Virtual laboratories to reach 500,000 students

Aiming to provide state-of-the-art laboratory facilities to all science and engineering institutions, India has introduced its first virtual science and engineering laboratory. The virtual lab will enable students, even in smaller institutions with dismal infrastructure, to perform experiments online.

The Virtual Labs Project, which was launched on 23 February, can facilitate experiments in 97 fields across nine disciplines of science and engineering including electronics and communications, civil engineering, computer science, engineering, biotechnology and biomedical engineering.

The virtual labs are based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) iLabs, which as part of the university’s open courseware consortium displays lecture notes, previous exams and study materials for anyone to access.

Proponents have said that virtual labs are a way to deal with the faculty shortage at engineering colleges in India.

Improved access

The government hopes to provide 500,000 students access to virtual laboratories and to thus bridge the digital divide between urban and rural teachers and learners, and empower those who have remained untouched by the digital revolution.

With virtual labs, students across Indian institutions will be able to access physical laboratories hundreds of kilometres away. They will be able to visit the lab of their choice and study at any time convenient to them.

Students will also be able to submit the results of their lab activities to faculties of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other partner institutions for evaluation.

“These are world-class laboratories and we are going to cover all the syllabi in the country,” Education Minister Kapil Sibal said after launching the laboratory in New Delhi. “Such virtual laboratories will also help those in rural areas perform tests that they would not otherwise be able to access.”

Students will be able to book slots for remote-triggered labs. While theory can be prepared offline, students will conduct the experiment online.

According to Dr Ranjan Bose of the department of electrical engineering and Virtual Labs Project coordinator at IIT Delhi, the labs will facilitate 20 times more experiments than physical labs.

“The virtual labs will be useful for engineering college students who do not have access to good lab facilities, high school students whose inquisitiveness will be triggered, motivating them to take up higher studies, and even researchers in different institutes who can collaborate and share equipment,” said Bose.

Building a virtual lab involves systematically sequencing experimental steps using physics-based modelling and-or best procedural practices coupled with effective visualisation in order to simulate reality.

By varying parameters and allowing for observation of the natural interactions in the same way as one would in a real lab, these virtual laboratories model actual behaviour in close proximity.

“What’s new about the virtual labs is that they recreate not only the realistic output as in lab experiments, but also give students an actual feel of the experiments. They sit at the intersection of university laboratory practices, e-learning and interactive environments,” Bose added.

International collaborations are also on the cards.

“We would like to collaborate with MIT’s iLabs and other similar projects across the world to enable our students to access world-class material,” said Dr Krishnashree Achuthan, prinicipal investigator of the Virtual labs Project.

For the government, virtual labs are part of the solution to the lack of access to expensive yet critical scientific instruments, which is a significant challenge to geographically remote and economically constrained institutions in India.

Faculty shortages and lack of qualified faculty is another area that the government hopes to address to an extent through virtual labs.

Lack of internet access a problem

However, lack of reliable internet access across rural India will pose a challenge to the whole project.

“There will be many colleges which do not have internet access. However, with the merger of the National Mission on Education Through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) and the National Knowledge Network, we will be connecting 572 universities,” said a senior government official.

“This will benefit almost 15 million college students across 25,000 colleges and 2,000 polytechnics.”

The NMEICT, National Knowledge Network and government projects aim to provide high-speed internet and data transfer connectivity to higher education institutions, which will enable e-learning, and enhance e-content repository and sharing of best practices.