Skills on demand

The growing power of ‘virtual’ laboratories and workshops offers a more flexible approach to training. Anh Nguyen reports.


More engineers are turning to ‘virtual training’ via the internet in a bid to balance the need to acquire new skills with the demands of busy working lives, according to specialists working in the field.

The increasing power and sophistication of web-based tools is allowing professional and student engineers alike to carry out work via a computer that would previously have required their presence in a laboratory or workshop.

A project is underway at Portsmouth University to create a program that will allow electronic engineering students to construct and simulate electronic circuits online, while Reading University has been operating an online physics laboratory for about two years.

‘Virtual learning environments (VLEs) are a growing trend in engineering and sciences. They ought to be growing faster still, but there hasn’t really been sufficient exposure for people to realise what they can do in the context of their own interests,’ said Reading’s Dr John Macdonald.

The type of VLEs Macdonald is referring to are those that are real-life laboratory set-ups, known as interactive screen experiments (ISEs).

‘I’m talking about real experiments where the students can discover real, and even new, science, and not simply what version of science that the programmer has coded into it,’ he said.

According to Prof Peter Bullen, director of the Blended Learning Unit at Hertfordshire University, engineering students there could also soon be learning their trade online and said the flexible learning environment would also be beneficial for qualified engineers wanting to do continuous professional development courses.

‘We are talking with the University of Technology in Sydney which has operational online internet-based laboratories. There’s a possibility of sharing those facilities so our students can access the laboratories online when Sydney’s students aren’t using them,’ said Bullen.

An example of a laboratory set-up is a simple beam-bending experiment where students can enter variables into the computer, causing the actuators to put loads on the beam and the transducers to measure the forces. Via video cameras, they can then see the results of the changes online — that is the beam bending, in real-time.

While Macdonald and Bullen emphasised that the virtual laboratories complement rather than replace traditional hands-on environments, they claimed there are a range of benefits associated with online experiments.

‘Students can carry out experiments when they want, from wherever they are, with no special software and repeat them when they like. Safety issues disappear, students can tackle experiments whose set-up is difficult or unstable, or where the equipment is delicate or expensive.

‘A whole class of students can also tackle the same experiment at the same time — a huge benefit when equipment is expensive. And virtual study can be especially useful for distance-learning students whose only lab experience is a short summer school,’ said Macdonald.

Bullen added: ‘We are all trying to introduce flexibility for our students because more are working while they study because of the fees. Also, we are seeing opportunities in terms of learning and teaching. Because the students are not so constrained by time, they can experiment more.’