Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Computerized labs at University of Queensland

On Monday I visited Mark Schulz at the Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) at University of Queensland. I met Mark earlier in the year when he and Philip Long visited ANU to talk about the MIT/UQ iCampus project. Mark will be back in Canberra in early 2008 to talk about progress.


The part of the iCampus project I was most interested in was the TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) learning rooms. However, the part of the project UQ are concentrating on is iLabs, with online access to experiments. This allows more students to have access to expensive equipment safely. The architecture used has a "service broker" computer system which grants the students access to a experiment remotely. Normally the service broker will be at the student's institution and the computer controlling the experiment near the experimental equipment. The two systems can be on opposite sides of the world.

iLabs was created for physics experiments, but could be applied to any experimental equipment which can be computer controlled. The concept of the service broker has a lot in common with the way access to supercomputers for scientific purposes is granted on a so called "grid" system. is granted via a grid network. It might be useful if the iLab was to adopt the same protocols as used in other parts of the universities for online access. Also many of the techniques which are used to optimize response time over packet data networks could be applied to the iLab.

It might also be fun, and of some practical value, to provide an accessible interface for the disabled to the iLab. In addition to being used by people with limited or no vision and other disabilities, this could be used to provide an interface for hand held wireless devices. It should be a very useful gimmick to tell potential students how they will be able to show off to their friends by controlling a nuclear accelerator via a mobile phone.

One issue which came up was how much the learning environment needed to look like a work place. In my visit to
University of the Sunshine Coast, a few days before, Dr Kathy Lynch emphasized that the learning space should look business like. In the case of the iLab, the equivalent to the office would be a laboratory. So a standard university room with computers in may not provide enough of a lab-type atmosphere. But by the time these students graduate, many labs will; be computer controlled and look much like a business office anyway.

Labs for Software Engineers

The idea of "labs" may not seem relevant for computer scientists and software engineers. However, these increasingly involve interfacing to equipment and to hand held devices, not just desk top computers. As a result computer science teaching rooms will need some of the equipment of a lab and facilities such as cameras to allow a demonstrator, or a student, to show the operation of some equipment to a group. Supercomputers are also an example of a remote experimental piece of equipment which students share remotely.

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