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Home » Education » The rise of the virtual lab for practical learning

Louise O’Gorman

Advance Centre Manager, Atlantic Technological University, ATU Sligo

Barry Twomey

Advance Centre Director, University College Dublin

Two, once in a generation, events have occurred recently that have affected the higher education landscape in Ireland. Specifically, the provision of the practical elements of engineering education programmes.

Both events will have long lasting and wide-reaching effects. The first has been meticulously planned and executed for over a decade and the other, unexpected and chaotic.

The first event is the creation of the Technological Universities which was a recommendation of the National Strategy for Higher Education in 2011. Launched on the 1st of May 2022, the TUSE followed the Atlantic TU, TU Shannon, Munster TU and TU Dublin via the merger of most of the Institutes of Technology in Ireland.

The second event was the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020 which caused a pivot to emergency remote teaching which continued in various forms until January 2022.

A change in education delivery

Before the onset of COVID-19, full time students attended lectures and labs for practicals. A typical undergraduate engineering programme provide up to 10 hours in laboratory environments per week, where they engage in a selection of practical activities associated with theory delivered in a classroom. An equivalent part time student studying online would typically have attended campus occasionally, for practical activities to take place.

However, the provision of remote labs along with the associated technologies has been a growth area for over 20 years. The technology now exists conveniently and inexpensively to enable students to access labs and conduct experiments over the internet. The technologies required are linked to those of Internet of Things (internet connection, sensors and cloud computing).

The provision of remote labs along with the associated technologies has been a growth area for over 20 years.

Evolution of virtual labs

Virtual labs and simulations are also an option which could satisfy accreditation criteria and can be part of a remote lab ecology. The Higher Education Authority has provided funding under the Human Capital Initiative (HCI) to provide more innovation and agile ways for students to engage in lifelong and life wide learning across a wide range of subject areas.

For example, the Advance Centre, which is a collaboration across UCD, ATU Sligo (formerly IT Sligo) and TU Dublin, offers accredited stackable modules to professionals without the requirement to sign up for a full major award in the area of digital transformation. Subjects in the fields of digital agriculture to AI in medicine to financial mathematics, among others, are covered within the broad definition of ‘digital transformation’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to accelerate the roll-out of remote labs in order meet module learning outcomes related to laboratory work, as well on flexible learning options for the tradition classroom contact hours. The long-term implications of these activities is still unknown.

Adopting a flexible approach

There are local examples, research groups, commercial entities and academic literature focused on a more flexible approach to the provision of practical elements of engineering education.

The advantages identified so far are inter alia: 24/7 access to practice labs, flipped classroom ability, reduce requirement to attend campus, reflects the industrial workplace, provides the opportunity to conduct research across multiple sites, can internationalise programmes and inclusion of groups who cannot attend campus.

The ability to access a wide range of modules, from multiple institutes, provides a less rigid approach to continued development for part time professional learners to upskill, or convert to another field.

Other HCI funded projects include Higher Education 4.0, which is providing alternative paths for learners into and through the Atlantic TU. A national approach to Recognition of Prior Learning and Micro-credentials will also result in a more flexible and agile approach to learning.

The boundaries between the formal and informal are increasingly blurred and combined, giving rise to new ways of learning. The landscape is not static. It is continuously developing, adapting and improving to cope with the changing technology environment as well as managing the expectations of the twenty first century learner.

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