Virtual labs for science education
doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.16 Published online 31 January 2012
Close on the heels of the University Grants Commission (UGC)'s decision to replace dissection of animals in biology labs, India's human resource ministry is set to launch its ambitious virtual labs project in the country's education sector. The massive project called 'Sakshat', under which the ministry earlier launched the world's cheapest tablet PC 'Akash', will help students conduct online experiments and learn important scientific techniques using interactive simulations and real-time videos.
The virtual labs have been built on a common platform and are accessible even with basic internet connectivity. These labs are intended for under-graduates, post-graduates and researchers, mainly at the college level. The project is funded by the National Mission for Education (NME) as a component of the Rs 4600 crore Information and Communication Technology (ICT) programme of 2009.
A collaboration between several Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other universities in India, these web-based programs include static and remotely triggered virtual labs. Static lab experiments are explained using written material, pre-defined interactive simulations and live experiment videos (Fig. 1).
Students can then test themselves with self-assessment quizzes and practical assignments. The remotely triggered labs allow students to perform experiments in real-time using remotely located physical experimental set-ups, via the internet.
The virtual labs will be available round the clock, throughout the year. The Sakshat labs cover engineering and biotechnology disciplines since students in these areas require as much practical instruction as possible to gain experience required for research and industrial jobs. Some of the broader sub-streams covered in the project include biotechnology, chemical and physical sciences, electronics and communications as well as civil engineering.
The "Virtual proteomics laboratory" created at IIT-Bombay, is a good example of the Sakshat biotechnology labs. "Each experiment has a step-by-step approach, including animations and videos that simplifies the learning process for the user," says Sanjeeva Srivastava of the Wadhwani Research Center for Biosciences and Bioengineering in the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering of IIT-Bombay. Though in its testing phase, the lab is publicly available at the IIT-Bombay website.
Srivastava's colleague in the project Nicole Rachel Koshy points out that despite its lofty goals, the project has limited public awareness and lacks good teachers who can effectively use and explain these materials. However, workshops and public outreach programmes are being planned by the government to overcome these roadblocks.
The Aakash released some time back was part of the project to make e-learning accessible and affordable to the students. Other public-funded e-learning programmes currently underway include the National programme on Technology Enhanced learning (NPTEL) theory and video lectures database and the Open Source Courseware Animations Repository(OSCAR) animation repository.