A common vs. a remote laboratory
In a conventional laboratory environment, the actor uses the equipment with his or her own hands, getting direct feedback to any actions performed. When pressing a button the actor will see what the „reaction“ of the lab is, without any delay. In a remote lab, the actor is connected by a personal computer (or any other device, like a smart phone or tablet pc) to the Internet. The actor is performing by utilising specific software or just by accessing a web application running in any common web browser. The user’s actions are transmitted to a receiver system (in most cases a computer system) with a public IP address. Naturally this receiver system is preceded by a user/laboratory management system, dealing with access rights and booking issues. This case is not illustrated here. The receiver system is directly connected to the laboratory equipment, enabling the actor to perform those standard actions to the hardware which are common for that specific kind of experiment.
Advantages of remote labs compared to traditional ones
In a common lab course, mostly during practical work sessions as defined in the engineering curriculum, learners are encouraged to perform their exercises at a specific time, usually in a group of students, during the opening hours of their institution. There is often no consideration for disabled learners or for individual time constraints of the participants. Another problem is the availability of sufficient lab places. Especially, poor institutions may not offer costly experiments. Due to the nature of remote labs there is the possibility of sharing equipment, not only between students at the home institution but also between institutions themselves.
Virtual and Simulation Labs
The integration of virtual labs (see the following figure) into a lab management system is generally easier than integrating remote hardware based labs. Some of the literature uses the terms „remote lab“, „online lab“, „cyber-enabled lab“ and „virtual lab“ synonymously but, while the first three are the same, „virtual lab“ may not be used interchangeably. A virtual lab is a „laboratory“ consisting of a specific piece of software. This software may be a proprietary one but also can be a web service or simulated hardware. The common case for all virtual labs is that real experiments are virtualised or simulated in this software, in most cases dealing with a challenge close to reality.