What are iLabs?
Online laboratories (iLabs) are experimental facilities that can be accessed through the Internet, allowing students and educators to carry out experiments from anywhere at any time. Remote labs enrich science and engineering education by vastly increasing the scope of experiments that students have access to in the course of their academic careers. Harnessing the Internet, MIT's iLab middleware enables students to use real instruments, rather than simulations, via remote online laboratories using their browser. Unlike conventional experimental facilities, iLabs can be shared and accessed widely by students and other audiences across the world that might not otherwise have the resources to purchase and operate costly or delicate lab equipment.
Background on iLabs
Jesus del Alamo started the iLab Project in 1998 although it was several years before the project acquired its final name. The initial inspiration for the first iLab came from the frustration that MIT's courses on semiconductor devices did not contain a laboratory component. Traditionally, students in the courses were exposed only to theoretical devices models presented in lectures and course texts. At the same time an Agilent 4155B Semiconductor Parameter Analyzer, an expensive piece of equipment bought under a research contract, was sitting largely unused in a graduate research lab. There was no way to accommodate the students in courses in the crowded research lab and on a single piece of equipment. A small grant from the Microsoft Corporation, however, led to the hiring of an undergraduate who wrote a Java applet that allowed students using a standard web browser to submit descriptions of semiconductor device characterizations for execution by a server connected directly to the Agilent box. Students in an upper level electrical engineering course tried this system that became known as Microelectronics WebLab for the first time in the fall of 1998. By the following spring, the hardware and software combination had proved its reliability to the point that an undergraduate class of nearly 100 students was allowed to use the online lab for an assignment.
Late in 1999 del Alamo persuaded colleagues from a number of engineering departments to apply jointly to the newly formed research partnership between MIT and Microsoft known as the iCampus Project. The goal of this proposal was the creation of a diverse set of iLabs (ranging from a flagpole instrumented with accelerometers to a remotely controlled heat exchanger) to further explore the potential of online labs in undergraduate education. In this next phase of the project each lab team developed their web accessible lab independently using a wide variety of software techniques.
Then in 2001 Hal Abelson of MIT's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department and Dave Mitchell of Microsoft, who were both involved in the leadership of the iCampus Project, suggested that the various iLab researchers might progress more quickly if they based their online labs on a shared infrastructure. Abelson and Mitchell also made the crucial suggestion that the infrastructure be built on top of the recently introduced technology of web services. MIT's Center for Educational Computing Initiatives joined the effort to lead the development of the resulting middleware known as the iLab Shared Architecture (ISA).
The iLab Architecture, developed at the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives at MIT (CECI) falls into three distinct parts. The Lab Server is connected to the lab equipment and deals with the actual operation of the equipment. The Lab Client is installed on the student's computer and is the interface to the operation of the lab. Lastly, the Service Broker mediates exchanges between the Lab Server and the Lab Client over the Web and provides common administrative services, such as authentication and data storage.
Through an open source development kit and a public service broker, MIT encourages educators worldwide to develop their own iLabs and then share them with other academic institutions. Through these initiatives, MIT is delivering the educational benefits of hands-on experimentation to students anywhere, at any time.
Getting More Information
The iLabs Project is run out of the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives (CECI), a research center at MIT that focuses on advanced technologies for educational uses. We are located on MIT's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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The iLab Project
Center for Educational Computing Initiatives
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue, E34-356
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307