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Massive, open, online...lab experiments?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 30, 2013 08:46 AM

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MOOCs—massive, open, online courses that enroll hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, for free, in classes taught by world-famous professors—are becoming popular. The limitations of MOOCs are also plain—they’re impersonal and are better at imparting technical knowledge than personal or hands-on learning. One particularly insurmountable limitation, for instance, would seem to be laboratory work: it’s the heart of science, but if hundreds of thousands of people sign up for a chemistry MOOC, how do you give them access to the beakers and test tubes that students would be using on campus?

An electrical engineering professor at Stanford may have at least a partial solution. As a recent news article on the university’s website explained, Lambertus Hesselink has created what he calls an “iLab”—basically a digitized version of a lab experiment that approximates the feel of the real thing.

Hesselink has been working on this problem for awhile. Previously he developed technology that allowed students to control real, physical lab equipment through the Internet. This addressed the problem of access—students could conduct the experiment from anywhere in the world—but, as far as MOOCs are concerned, it didn’t solve the problem of scale: You’d still need thousands of sets of lab equipment for the massive numbers of online students.

So, Hesselink decided to digitize an experiment. Last summer he and two collaborators set up a simple diffraction experiment inside a box. The experiment involved two lasers, a diffraction grating, and several lenses. Hesselink used a specialized camera to take pictures of the experiment in every one of its possible configurations. MOOC students who log in to use the experiment would have access to the same lab controls Hesselink did. But when they adjust the laser intensity or change the position of the diffraction grating, instead of seeing real equipment move, they see a new prerecorded image appear on their computer screens.

Hesselink has shown that this technique can be used for more complex experiments, too. Of course, the gap between MOOC instruction and traditional college instruction is still vast—and it remains to be seen how much iLabs or any digital technology can do to close it.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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