Wednesday, October 29, 2008

MIT's iLabs are Great -- or Are They?

Sometimes a great concept just arrives too early or too late. I'm looking at the MIT iLabs project. NSF has kicked in $1 million to make it work for non-MIT students, i.e. regular students. The interface currently in place is too difficult for those below genius IQ to master.

However, I'm not writing to criticize the iLabs interface. I'd like to think really hard about exactly what they're doing and what Kemi Jona would like to do with the NSF money. He talks quite glibly about creating an eBay of online real-time programmable labs.

The iLab requires remotely programmable equipment with the ability to put results on an Internet link. That fact limits the range of experiments possible. Such equipment necessarily costs lots of money. Few schools will have that sort of equipment available to share.

Furthermore, the student will see the equipment as a black box and must have lots of additional instruction to appreciate fully the nature of the experiments being done. The information coming back from the equipment (as currently structured) is a string of numbers, not very exciting to the average student.

I see little chance that the iLab concept will expand to cover much of science education. If it remains viable, it may be a great experience for some students as a part of their science classes.

Consider that each time an iLab experiment is performed, all of the information becomes digitized before being transmitted. This information could be archived on a server database and provided to others on demand. Such a scheme would allow greater use of the equipment because if someone requests the same identical experiment, it will be immediately available from the database.

If some object to the repetitive nature of this scheme, you can readily record the same experiment several time to allow for normal experimental variation and chose the one for replay randomly. Take that concept one step further record all of the experiments that students might request. Then, the expensive equipment must be used only for a short period of time, rented if you will. The cost and feasibility of the entire operation goes way down and the likelihood of success goes way up.

You can also provide additional information in the digital feed such as images of the equipment while operating, images of the inside of equipment, and so on.

Moreover, you can embed the experience in a full learning scaffold so that students are forced to think about the experiment, must make predictions and analyze results. It can include post-lab assessments and online lab reports as well as substantial supporting materials.

Once you've created the system to store and deliver these experiments along with the learning support, there's no reason to limit the experiments performed to just those that can be run on programmable apparatus. After all, the programmable apparatus was only used so that experiments could be run on demand. With some clever video techniques and highly interactive software that allows students to collect their own personal data, you could cover all science areas that involve experiments and data collection.

Now, you have all of the benefits of the iLabs without the great expense or the problems associated with running an eBay-like facility for schools. You also have a much greater range of science that can be done. You have to wonder why the iLab people aren't proposing this marvelous extension of the iLabs idea when the technology to do it clearly exists.

Perhaps, it's because it's already been done - ten years ago!

Just take a look at

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