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Using virtual laboratories in control engineering education

Some experiences

Author - Aidan O’Dwyer


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4 Pedagogical issues

As mentioned in Section 3, the author has used simulation-based virtual laboratories increasingly, where appropriate, over the past two academic years. This use has been prompted by a number of factors:

  • The increasing maturity of these tools.
  • An environment where formal classroom and laboratory time is being reduced.
  • The increasing diversity of student educational background; for example, students entering the B.E. in Electrical/Electronic Engineering honours degree programme in the traditional manner (i.e. after the Leaving Certification examination) are now a minority of the total students on this programme. The majority of students have either completed a previous programme (typically at certificate or ordinary degree level in an Institute of Technology), are overseas students (typically from China), and there is a small but growing number of mature students.
  • Students increasingly expect technical work that is practical and which motivates independent learning.

The virtual laboratories have been used in two ways.

  1. They were recommended as backup to a more didactic teaching approach in lectures and laboratories, for the Control Engineering Major subject in the honours B.E. in Electrical/Electronic Engineering degree programme.
  2. They were also used as part of two formal assignments for the Advanced Control subject in the M.E. in Advanced Engineering programme in the 2004–5 and 2005–6 academic years. Submission of formal reports based on the virtual laboratories (Crutchfiled and Rugh; Garcia and Heck 1999; Kroumov and Inoue 2001; Merrick and Ponton 1996; Poindexter and Heck 1999; Yang and Lee 2003) amounted to almost half of the continuous assessment marks available for this module, and 14 per cent of the total module assessment mark. Other virtual laboratories were explored in detail in a teamwork environment; yet other virtual laboratories were recommended as backup to a more didactic teaching approach.

Even when the use of virtual laboratories was not obligatory, student feedback revealed that 60 per cent of students did access one or more of the virtual laboratories. The following questionnaire was distributed to both the B.E. and M.E. students in 2005–6 to get feedback on their experiences of the virtual laboratories.

Please respond to the following. To rate your reaction, please write a number between 1 and 5, with

     5 – strongly agree
     4 – agree
     3 – unsure
     2 – disagree
     1 – strongly disagree

  1. Virtual laboratories were a beneficial learning experience (compared to other exercises).
  2. Virtual laboratories are user-friendly.
  3. The virtual laboratory complements and enhances my understanding of lecture material.
  4. Virtual laboratories are fun and sustained my interest.
  5. I became more interested in the material because of the virtual laboratory viewed.
  6. There is enough time to perform the virtual laboratory.
  7. I would recommend virtual laboratories to others.
  8. Any other comments.

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