of VL is as good as conventional Labs [58-63]. While 2D visualization is dominant in VL, 3D imaging is the feature of “virtual reality” (VR), “immersive virtual reality” (IVR), “mixed virtual reality” (MVR), and “augmented reality” (AR), which are new advanced technologies added to VL.

The virtual world is generated using a sophisticated programing language to create an impressive sense of presence and immersion through "head mounted display" (HMD) and stereophonic sound. This type of virtual reality creates a high degree of subjectivity and autonomy to the user [64]. Based on the details of the VR, the user gains experience through diving into the simulation that mimics the real-world [65]. Several studies have evaluated the impact of (VR) on education, but the results were controversial. Although in many studies, using (VR) has boosted the learning outcome [66-72], other studies reveal that (VR) distracts students' attention and harm their learning outcome [73] and that most students depend on listening to the narration without reading text [74]. As a result of evolution in VR technology, Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) has emerged, which is referred to as the act of immersion of oneself into another virtual world [75]. IVR was found to be more effective in studying than reading scripts or interacting with simulations on PC. [76,77].

In contrast with VR that replaces one's vision, augmented reality (AR), on the other hand,  adds to it. In other words, AR boosts human perception through embedding 2D or 3D virtual elements in the real-world environment  [78,79]. Implementing AR in the traditional laboratory was found to expand students' conceptual knowlege and cognitive skills [80-84].

Urgent need for remote and virtual Labs to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 confinement on higher education

No one can deny that engineering education cannot be performed without practicing, as laboratories gear students up for  practicing  engineering. However, since the early spring of 2020, the global world has been hindered by the pandemic COVID-19 outbreak. In response, to diminish the spread of this pandemic, governments around the world have taken precautionary actions to ensure their citizens' safety. Consequently, education has affected intensely. For instance, on-campus activities have been suspended in many universities and substituted by online education. Other universities prefer to suspend the teaching until further notice or postpone the study to the summer semester [85,86].

Due to the unexpected and sudden migration from the traditional way of education to online approach, impact principles and instructional strategies should be identified and implemented to ensure the effectiveness of online education. In a case study at Peking University's, five impact principles were identified [87];

  1. The online instructions should be highly relevant to student learning outcome
  2. The online information should be effectively delivered
  3. Students should receive sufficient support from faculty
  4. Students should participate effectively during the online sessions to improve their learning outcome
  5. Preparing an emergency plan to deal with any contingency in the educational platform.

In order to enhance learning outcome and encourage students' engagement in the online education Bao [87] classified six educational strategies for this purpose:

  1. Splitting the course content into small units to help students to concentrate effectively
  2. Working with teaching assistant to the teaching to provide effective assistance to students at different teaching activities
  3. Preparing preparedness plans for popup problems
  4. Consolidating students' learning activities outside of class such as reading assignment, projects or homework, focusing on vocal expression instead of facial expression and body language, which are restricted in the online education
  5. Guiding and encouraging students to combine online learning with self-learning activities.

Unfortunately, due to the few published studies, the impact of COVID-19 on the educational outcome is still ambiguous. For instance, COVID-19 confinement influenced the students' performance in a recent study to investigate the pandemic quarantine on 458 undergraduates' educational outcomes from different subjects in Spain. The authors attribute this boost to the change in students' approaches from a discontinuous to continuous learning habit [88]. In contrast, other studies show the opposite impact on college students in China, such as a delay in academic activities [89]. This retardation in the education process is attributed to the prevalence of depression and stress associated with fear and inadequate sleep duration, and these symptoms are aggregated among senior students who are about to graduate [90]

Conclusion

Due to the unexpected and sudden migration from the traditional way of education to online approach, remote and virtual laboratories can be an effective alternative lab teaching option. Despite some limitations associated with online lab teaching, the advantages related to learning outcome overweigh its drawbacks.

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© 2020 Ahmed M Elkhatat. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and build upon your work non-commercially.

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