Experiential Learning Through Online Remote Labs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

SOH Wee Seng
Dept of Electrical & Computer Engineering, College of Design & Engineering (CDE)

Wee Seng takes us through the process and challenges of teaching engineering principles using online remote labs while ensuring students can continue engaging in experiential and hands-on learning in this virtual setting.

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Soh W. S. (2022, May 25). Experiential learning through online remote labs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2022/05/25/experiential-learning-through-online-remote-labs-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

Students often find it difficult to conceptualise the practice of engineering principles from just attending lectures and tutorials. In 2015, the Faculty of Engineering planned a bold curriculum revamp in the teaching of fundamental engineering principles to freshmen, with a strong focus on lab-based experiential learning. Every engineering freshman takes two such modules, “Engineering Principles and Practice I & II” (EPP I & II), in their first two semesters. These modules typically include up to six hrs per week of lab activities for students to practise “learning by doing”.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many classes moved online. Without well-thought-out plans, we would risk depriving students of having that hands-on learning experience. In this post, I describe the strategies adopted to retain experiential learning for computer engineering’s EPP I (CG1111) from August to November 20201. The insights and experience shared below could be valuable to other educators keen to adopt online remote labs.

The key strategies adopted in CG11112 to enable online remote labs were:

  • Take-home kits: Portable equipment and pre-packed components issued to individual students.
  • Synchronous online supervision: Three senior student assistants and one professor for each group of 48 students, using Zoom breakout rooms (four students/room).
  • More detailed lab manuals: Detailed instructions and reminders on common mistakes made in the lab.
  • Software simulation tool: This is in place of hardware that cannot be replaced with portable ones.
  • Chat groups (e.g., Telegram, WhatsApp): Platform for students to send pictures of breadboard circuits for help with debugging.

Although the costs of running the online remote labs increased by more than three-fold compared to previous semesters due to the issuing of components and equipment to individual students, the initiative was strongly supported by the Department management so as not to compromise on students’ hands-on learning experience.

At the end of the semester, a survey was disseminated to the entire CG1111 cohort of 184 students to evaluate the effectiveness of our strategies (Soh, 2021)3, from which 65 responded (35% response rate). According to the survey results which correspond to the question “How satisfied are you with the online labs?” (Figure 1), 55% responded positively (“Very Satisfied” or “Somewhat Satisfied”) to the online labs. Only 30% responded negatively (“Very Dissatisfied” or “Somewhat Dissatisfied”).

Figure 1. Survey results corresponding to the question “How satisfied are you with the online labs?” width=

Figure 1. Survey results corresponding to the question “How satisfied are you with the online labs?”

 

To get further insights into students’ responses, they were also asked “What factors contributed to your level of satisfaction with online labs?”. Some of the key factors are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1
Key Factors contributing to satisfaction levels with online labs

Key Positive Factors Key Negative Factors
More sleep, reduce travel Difficult for student assistants to help with debugging
Have access to all equipment
and components outside lab hours
Difficult to discuss with teammates
Effort was put in to ensure good learning
experience during COVID-19
Cannot continue if components are damaged
Learnt more when debugging the circuits themselves Not much space at home to set up the circuits

 

One of the key frustrations with online labs was the difficulty in getting help with circuit debugging. The students relied on two approaches to seek help: (i) showing their circuits using live video feeds, (ii) sending still pictures to the student assistants/professor. Figure 2 shows an example of a screenshot of the Zoom session during which a student showed his breadboard circuit, while Figure 3 shows a picture a student had sent via WhatsApp. As can be observed, it is challenging to figure out the wire connections. This caused productivity losses and negative experiences.

 

Figure 2. Screenshot of Zoom session when a student sought help for circuit debugging.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Zoom session when a student sought help for circuit debugging.

Figure 3. A still picture that a student had sent via WhatsApp for help with circuit debugging.

Figure 3. A still picture that a student had sent via WhatsApp for help with circuit debugging.

 

From our experience, students who needed more help with circuit debugging tend to be those with difficulty translating schematic circuit diagrams into real circuit components and their connections on breadboards (see Figure 4 as an example). Although some of these students had suggested that we provide step-by-step videos illustrating how to construct the circuits, we feel that such videos would not be as helpful to their learning as them figuring out how to do it themselves.

If students were to be equipped with software tools that could help them plan their circuit layout prior to physically constructing the breadboard circuits, and identify any wiring errors, it could enable them to take a more active role in learning to debug their own circuits. This could significantly increase the productivity and effectiveness of remote online labs, thereby making them more scalable without putting too much strain on teaching-related manpower and resources.

 

Figure 4. Example of translating schematic circuit diagram into real circuit connections.

Figure 4. Example of translating schematic circuit diagram into real circuit connections.

In summary, to preserve our module’s experiential learning focus in the months shortly after Singapore’s “Circuit Breaker”, we converted most of the labs into online remote labs with synchronous supervision. The majority of students responded positively to these online remote labs. While frustrations may arise from the difficulty in getting debugging help from the teaching team, the problem might be alleviated with the use of software tools that allow students to carry out pre-planning and help them take a more active role in the debugging themselves.

 

SOH Wee Seng is an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the College of Design and Engineering (CDE). His interests in education include experiential learning, project-based learning, and technology-enhanced learning. He was awarded the NUS Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) in 2013, 2020, and 2022 (Team), and will be placed on the ATEA Honour Roll in 2023.

Wee Seng can be reached at weeseng@nus.edu.sg.

Endnotes

  1. This period was shortly after Singapore’s “Circuit Breaker”, during which there was no COVID-19 vaccine yet.
  2. CG1111 teaches fundamental electrical circuit principles to computer engineering freshmen, where they are introduced to basic electrical circuit components and lab equipment, as well as builds their hands-on skills in constructing electrical circuits on breadboards, and circuit debugging.
  3. Please refer to Soh (2021) for more details about the survey results and findings.

 

Acknowledgements

  1. This study was supported by a Teaching Enhancement Grant (TEG) from the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL).
  2. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues from the CG1111 teaching team, Sangit Sasidhar, Henry Tan, and Ravi S/O Suppiah, who had jointly taught the cohort.

 

References

Soh, W. -S. (2021). Experiential learning through remote electrical engineering labs during the COVID-19 pandemic. In IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology & Education (TALE), 01-05. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/TALE52509.2021.9678756