An Educational Remote Laboratory is a software and hardware solution that enables students to access real equipment located in their institution, as if they were in a hands-on-lab session, using a standard web-browser. The laboratories are typically deployed in universities or research centers.
A key factor of remote laboratories is that once they are available through the Internet their usage can be scaled up and used by students of other institutions. Thus, two or more institutions can share different equipment to reduce costs by requiring less duplicated equipment: it is typically only used in certain hours of the day and in certain days of the year. Furthermore, this empowers a sharing economy where multiple provider provide access to their laboratories to each other, freely or not.
While the number of remote laboratory initiatives is high, the overall impact of these laboratories is fairly limited beyond the scope of the host institution or the scope (and duration) of projects in which the host institution is involved. There are cases where the laboratories are regularly used by other institutions, but these are still exceptions and remote laboratories are not yet widely used. This is not the case for virtual laboratories (simulations), where the maintenance costs and work required once developed tend to be low.
Approaches for sharing remote laboratories
As previously stated in the introduction, a key factor of remote laboratories is that once the laboratory is available on the Internet, it can also be shared with other institutions.
To do this, there are three general approaches:
Leave the laboratories completely open, so whoever wants to use them can use them. This may reduce the chances of providing proper Learning Analytics or supporting proper accountability mechanisms, in addition to avoiding priorities among students coming from different institutions, leading to a tradeoff between accessibility and advanced features.
Share accounts between the different RLMS: if University A want to use laboratories of University B, then someone in University A will provide a list of usernames to University B and students will go to this institution using credentials in University B. Ideally, some federated authentication could be used to avoid providing credentials in different domains (such as Shibboleth, OAuth or similar), but it is not typically the case.
Federate laboratories: if a RLMS supports federation, then if installed in two different institutions (e.g., University A and University B), students of University A will go to the RLMS of University A and they will transparently use laboratories in University B, working in an institution-to-institution basis (so University B does not need to know the list of students of University A and simply rely on an existing agreement with that university).
From the items in this list, the most advanced mechanism is the federation of remote laboratories through proper protocols oriented to market-like situations.
Federation of remote laboratories
A unique characteristic of remote laboratories when compared to traditional laboratories is that the distance of the student to the real equipment is not an issue, so remote laboratories can be shared with other institutions. One entity can share a laboratory to other entity. We refer to entities rather than universities since they do not need to be universities: research centers may be interested in sharing local resources as part of an agreement, and secondary schools would reasonably be consumers.
This sharing can be managed in a direct, simple way: the provider entity (the one where the equipment is located) creates accounts of users of the consumer entity (the one interested in using the provider university's equipment for their students). Students of the consumer entity directly access in the provider entity and the provider entity does all the work: it authenticates the user, authorizes him to use the laboratory and provides the laboratory.
There are multiple problems with this solution. First, the provider entity must create and manage the user accounts of all the interested consumer universities. In a complex scenario, where a wide variety of consumers are involved -such as foreign universities and even secondary schools that simply do not speak the provider entity's language-, this approach does not scale. Second, the management of this approach is cumbersome: consumer universities would need to notify providers every change, and local databases or protocols such as LDAP would not be available.
Third, the consumer entity cannot carry a proper accounting of the uses performed: it must trust the provider entity.
Federation sharing strategy
If both institutions come to an agreement where users of the consumer entity can access up to 10,000 times, there will be no way for the consumer entity to audit this if the provider entity at some point says, "you have already reached the limit". In order to handle these and other problems, a two-side model is required (see previous Figure), where both universities have the same software framework that manages this sharing. The consumer entity can authenticate and authorize local students, and once authorized, the local framework will contact the provider entity and request a slot. This way, the provider entity does not need to manage students and courses of the consumer entity, and the consumer entity can track all the requests performed to the provider entity, being able to track students and audit the overall use.
The VISIR remote laboratory is an electronics remote laboratory, deployed in the 5 universities which are part of the PILAR consortium: BTH, UDEUSTO, IPP, UNED and CUAS. One of the most interesting features of this laboratory is that it supports concurrent students using independent sessions. This means that, given that each access is very fast (tenths of second), the accesses are multiplexed with relays, so final users do not realize that other users are using the same equipment.
VISIR has been widely used in several academic research and daily teaching classes and practices. UNED has been part of the VISIR consortium for the last 6 years. During these years VISIR has been used routinely by hundreds of students each year. In this case, due to the "at distance" nature of UNED, these students have taken particular advantage of VISIR practices. VISIR has also been used twice as the practical part of the first completely free MOOC dedicated to learn how building electrical and electronics circuits (3,000 students).
BTH is the institution where VISIR was born and is the inspiring institution for many of the new approaches in VISIR. BTH currently have four different laboratories in varied areas such as antenna theory, electronics, security and vibration analysis, under Openlabs umbrella.
UDEUSTO is part of the VISIR consortium for the last 8 years. In the University of Deusto, VISIR is regularly used with up to 60 users through WebLab-Deusto Remote Lab Management System.
Thanks to the knowledge acquired during these years, UDEUSTO has collaborated in an active way in the improvement of the VISIR platform from two points of view: researching for balancing the load of users among different VISIR instances and improvement of hardware performance. More than 150 students have been using the platform every academic year due to its integration as a learning tool used by professors and learners. Furthermore, UDEUSTO has offered access to its VISIR platform to high schools in the framework of the Olarex project.
IPP is also part of the VISIR consortium and its VISIR implementation is used routinely as part of subjects in different courses in engineering degrees. IPP has already tested its VISIR system with more than 1,000 students accessing it, during a single semester.
CUAS used VISIR in the framework of different European projects, with about 200 secondary schools' pupils (OLAREX and Go-Lab), 200 students and technicians (iCoop and eSience).