Dr. Tim Drysdale - The Open University
Prof. Nicholas Braithwaite - The Open University
You’d think that doing engineering education at a distance is challenging – and you’d be right. But engineering students of all types are now graduating into jobs that require them to work on international teams that may not even be in the same time zone as their colleagues or their equipment, let alone the same site. In extreme cases, such as the deep ocean or the far-flung reaches of the solar system, or, more prosaically but no less importantly, in the underground infrastructure of our bustling cities, engineers might never “physically” interact with their remotely located sensors, actuators, and tools. Training a student from the start to be comfortable with exploring the world of engineering by using equipment from a distance could even be an advantage. But first academics must make the educational process work well enough so that students can participate in long-distance learning without giving up in frustration. The Open University’s £5.8M OpenSTEM Labs are addressing this challenge for the engineering curriculum.
The Open University, established by Royal Charter in 1969, is the leading university for flexible, innovative, and technology-enhanced learning in the United Kingdom. It has delivered learning resources to students around the world. The Open University was initially conceived as the “University of the Air” that would take advantage of television to broadcast lectures to the entire country. Since then, the teaching model has evolved to blend advances in technology with the best pedagogical approaches. It keeps people at the centre of the teaching interaction while helping students overcome great distances and barriers. This has led to over 2 million students receiving an education that campus-based universities would have denied them.
The use of the latest web technologies in an engineering education setting is another important example of The Open University’s leadership because it reflects one of the most significant changes in the way engineering is being conducted around the world: engineers often must work at a substantial distance from their equipment.
It is also significant because it occurs at a time when educators are seeking new ways to engage with the current generation of students in all sectors of education. Those born into a world of mobile phones expect to get almost anything they want, in seconds, from a browser be that movies, books, groceries, or learning.
The OpenEngineering Lab
The approach the OpenEngineering Lab (OEL) team took was to innovate from the world of peer-to-peer communication by replacing one of the participants in a video call with engineering instrumentation. In this way, whether students are on mobile phones in the USA or laptops in Europe, they can engage in their practical work at a moment’s notice, with no discernible lag between their keypad/touchscreen actions and the observed responses from instruments and tools located anywhere on the planet. This effectively furnishes an “Internet of Engineering Lab Things.”
With the OEL, our remote students can directly connect to one of many preconfigured engineering workstations (rather like a conventional teaching lab). Each workstation is based on NI ELVIS, a teaching platform that combines several of the most important industry-grade instruments, such as oscilloscopes, function generators, multimeters, and logic analysers, into a single, intuitive form factor. Additionally, NI ELVIS can be combined with swappable experimentation boards for teaching subjects like electronics, mechatronics, and communications. Throughout the engineering course, our students interact with six different experiment boards, two of which are commercially available:
- QNET Rotary Inverted Pendulum Board—Designed for closed-loop controls experiments, this board helps students use the movement of the pendulum to visually represent sinusoidal waveforms.
- QNET Mechatronic Actuators Board—Students use this board to learn the fundamentals of common actuators and motors.
Four further experiments were designed and built in-house:
- Light and strain sensors—Students control the physical environment of light and strain sensors (rotating drum, bending beam) and configure the sensor interface circuitry to learn about sensitivity and noise.
- Fourier transform—A spinning disk with slots of different lengths allows students to hear the change in frequency with motor speed and observe the influence of the slot length on the frequency content of the signal given by light sensors placed under the slots.
- Digital electronics—Genuine 74 series CMOS chips are connected by a virtual switch fabric so students can design and implement combinational and sequential logic while seeing the individual logic states over the camera feed from lights placed on each pin.
- Ranging sensors—Infrared and ultrasonic distance sensors scan a pseudorandom physical scene to introduce students to the challenges that autonomous cars face in detecting hazards.
Going forward, we plan to commission two additional sets of commercial boards:
- Emona DATEx Telecommunications Board—Students can explore digital communication systems by combining standard functional blocks for converting data to and from transmittable signals.
- Emona SIGEx Signals and Systems Experiments Board—Students can configure circuits that manipulate signals like those used to interpret sensor data or control mechanical outputs.
These experiments give our students a heuristic understanding of sensing, processing and actuating. By combining those three pillars of modern engineering, even the wildest imaginations of our students can take on a practical form.
The Impact of OEL
The results so far have been impressive. In our first year of operation, students could select from over 200,000 fully checked experimental sessions to work at times that suited them. The first course to use the lab had 121 electronic engineering students, who used over 600 of those sessions. We also served hundreds more sessions to staff members and the public. This illustrates the capacity of the system to handle extremely large student cohorts and the increased hours of availability that come with hosting experiments online. One of our students said:
I have found the OEL to be a fantastic way to add the dimension of "hands on" to the module. With distance learning, it is notoriously difficult to supply students with hardware kits. The OEL is a great solution. I have found the various experiments illuminating and interesting; they have added to my understanding of the excellent course material. It also offers a safe environment. Also, the labs have allowed me to continue with the module even though I am on holiday in Barbados—truly offering a global reach. Great stuff!
At the time of writing, we offered 45 connected stations with six different types of experiments. The mixture changes every few months to suit the focus of the course material, which makes managing the lab a significant challenge. At full stretch, the OEL can run 198 experiments at any one time, along with weekly changes in the complement. This is not the sort of task you want to do by hand. To address our current and future needs, the OEL team built an automated management system that takes care of changing passwords every hour, checking the experimental equipment functions within acceptable parameters, and connects students to the right equipment whether they are working alone or in groups. The logic for this task took more lines of code than the average novel! One of the reasons it has been successful is the rock-solid performance of the NI ELVIS workstations that underpin each experiment, and provides the connection between the physical world and the world of websockets and network packets.
The Open University’s OpenSTEM Labs team and the OEL’s success have been recognised with the following awards: the Outstanding Digital Innovation Award, one of the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards, in 2017; The Guardian Teaching Excellence Award in 2018; and the Global Online Labs Consortium’s Remote Experiments Award in 2018.
The Next Generation of NI ELVIS
The launch of NI ELVIS III, which natively includes many “at a distance” features, is a timely development. The ability to remotely connect to NI ELVIS III from a mobile phone, laptop or tablet is a benefit, not just for distance-learning institutions but for any institution with thriving practical content who wants to offer their students the maximum flexibility for group work, wherever the members of the group might be at that time. If they are all in the room, then they can work on different parts of the NI ELVIS board at the same time using their devices. If group members want to access the equipment from another location for convenience or after hours, then NI ELVIS III eases the challenge of doing so.
The excellent NI ELVIS top-board ecosystem has been further enhanced to automatically identify attached boards and remove the need for external power supplies; both are a great help in managing a flexible lab. The move to an FPGA-based system also reduces the complexity of custom top boards that require hardware-timed actuators and sensors, because they can be driven directly from NI ELVIS III. These developments will surely facilitate the continued evolution and enhancement of engineering education, whether face-to-face or at a distance.
At a time when students are expecting everything they want, when they want it, in a browser, can engineering educators afford to ignore the possibilities? Perhaps increasing utilisation of existing laboratories, by proving additional access to experiments after hours. Or boosting the authenticity of teaching labs by providing industry-relevant equipment with hazardous aspects or challenging environmental requirements. There is more than incidental convenience to having experiments that can be used directly from a lecture theatre, even when that room assignment is changed five minutes before the lecture starts. Innovation based on the world of peer-to-peer communications has delivered benefits to students by providing a more authentic learning environment and placing them at the vanguard of an Internet of Engineering Lab Things.
Dr. Tim Drysdale
The Open University