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As information and communication technologies rapidly advance, so too does the spectrum of resource used in the field of education. One such resource is the use of online learning material and remote access laboratories for distance learning courses. One of the hallmarks of a distance learning course is the separation of teacher and learner in space and/or time, allowing the learner self-paced study at convenient times, and locations , . Since its inception, distance learning has become a powerful tool for students in pursuit of education .
- Context of Project
The Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology (CREST) at Loughborough University is the largest and leading sustainable energy research centre in the UK, it has overseen the research and development of the most progressive renewable energy technologies . The centre was the first in the UK to offer a postgraduate degree programme in the field of renewable energy systems technology, along with its innovative distance learning adaptation .
Laboratory exercises play a critical role in the education of science and engineering , it is important for effective distance learning courses to provide a hands-on laboratory experience . Due to the influence of information, communication and computational technologies; remote labs are considered one of the five major shifts in engineering education over the past 100 years – they have the capacity to provide a hands-on experience for distance learning students with significant advantages in accessibility, availability and safety , .
- Problem Statement
Figure 1-1 outlines the scope of the project. Water power has been exploited by human beings for many centuries; early water wheels driven by rivers or tides were used to grind wheat or drive machinery. As technologies matured and with the advent of electricity, water wheels had become water turbines – designed to generate electricity from the energy stored within the water resource . Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, with such a vast resource potential the importance of studying water turbines becomes apparent .
The current distance learning laboratory assessment for the Water Power module suggests the use of a simulation software to model a water turbine under different conditions; this is not sufficient for understanding the physical behaviour of the turbine as simulation labs can only produce preprogrammed results . A remote lab utilises a software that allows students to gain experimental data using real instruments set in a lab on-campus using only a PC with the aid of the internet . For distance learning students to gain a truer understanding of water turbine behaviour, it is proposed that the on-campus laboratory be modified for use as a remote lab.
- Aims and Objectives
The aim of this project is to design a system that can be used in conjunction with the on-campus axial water turbine instrumentation, allowing remote access and control of the lab for distance learning students.
The main objectives to facilitate this aim are outlined below:
- Identify the dynamic, controllable elements of the on-campus laboratory instrumentation.
- Design and build a system by which the dynamic elements can be controlled.
- Implement a method by which this system can be remotely accessed through the Learn server.
- Integrate the system with the current software used for the laboratory.
- Literature Review
- Remote Laboratories
- Remote Laboratories
For 20 years’ remote access laboratories have been used in science and engineering education – though they have since greatly impacted pedagogy in these fields, their potential in support of distance learning courses and the student autonomous learning experience has yet to be fully realised , , , .
It can be difficult to assert what remote laboratories encompass as definitions provided in the literature are at times inconsistent . A clear definition of remote laboratories will be established in the context of this project in order to avoid ambiguity. A remote laboratory is the framework that enables students to carry out a laboratory experiment, using real instruments, through the medium of the internet; eliminating the time and space constraints imposed by hands-on laboratories , .
- Building Blocks
There are four critical building blocks that form the foundations of a remote laboratory – these must be well understood in order to achieve the desired aim :
- Scheduling: Distance learning courses necessitate the flexibility of allowing students to decide when the can fit labs into their schedule.
- Remote-Access: It is necessary that the students can make a secure connection to the lab environment
- The Operating Environment: It is essential that the user interface of the system is easy to use and understand.
- Laboratory Assignment: The student must realise the aim of the lab and subsequently make the connection between theory and application.
- In Distance Learning
Remote laboratories offer a very high level of flexibility, with access usually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; meeting the needs of distance learning courses .Â According to certain studies; remote labs have been as effective and had a comparable impact on students to hands-on labs .
Remote laboratories are not free of short comings; they require space, devices, and maintenance at times even greater than hands-on laboratories . They are also designed as single-user applications; this removes the elements of interaction that hands-on laboratories offer.
- Other Laboratory Methods
- Simulated Laboratories
Simulated laboratories; usually justified by their cost effectiveness and spatial advantages, have been shown to inspire cognitive thinking by allowing students greater freedom to explore and experiment , , , . This however comes with its disadvantages; simulated laboratories are usually designed as single-user applications, subsequently isolating the students.
Simulated laboratories are shown to not be equal in their standard across institutions . Though they serve well in some cases; they are not an adequate substitute for hands-on laboratories, as they do not provide the range of possibilities produced when manipulating physical matter – the results produced are preprogrammed .
- Hands-on Laboratories
Hands-on Laboratories have been shown to be a corner stone in engineering education as engineering students identify themselves as being essentially practical . The results gathered from conducting a hands-on experiment provide natural results, and in this regard are far superior to those of simulated laboratories.
Though the benefits of hands-on laboratory experiments are clear; disadvantages are also present. Laboratory management can be expensive, equipment requires regular maintenance and qualified staff are needed to supervise experiments . The constraints of accessibility and availability render hands-on laboratory sessions impractical for distance learning students .
Remote laboratories utilise software allowing students to gain experimental data using real instruments set in a lab on-campus using only a PC with the aid of the internet . This allows the students to gain practical results from experimentation, eliminating the disadvantages of simulated labs while retaining its advantages.
- Proposed Methodology
Figure 3-1 represents the overall approach that will be taken for this project.
Figure 3-1 Overview of Methodology for Project
- Proposed Deliverables
The final deliverable will be in the form of a completed system having integrated both hardware and software and having met the following requirements as shown in Table 4-1.
Table 4-1 – Requirements for System
Easy to Use
The system must be easy to access through the Learn server with an intuitive, and simplistic user interface. This allows the student to interact with the software without any great difficulty.
Easy to Maintain
The system should have easy access points in case of failure – parts should be replaceable.
The system should have a high finish with sufficient build quality to last several years.
The system should have minimal components and moving parts, this reduces the chance of failure of the system as a whole.
- Projected Resource Requirements
The projected resource requirements are shown in Table 5-1 below.
Table 5-1 – Projected Resource Requirements
MyRIO Hardware Package
Exterior Machined Parts
- The maximum cost of the hardware is expected to be in the region of £600.
- Software should incur not cost.
- The maximum cost of machining of parts is expected to be in the region of £400
Total maximum cost will approximate £1000.
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