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Stanford Prof Unveils Scalable Virtual Labs

A Stanford professor has unveiled a prototype of a scalable virtual lab for use in massive open online courses (MOOCs), at schools with limited lab equipment or even by members of the public.

Lambertus Hesselink, professor of electrical engineering, has been working on virtual labs since 1996. Earlier versions used remote control of physical tools in small boxes to allow distance learners to conduct their experiments.

Such a solution works fine for a relatively small class, but wouldn't be practical for something like a MOOC with 100,000 students or more. So Hesselink and two partners "designed a small diffraction experiment – consisting of two lasers, a diffraction grating, multiple lenses and more – that fit in a box the size of a picnic basket," according to a Stanford news release.

From there, the team used a program to automatically move the devices through all possible power settings and configurations while LabView recorded the process to be annotated and logged into a database.

As a result, students can now log into the database and run their own experiments.

"They're seeing the exact same diffraction experiment and controlling it the same way as they would with the widely used LabView program," Hesselink said in a news release. "It's the same experience if you're sitting in a lab here at Stanford or at a computer in Africa."

Hesselink said that since the virtual labs are so easy to create, a large library of experiments could be developed in a short time.

"The best part is that this is very scalable," Hesselink said in a release. "You could offer universities free access to the database if they agreed to upload their automated experiments. You can imagine filling a hard drive with 100 or 1,000 experiments and giving it to a school that doesn't have any access to equipment. Or you could put it on Google's servers, and millions of people could access a single experiment at the same time."

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is the multimedia editor for Campus Technology and THE Journal. He can be reached at jbolkan@1105media.com.

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