“If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ’real’ is simply
electrical signals interpreted by your brain”
Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix, 1999
The ‚Holistic blended framework for Research and Education in Mechatronics and Computer Science‘ (BLC) consists of a technical and a didactical part. These parts are accompanied by those assisting technologies and material which are appropriate and necessary to learning and teaching. These segments will be described in the following sections, starting with the technical concept, followed by the didactical part and completed by an introduction to the learning material.
The novelty of this blended learning concept is its completeness in covering all aspects of the educational process in engineering science. Common solutions offer hardware kits or learning material or virtual hardware, and even a combination of them. The BLC consists of a) a set of technological products to be applied in technology-enhanced learning (TEL) processes, b) ordinary face to face education in class, c) eLearning applications for access from outside the university, d) homework and e) practical student work in the form of group competitions.
These technologies include a virtual hardware kit (see VMCU) as well as the Robotic HomeLab kit. It is a comprehensive approach, starting with utilizing the VMCU, continuing with the real hardware, up to complex robotic contests (depending on the students‘ abilities). The overall concept is accompanied by freely accessible learning material and readymade learning situations that can be directly applied to the class. In addition there is a forum and wiki system, named ‚Network of Excellence‚ (NoE), available to share experience in an international community.
The different pieces of the technical conceptual part are illustrated in figure the figure below. The idea is based on utilizing various technology and media in the education of Mechatronics and Computer Science to enhance the overall learning process.
The encompassing material includes micro controller hardware kits, the previously mentioned Robotic HomeLab kit with various add-on boards, accompanied by a virtual, simulated version, the so called Virtual Micro Controller Unit. Based on the HomeLab kits moving robots can be constructed, using the same hardware as the modules in the kit. The kits themselves, the robotic applications and the VMCU are accessible through an Internet platform, named DistanceLab, that also offers interfaces to various other labs which are integrated and mediated through the newly developed Lab Description Language (LDL). These hardware parts are completed by overarching teaching and learning material accessible through the Network of Excellence (NoE), a wiki-based platform providing learning situations and exercises amongst others. In the scope of on-going projects the DistanceLab functionality is being transferred into a new, collaborative platform and enhanced by various open-source tools. This platform looks and behaves like a desktop system but is fully based on modern web technology, easily accessible through any web browser via internet connection.
Initially, the main idea was built upon the Home Lab kits hardware, self-developed hardware packages, presented in several publications in detail. Through the work of subsequent projects this concept was widened to a more generic approach, thus enabling other hardware to become accessible over the DistanceLab web platform.
Blended Learning concept
The didactical part of the concept consists of a strategy for implementing the blended learning concept in daily education and a set of learning materials. The two figures“Didactical concept“ and „Coherence between the different concept levels“ illustrate the coherences between the technical concept parts and their application in the pedagogical context. Figure „Didactical concept“ is based on two roles, „Teacher / Instructor“ and „Student / Learner“, where their point of intersection is the Network of Excellence. Teachers‘ tools consist of a teaching methodology, pedagogical collaboration with other teachers in an international platform, supervisor specific content, available through NOE and teacher training (for instance ‚train the trainer‘ seminars), enhancing a teacher’s knowledge of usable and available tools and content. The learner’s side is supported by textbooks and lab guides and other eLearning material, which are freely accessible online through NoE. In addition, the HomeLab kit, DistanceLab and VMCU builds are the tools for this, leading to a robotic contest or joint student projects utilizing the introduced material.
How the technical and didactical part complement each other
The idea is that students can develop software using a regular programming tool (such as AVR Studio or Eclipse) and run this software on virtualized hardware. Since the program code will be developed with a standard tool, it will work on real hardware as well as it does on virtual hardware. This way students get practical experience in programming that can be applied to real world problems and applications.
The sequenced utilization of the tools in the concept is illustrated in the figure below. Learners will be assigned a task by the instructor that involves all important parts of the system. The task will be first performed on a VMCU device that is available in multiple instances, only limited by the computing power of the student’s machine and the connection rate of the server where the VMCU is located. Once students are familiar with the hardware, they can test and evaluate their solution on the HomeLab kits. The penultimate step differs depending on the learner’s educational level. Master students in Mechatronics or Computer Science will continue with a robotic contest in student groups, building robotic applications based upon HomeLab kit hardware. All other users continue their practice by using robots available through the DistanceLab lab.
Network of Excellence (NoE)
The Network of Excellence is a wiki page hosting learning materials, teaching methodology and software for robotic studies. It is also called ‚Robotic HomeLab Community‘ and is a support system for utilization of Robotic HomeLab kits for users and teaching staff. The site includes material such as programming examples, theory about components, overview of the hardware and overview of the software. The website has a forum for discussions and wiki pages for user contributions. The NoE has a special section for teachers which includes the teacher training material and, most importantly, the exercise solutions and answers to revision questions. In the Robotic HomeLab Community the consortium intends to have all learning material, and also the teaching methodologies, directly accessible for interested learners and teachers; as well as a ready-to-implement curriculum for the vocational schools to apply our solution directly in school, which is the main strength of our approach. The overall page is a multi-language system, where English is the original language from which translations are made. Access to the international community is available using six other languages (Estonian, German, Finnish, French, Lithuanian and Russian). The strength of this website is the number of teaching aids contributed by teachers and developers from different European countries, and therefore with the influence of various cultures, levels of knowledge and styles of teaching, which leads to a comprehensive set of supporting teaching material. A new section, which is currently under development, will provide a set of learning situations with full methodology.