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Social media have shown the power of online collaboration — now online labs need to harness it, argues Olawale B. Akinwale.

Online laboratories allow science and engineering students to carry out experiments remotely — either on real equipment or on a computer simulation — from anywhere, any time.

For example, an experiment using a heat-exchanger, a device used to measure the transfer of heat between two fluids separated by a solid wall, can be set up in a university in the United States and connected to the Internet. This experiment can then be performed by an engineering student in a remote village in Africa, as long as the student has access to an Internet connection.

The technology is often met with scepticism. An online lab cannot replace the physical experience of working in a lab, so why should anyone use one?

But online labs are an attractive option for less privileged institutions that cannot afford their own facilities. In the case of remote labs, being able to work online makes it possible to perform experiments on expensive equipment thousands of miles away.

The question is, why should privileged institutions make their labs available online? Why commit extra resources into creating and maintaining an online laboratory? Out of generosity, social responsibility or for financial benefit?

The answer is student collaboration. Universities should learn from social media networks and network online laboratories so they can foster scientific innovation.

Online advantage

Social networking is thriving. Through social media, from Twitter to Facebook, everyone can make their voice heard. Over time, online friendships and associations develop so when an individual has a problem, they can gather hundreds of helpful comments just by tweeting about it.

We can learn two lessons from social media: students are looking for media to express their ideas and creativity; and problem solving is easier through online friendships and collaborations.

What this means for science labs is that more innovative products can be designed through online platforms. This is where labs on the internet have an edge, an advantage over conventional labs.

Laboratory resources are already being shared, and sharing is becoming more common as institutions realise they cannot stand alone. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's remote labs are used by Nigeria's Obafemi Awolowo University, Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

In turn, Makerere University provides Uganda's Busitema University with access to its own remote labs and OAU is working to provide access to its remote labs for Ghana Telecom University College, and Nigeria's Bells University of Technology and Redeemer's University.

But we need to create a truly collaborative online lab environment where students can come together to talk about ideas, organise into groups, work on projects and showcase their achievements.

This may not fit into any particular degree programme or curriculum. But it creates a space for innovation, a space for students to express and try out their ideas.

From education to innovation

There are two types of lab: regular labs, where students perform experiments to illustrate theories they have been taught in class, and innovation, or research, labs, where students try out their own ideas.

Most online labs developed so far are regular labs. They are attached to particular courses and students can perform only experiments related to those courses. And to ensure safety, limits are often placed on what can and can't be done, restricting students to a formulaic set of procedures.

Several online lab architectures have been developed, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology iLab Shared Architecture (ISA) being the most widely used. And several programming languages, such as C#, Java, MATLAB and Adobe flex, can be used to create lab clients — applications that can access a remote computer system.

But creating a remote innovation lab is a bigger challenge and research is needed to determine how it can work. For example, how much "damage" is the lab owner willing to permit to encourage students' creativity before a "kill switch" is activated automatically?

Studies can also explore how virtual reality or 3D animations can be used in the design of lab clients.

Feedback from the remote lab to the client may have to include text, video and audio — as well as feedback by touch and smell, once researchers have discovered how to transmit these types of data over the Internet.

And maybe we can learn lessons from construction toys such as Lego. If we can make the lab equipment more like building blocks, students can put them together in innovative ways, with systems never imagined by the lab provider. One option, for example, would be to use equipment with programmable parts that can be reconfigured.

Crucially, the community of online lab developers needs to incorporate a framework that promotes unmediated student collaboration — in essence, creating social network-enabled online innovation labs.

We can only justify keeping labs online if they harness the power of the Internet — the power of collaboration. Otherwise, why place experiments online when you can make computer simulations of them available for download?

We must develop the two hand in hand: a social framework for online laboratories, and more laboratories that provide an online, social space for innovation.

Olawale B. Akinwale is a PhD student at the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.