Electronic Learning | Feature

Virtual Labs: Augmenting Learning

Colorado State University's engineering department has taken its labs online to augment classroom activities and help students get their assignments done while away from campus.

There was a time when college science labs were limited to the space between four walls and furnished with thick, black tables, stools, and the equipment needed to conduct experiments and/or get assignments completed. Technology has since infiltrated these spaces, making them more state-of-the-art in nature, but students typically must be physically present in class in order to get the lab work done.

Colorado State University in Fort Collins has found a way around that glitch by developing a number of "virtual labs" across campus. Not meant to replace classroom instruction, the labs augment traditional learning by giving remote students access to the tools and information they need to complete their labs when they can't be on campus.

Mark Ritschard, director of IT for the Colorado State's Engineering Network Services department, has been using a virtual lab for his department for several years. He said the need for an alternate lab setup came about when the student body become more mobile and required a more flexible structure. With the Web becoming a central point for many universities and colleges, Ritschard said, it made sense for his department to set up shop online.

"Our students were traveling a lot, sometimes to another state, and other times all the way to Thailand (where the school often sends students to do work on two-stroke engines and cookstoves)," said Ritschard. "When they returned to school, they needed to be able to quickly access their resources and get their projects completed."

Around the same time, Ritschard was fielding complaints from families who were financially unable to afford some of the engineering programs used by the college. "We're a land grant university, so our goal is to educate as many people in the population that we can," Ritschard explained. "We knew we needed a solution to both of those challenges, and we found the answer in a Web-based solution that everyone could access and afford."

Engineering Network Services manages 15 computer labs and electronic classrooms (generally referred to as "virtual labs") for student and faculty use within the College of Engineering. To use the virtual labs, students need only a computer and Internet access. "They can get all of the software that they need to get the work done virtually," said Ritschard, "even if they don't have the latest and greatest laptop or computer."

Ritschard said the college took the "virtual" route without using any virtualization technology, namely because he thinks that the latter "adds too many layers and creates a major degradation of service." Instead, the school itself acts as an application service provider (ASP) by allowing password-toting students to access its vast software bank and other resources via the Web. The university uses thin client servers (of which it has about 600 campus-wide) to run its on-campus and virtual solutions.

For Colorado State's engineering department, a virtual lab helps students complete computer-aided design (CAD) assignments, even though they don't actually have the necessary software on their own desktops or laptops. "Twenty years ago you needed a Unix operating system to do CAD [using the CAD software in use by Colorado State], so students would have to visit the computer lab to get that work done," recalled Ritschard. "Today, we can serve up the same thing on thin clients using any operating system, and from anywhere."

Ritschard said all engineering students get the same experience, whether they're sitting in the actual university lab or working from a remote location, thanks to the Microsoft solution and terminal connection. "When they sit down at a computer in Thailand, the [interface] looks exactly like it would if they were here," said Ritschard. "From the student perception, there's really no difference at all."

The experience isn't as transparent for the college, which uses concurrent licensing for the software in its labs. The rules and restrictions surrounding such licensing arrangements make it difficult for Colorado State University to affordably run its virtual labs. "Software licensing is not easy, particularly with Microsoft, which doesn't understand concurrent licensing," said Ritschard. "We have over 80 software vendors, and Microsoft is the only one that won't do concurrent. Because of this, we don't use some of its products in our virtual lab because we can't afford to."

Such obstacles aside, Ritschard said the benefits of virtual labs are significant, both for students and for the school, which, incidentally, has increased the number of physical seats in its computer labs since introducing the virtual version.

With the annual cost-per-seat for thin client servers coming in at a little less than $300 (including labor and licensing fees), Ritschard said, equipping classrooms with desktops for each student would increase that cost to about $1,300 per seat. "Our virtual lab saves us about $1,000 a year per seat," he said. "That, combined with the fact that our students can travel with their research, is invaluable."

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