BACKGROUND AND MOTIVATION


Virtual Labs is a project initiated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India, under the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT).

Good lab facilities and updated lab experiments are critical for any engineering college. Physical distances and the lack of resources often make it difficult to perform experiments, especially when they involve sophisticated instruments. Also, good teachers are always a scarce resource. The ‘Virtual Labs’ project addresses this issue of lack of good lab facilities, as well as trained teachers, by making remote experimentation possible. With the present day internet and computer technologies, these limitations no longer hamper students and researchers in enhancing their skills and knowledge. Also, in a country such as ours, lab resources need to be shared with fellow researchers to the extent possible. Yet another objective is to arouse the curiosity of the students and permit them to learn at their own pace. This facilitates the absorption of basic and advanced concepts through simulation and remote experimentation. Internet based experimentation further permits use of resources – knowledge, software, and data available on the web, apart from encouraging skillful experiments being simultaneously performed at points separated in space. Specifically, the Virtual Labs project addresses the following:

  • Access to quality labs to those engineering colleges that lack these lab facilities.
  • Access to quality labs as a complementary facility to those colleges that already have labs.
  • A complete Learning management System around these labs.
  • Teacher‐training and skill‐set augmentation through workshops and on‐site training.

In the First Phase of the Virtual Labs project (Pilot):

Over 100 Virtual Labs, consisting of approximately 700+ web‐enabled experiments, were designed for remote operation and viewing. Please note: a lab is a set of experiments, and the number of experiments in each lab may vary depending on the syllabi.

In the Second Phase of the Virtual Labs project (Rollout):

The primary focus was to reach out to the potential users of Virtual Labs and to address the following issues:

  • To maintain the Virtual Labs developed in Phase I.
  • To port Virtual Labs to a common platform and host it on a common server.
  • To create a ‘single package’ of simulation‐based Virtual Labs to be distributed to users.
  • To convert labs, not based on free and open source technologies, to open source, wherever possible.

The main objectives of the Third Phase of the Virtual Labs project (VlabsDev) are:

1. To develop a methodology for the development of new lab experiments by identifying gap areas with the involvement of all stakeholders.
2. To develop a methodology for evaluation of all the experiments developed.
3. To host the newly‐developed experiments on a central server.

Potential beneficiaries of the project:

The intended beneficiaries of the projects are:

  • All students and Faculty Members of Science and Engineering Colleges who do not have access to good lab‐facilities and/or instruments.
  • High‐school students, whose inquisitiveness will be triggered, possibly motivating them to take up higher‐studies.
  • Researchers in different institutes who can collaborate / share equipment and resources.
  • Different engineering colleges, who can benefit from the content and related teaching resources.

The project so far has fulfilled the requirements of the targeted beneficiaries (and even gone beyond). An ecosystem has evolved around Virtual Labs, where the community has become involved in evolving the labs and benefitting from the project.

Standardization and best practices

The following standard process development and sharing of best practices have been carried out within the project:

  • Development of a standard process for Quality Control.
  • Development of a standard process for Outreach.
  • Development of a standard process for obtaining user Feedback.
  • Development of a standard process for obtaining Feedback of subject experts.
  • Continuous Evaluations by Subject Experts, thereby permitting mid‐term corrections.
  • Use of a standard collaborative platform (VlabsDev).
  • Repository of all project related documents available on a common server.
  • Wiki and Developer forum.
  • Standard Administrative Website for all labs.
Virtual Lab provides all the relevant material at one place including the Objectives of the Experiment, Procedure, Lab manual, Pre and Post‐experiment quizzes, additional Lab resources, in addition to the Virtual Lab experiment.

OBJECTIVES OF THE PROJECT


The main objectives of this project are listed below:

(a) Development of New Experiments by identifying gap areas with the involvement of all stakeholders.
Currently, labs have been developed by various institutes in accordance to various syllabi across different universities. However, there are some gap areas. Many labs do not fully coincide with the curriculum of a particular technical course prescribed by a university. A few experiments in the set of Virtual Labs may not be present in the list of the experiments pertaining to the practical examinations for some of the universities. In order to fill the gap areas, each participating institute would engage with the local nodal centres and carry out a syllabus mapping exercise to identify the gap areas in the respective domains. These gaps will then be filled by developing additional experiments. The process would involve the Regional Nodal Centers (RNCs) and Nodal Centers (NCs) and the Participating Institutes.

(b) Evaluation of New Experiments
As mentioned earlier, a lab is a set of experiments, and the number of experiments in each lab may vary depending on the syllabi. The evaluation of a new lab is always a challenging and time‐consuming task. One of the possible ways is to constitute a Central Evaluation Pool (CEP) of experts who will be involved with the periodic review of the labs under development. To build a pool of evaluators, each Partnering Institute will nominate about 5‐10 domain experts in appropriate discipline. The experts could be from the IITs, NITs, government colleges or reputed private universities (serving or retired). The CEP would typically consist of 30‐40 domain experts. The experts from the CEP will also give the final approval before any newly‐developed experiment / lab consisting of a set of experiments is hosted on the central server or cloud. The list of these experts will be available centrally within the consortium and the LDCs will approach these experts for the purpose of evaluation. A thorough evaluation process would be critical for ensuring the quality of the new experiments.

(c) Hosting of the newly‐developed experiments on a central server
The usage pattern of these Virtual Labs shows that these labs are increasingly used ‘outside’ the working hours, which was one of the original motivations for this project. Therefore, it is necessary to host these newly‐developed experiments on a central server. This step will also ensure that they are kept in an ‘up and running’ condition. As a part of this project, we will also develop a design environment for creating new lab experiments in an efficient manner which can be easily integrated.

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