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Integration of the remote students in the mehatronical laboratory

Authors:
  • Visoka tehnička škola strukovnih studija, Serbia, Subotica
  • Subotica Tech - College of Applied Sciences Subotica

Abstract and Figures

In education today distance education students can easily integrate into almost all types of classes except when it comes to laboratory measurements. The laboratory measurements require physical presence of the student in the laboratory. When physical presence of the students is not possible the only way to perform the measurements is to alter the exercises to compensate for deficiency in equipment for remote access which results in separate exercises for distance education students. The purpose of this research was to find ways to integrate the distance education students into the laboratory for mechatronical measurements, without the physical presence or altering the laboratory exercise so regular and distance education students can attend to the same classes. The equipment is comprised of web cameras, National Instruments hardware and graphical user interface for remote access.
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Integration of the Remote Students in the
Mehatronical Laboratory
Bojan Kuljić*, Anita Sabo**, Tibor Szakáll***, Andor Sagi****
*, **, *** Subotica Tech, Subotica, Serbia
**** General Hospital Subotica, Subotica, Serbia
* bojan.kuljic@gmail.com ** saboanita@gmail.com *** szakall.tibor@gmail.com **** peva@vts.su.ac.rs
Abstract — In education today distance education students
can easily integrate into almost all types of classes except
when it comes to laboratory measurements. The laboratory
measurements require physical presence of the student in
the laboratory. When physical presence of the students is
not possible the only way to perform the measurements is to
alter the exercises to compensate for deficiency in
equipment for remote access which results in separate
exercises for distance education students. The purpose of
this research was to find ways to integrate the distance
education students into the laboratory for mechatronical
measurements, without the physical presence or altering the
laboratory exercise so regular and distance education
students can attend to the same classes. The equipment is
comprised of web cameras, National Instruments hardware
and graphical user interface for remote access.
Keywords – distance education, E-learning, mehatronical
measurements
I. INTRODUCTION
The traditional methods of teaching in class in front of
the black board are constantly being enhanced or even
replaced by modern technologies. This approach allowed
the introduction of visual and audio aids in the education.
By merging education and technology the learning process
evolved so in many countries the personal computers, the
projector and audio systems are irreplaceable tools in
classes. The evolution of the computers and the rise of the
informational and communication technologies created the
building base for the new kind of education process – so
called e-learning.
II. E-LEARNING
The communication between the distance education
students and the teachers represents the key element for
successful e-learning. Originally the distance education
students had to use printed materials which gradually
changed with the introduction of the film, slides,
television and radio. Of course the greatest influence came
from the computer technology and especially dynamic
web sites.
There are many forms of e-learning such as:
E-courses – the simplest form of distance
learning, the students periodically receive
materials by email,
Electronic books – can be in form of a manual,
tutorial or complete course,
Chat tools – they never gained much influence
in education but they allowed the development
of the next generation applications like Skype,
Wikipedia – this online service is not
considered serious tool in the education, but it
is still used very often,
Education application – these are usually used
for designing smart games for the younger
population,
Streaming medias – these represent one of the
most efficient forms of e-learning because
audio and video transfers of the class go
directly to the distance education students in
form of Web-conference, Webcast and
Webinars,
Courseware – these are probably the most
common form of e-leaning because many
universities use this approach for the students
that cannot attend the classes.
III. TRADITIONAL VS. VIRTUAL
E-learning has the following advantages:
enables life long learning,
the students learn independently, in their own
pace and they can choose the time and place of
the course,
large number of available subjects offered by
the institutions or individuals,
geographic location does not present an obstacle,
ability to choose between active and passive
learning and different levels of interaction,
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978-1-4799-0197-5/13/$31.00 ©2013 IEEE
practical work with different technologies
because the students have more than just contact
with learning material,
new insights e.g. the teachers receive feedback
from students who have accessed new
information sources which they can pass to other
students.
E-learning also has disadvantages. The attendees of the
e-learning courses often complain of lack of personal
contact between students as the greatest disadvantage.
This is because people learn the easiest when they are
assigned in the groups. Live contact with the teachers and
the other students is not available in e-learning and can
pose a great disadvantage for some students. Because of
this isolation the individual has to posses a great level of
activeness and self discipline in order not to give up the
course as in [1]-[5]. All this results in high dropout rate
which can be partially solved by assigning the tutors to the
distance education students.
The technology used for the course deployment can
also pose a significant problem because sometimes it can
be more challenging to master the technology and use of
equipment then to learn the course material. In some cases
the equipment needed for e-leaning is very expensive and
students cannot afford it. Not only do the teachers and
students have to invest additional time into learning to use
the equipment, very often equipment misuse or failure
lead to a waste of time and frustrations.
Development of the remote laboratories allows the
students to access the labs equipment and run the
experiment any time from any place. Many universities
have developed remote laboratories in the fields of
electronics, automatic control, food processing etc.
Remote laboratories lead to the possibility for the
expensive equipment to bi widely available so costs and
time management were better regulated. By classical
approach the student has only couple of hours a week
access to the lab equipment together with his colleagues
and lab staff which is often not enough. By the remote
access those hours could be increased. The safety of the
students is also enhanced because the experiment misuse
can not leave harmful effects the students over remote
access (e.g. radioactive source, lasers, etc). From the
academic point of view the remote laboratories offer a
number of advantages in the organization of the technical
science classes because the partners can be the
universities, the state and even private companies as in
[6]-[9]. From the technical aspect the crucial point is the
hardware and software platform for the lab equipment
control. The private companies can participate in the
development of the remote laboratories which can be used
not only by the students but also by the employees in the
industries sector thus allowing life long education.
The following section will describe what typical
setbacks are and how to overcome them.
Since the students access the lab independently in any
given time or the location they do not have any support
from the professors or the lab staff so the system has to be
very user-friendly, interactive with extensive online help
support. This calls for the complete utilization of the
multimedia technologies, forums, lab materials etc.
The distant learning concept requires adaptation of the
existing teaching material in order to compensate for the
Figure 1. The logical architecture of the system
absence of the professor or the lab demonstrator during
lab work. The class material has to be included with the
lab materials through LMS (Learning management
system) solution as in [10].
In order for the experiment to be concluded
successfully the students has to have full control over
every parameter in the experiment. This requires high
level of visualization usually achieved through the video
streaming server and access to the control system which
can modify the experiments parameters.
The security policy has to be established because
system access has to be authorized with separate groups
for the professors and the students. It is very important to
simplify the generating process for the algorithms and the
control signals. This process has to be intuitive enough for
the professors to generate the lab exercises. Since the
student does not have any guidance from the lab staff it is
vital to create the database which contains the previous lab
experiments performed by other students so the student
can acquaint himself with the lab experiment and compare
the results. The database also allows the professor to
perform cross-referencing between all performed lab
B. Kuljić et al. • Integration of the Remote Students in the Mehatronical Laboratory
310
Figure 2. National Instruments NI USB 6009 interface
exercises as in [11]-[13]. The system has to allow the
students to generate the reports based on his
measurements, send them to the professor and store them
in the database.
IV. NEXT STEP: THE LABORATORY
The rate of the development speed of e-learning
systems opened the way for enhancements in the
laboratory exercises. The classical work in the electrical
labs is characterized by lots of wiring, a large number of
instruments and slow realization of the measurement.
Additional difficulty for the students is presented by
filling the lab reports because measured numbers often
deviate significantly if students are not well acquainted
with all parameters of the measurement as in [14]. On the
other hand, the institution has to verify the quality of the
filled reports as well as keep track of how many students
attended the exercises as in [15]. Most time is wasted
when the teacher has to verify the correctness of the
wiring for every student. These kinds of problems were
addressed in the past by the introduction of the lab
simulation software. The concept of the virtual lab
replaces real lab exercise with simulation making the
results predictable and safe. The simulation makes it very
easy for distance education students to perform the lab
work but on the other hand, there is no experience gained
with real hardware. Advances in the Internet and
embedded systems opened possibilities to create remote
access to the laboratory equipment for distance education
students. This approach is very difficult to realize and has
many safety issues attached but offers much greater
quality of lab work for the distance education students.
V. PROPOSED SYSTEM
The system is Client-Server oriented. The software
architecture consists of two parts:
the Control Server is in charge of the physical
processes in the lab exercise,
the Remote Client which generates user
interface and controls user access.
Figure 1 presents the logical architecture of the system.
Figure 3. The three-positional temperature regulator
The system also has to provide the following:
safe operation if the Internet connection is
interrupted, a special mechanism must ensure
that the lab exercise is terminated in a safe
manner,
logging of the users activities and measured
results for every lab exercise,
provide video streams that allow the distance
education students to see all important equipment
used in the lab exercise,
maintain a scheduling system for the time access
to the exercise.
The lab equipment was connected with the system by
AD (analog to digital)/DA (digital to analog) interface in
the form of the National Instruments NI USB 6009 as
shown in Figure 2. DA channels were used to control the
step motors and AD channels were used for the sampling
signals from the sensors (e.g. temperature).
VI. BASIC EXERCISE
For the proof of this concept a basic lab exercise was
devised in the field of the Mechatronics. The exercise is
oriented towards the three-positional temperature
regulator shown in Figure 3. The actual regulator is
devised of two two-positional regulators – one controlling
the heating while other controlling the cooling.
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CINTI 2013 • 14th IEEE International Symposium on Computational Intelligence and Informatics • 19–21 November, 2013 • Budapest, Hungary
Figure 3. presents the following elements:
temperature probe (marked with number 1),
heating element (marked with number 2),
cooling element (marked with number 3),
regulator with temperature instrument (marked
with number 4),
knobs for adjusting high and low temperatures
(marked with number 5, those knobs are
combined with small step motors which allows
distance education students to access the
regulator as if they were physically present in the
lab).
The end goal is that students do not become separated
into two groups (regular and distance education students)
but for the system to allow distance education students by
web cameras and graphical user interfaces to perform the
lab work as if they were standing right next to the
equipment.
VII. GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE (GUI)
Task of the GUI is to allow students to interact with the
lab experiment. In accordance with this, the GUI has to
establish the two-way communication. This means that it
has to receive the video stream which contains all the
relevant aspects of the experiment while at the same time
it sends commands given by the student in order to define
or modify the parameters of the running experiment. The
GUI enables the student to perform the following tasks:
logging into the server to gain access to the
system for the experiment realization,
scheduling the time slot for the lab work,
accessing the lab experiment which was
previously scheduled,
open a report window in which he can write the
report about their conclusions regarding the
experiment, attach screenshots for demonstration
of the most important aspects of their work and
add other relevant files which can then be sent to
the professor in charge of the lab work grading.
The web camera captures the entire model of the
experiment and the server sends the entire video stream to
the remote GUI where that stream gets dissected into the
various regions in order to display the most relevant parts
of the model. It is also possible for the student to enlarge a
certain part of the model in order to gain better insight into
the experiment or to zoom into instruments to make
screenshots for the documentation. The realized system
had to allow uninterrupted access to the lab experiment for
the regular and the distance education students. In order to
achieve this, the system has a unified time table which is
applied to all students who attend the classes regardless of
their status. Of course this approach is a great safety
challenge as in [16]-[19]. In order to address this issue a
special software was written which accepts the commands
issued by the student over the remote GUI and then
performs a series of tests in order to conclude if it is safe
to set the lab hardware into the suggested state. In the case
that the software should detect a safety problem, the
system automatically powers down the experiment and
notifies the lab staff. In order to ensure a safe operation of
the lab hardware, the software performs the following
tasks:
give the lab experiment access to only one
student per session,
allow control switching between the remote and
the local access to the lab experiment in order to
include the regular and the distance education
students,
power down the lab hardware and notify the lab
staff in the case of an error,
take over the control of the experiment and resets
it to the initial parameters in case of a lost
internet connection between the server and the
remote GUI,
monitor the experiment’s parameters (e.g. current
consumption, temperature etc.) and in the case of
exceeding, it will sound the alarm,
record the experiment’s parameters obtained by
the installed sensors so that the lab staff can
easily maintain statistics about the errors and the
efficiency of the system.
VIII. CONCLUSION
Remote access to the real laboratory exercises is
sometimes the only viable solution for the students who
are geographically distant or cannot attend because of the
work obligations. The web-based laboratories also provide
methods for permanent education of the people already
have a college degree but need a way to enhance their
practical experience without disrupting their business
obligations.
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