Education is changing rapidly, both due to an increased understanding of pedagogy and also the potential offered by new technology to do things better.

For example, there is an increasing understanding that student activity and involvement is critical for effective learning and thus a move away from the dominant reliance on traditional lectures to increased use of more interactive engagement activities . Another part of pedagogy that is receiving great current interest is the topic of feedback, for example, what feedback do students need to support effective learning and how can this feedback be provided efficiently and rapidly?

Within engineering a classic engagement activity was paper and pen based problem solving, however this has the disadvantage of providing relative slow (wait for a tutor meeting) or fast but low quality feedback (such as right/wrong). Advances in technology and in particular universal access to powerful computing devices (phones, laptops, …) provide opportunities for staff to develop interactive learning environments which give immediate and high quality feedback thus allowing students to become more effective independent learners. It is gratifying to know that control researchers [4] are leading the global field in these developments.

The following gives some examples of how control engineers are embedding effective teaching pedagogies which encourage and facilitate student activity, reflection and independent learning. The main focus is on student activity by way of ‘free’ access to laboratory equipment so that students can easily apply their learning and experiment unhindered by rigid timetable constraints and closed laboratory instruction sheets.

Exploiting the Internet of Things for Control Education:
virtual and remote laboratories.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical devices which are connected to the Internet. These devices can therefore be accessed remotely: whether it is just for monitoring purposes of such objects and/or their surroundings or, moreover, even for controlling some of their aspects.

The impact, applications and importance of the IoT have been growing over the last few years, as the technology has been progressing. In Google, a search for “internet of things” gives no less than twenty-two million results. Among them, articles in pages from companies and journals as important as Forbes, Microsoft, The Guardian, Wired, Intel or Cisco can be found. In Google News, just in the last week (at the moment of writing these lines), there is news on the IoT in Fortune, Bloomberg, TheStreet or TechRadar, for example. The huge number of references to the IoT as well as the wide variety of places in which this topic is covered (from technological journals and webpages to society and financial ones), give a good idea of the general interest that exists for this concept. Also, according to a 2015 research from Tata Consultancy Services, 26 companies plan to spend $1 billion or more each on IoT initiatives this year, while, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, the IoT has a total potential economic impact of $4 trillion to $11 trillion a year by 2025, which represents around 10% of the world economy.

Virtual and Remote Laboratories (VRLs) are part of the IoT. A RL uses laboratory equipment which is connected to the Internet so that teachers and students can operate it at distance. RLs are the most immediate application of the IoT to education, especially in those fields where experimentation is a key part of the learning process, such as it is in Control.

If you are interested in the topic we invite you to visit the UniLabs portal on virtual and remote labs (http://unilabs.dia.uned.es/). As an example below you can find the interface of the Control of the Ball and Hoop system.

Fig-2-The-Ball-and-Hoop-system-model-scheme

Control of the ball and hoop system

The Ball and Hoop system is an electromechanical device consisting of a ball rolling on the rim of a hoop. The hoop is mounted on the shaft of a servomotor and can rotate about its axis. The rotation of the hoop causes an oscillatory movement of the ball around its equilibrium point. The behaviour of the ball is similar to the dynamic of a liquid inside a cylindrical container.

The main objective of this system is to control these oscillations. With this laboratory you can perform, among others, these tasks and activities:

  • Study the transmission zeroes and non-minimum phase behaviours
  • Velocity and position control of the hoop
  • Control of deviation of the ball from its rest position
Virtual laboratory

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Take home laboratories

One obvious mechanism for improving student access to equipment is by allowing students to take equipment home, thus enabling them to perform open-ended tests at will. In recent years, data acquisition and control hardware has become relatively cheap and this is a key enabler for development of affordable laboratory equipment which can be produced in multiples of 10 or even a 100, thus allowing every student to have one!

Remote laboratory

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Staff in the University of Sheffield have developed a platform [6] for supporting the learning and application of skills crossing topics such as state-space design, state estimation, modelling, classical control and labview which also is embedded around an application area of obvious interest of Aerospace engineers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mudKnc6v07E). The hardware consists of a miniature three-degree-of-freedom (3DOF) helicopter, interfaced to a PC via a NI myDAQ. The construction allows for easy assembly, and disassembly so students can take home, or indeed use on any University computer. The entire parts cost of each kit was under £300, making it possible to provide each student with his or her own kit, on a loaned basis. The equipment has now been used by 4 different cohorts of students and the general feedback is overwhelmingly positive, with students greatly appreciating the opportunity to put advanced theory into practice upon a challenging real-world system, in a time and place of their choosing.

Internet Based Control Education Conference

The IFAC Workshop on Internet Based Control Education (http://ibce15.unibs.it/) was held in Brescia, Italy, from 4th to 6th November 2015, organized by the University of Brescia (Italy) in cooperation with Multisector Service and Technological Centre (CSMT), Brescia (Italy). IBCE15 has been sponsored by the IFAC Technical Committee on Control Education (TC9-4) and co-sponsored by the IFAC Technical Committee on Computers for Control (TC3-1) and by the IFAC Technical Committee on Control via Communication Networks (TC3-3). The workshop has served as an international forum for interaction among engineers, scientists, and practitioners of control engineering who are interested in adopting and promoting internet-based methodologies for teaching control engineering. About 50 papers have been presented and the main topics addressed were virtual and remote labs, interactive tools, problem-based learning and internet-based control education assessment, and web-based educational environments. In general, there was a clear recognition that internet-based teaching methodologies can significantly enhance the learning of the students but they should be put in the right context in order to be fully appreciated. It is also clear that sharing the resources can greatly simplify the work of the teacher.

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Some of the attendees of the IFAC Workshop on Internet Based Control Education at the Mille Miglia museum in Brescia.


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Article provided by
Sebastián Dormido sdormido@dia.uned.es Chair of the Technical Committee TC 9.4
J. Anthony Rossiter j.a.rossiter@sheffield.ac.uk vice-chair of Technical Committee TC 9.4
Bryn Ll Jones b.l.jones@sheffield.ac.uk
Antonio Visioli antonio.visioli@unibs.it Chair of IBCE 2015
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