Technologies for Improving Laboratory Experiences in Advanced Technology Education

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

The study seeks to improve advanced technical education through the use of an Internet-accessible, virtual network laboratory. Specifically, it seeks to understand how sophisticated, internet-accessible virtual laboratories like our ONL (Open Network Laboratory) can enhance the quality of advanced technical education, and to develop several technical enhancements to ONL that will make it more useful as an educational tool.


The primary study sites are: 1) the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) and 2) the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Massachusetts (UMASS). The focus at WUSTL was on the introductory networking course which primarily had undergraduate students. But we also collected some data from a graduate-level networking course at WUSTL. The focus at UMASS was on an elective networking course for first-year, non-networking graduate students.

Research Design: 

This research project is longitudinal and comparative and is designed to generate descriptive [observational] and associative or correlational [quasi-experimental] evidence. Original data are collected through assessments of learning or achievement tests observation [personal]; and survey research [questionnaires, semi-structured interviews].

The project seeks to understand how a virtual networking laboratory can enhance the quality of advanced technical education and to develop technical enhancements to that laboratory to make it more useful as an educational tool. Because of the exploratory nature of the education component of the project, we have used user surveys and quizzes with questions selected from a bank of concept quiz questions developed during the course of the project.


This research project has generated a number of results which suggest that:

  • students think that the use of real computer networking hardware and software (versus simulation) will improve their handling of real-world tasks after graduation. This belief improves their attitude toward the conceptual content of the course.
  • the approach that students take to solve network physics problems is similar to what has been observed by the physics education community in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e., the reliance on using equations without understanding). But we suspect that the fundamental reason for behavior is the same but the remedies may be different (we are still exploring this issue).
  • learning events do take place when using ONL. We have observed roughly equal amounts of learning when using ONL as in classroom lectures. This result highlights the importance of laboratory experiences in technical education (even when a laboratory is accessed remotely).
Publications & Presentations: 

John DeHart, et. al., “The Open Network Laboratory,” 2006 Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) Proceedings, March 2006.

Ken Wong, Tilman Wolf, Sergey Gorinsky and Jonathan Turner, “Teaching Experiences With A Virtual Networking Laboratory,” 2007 SIGCSE Proceedings, March 2007.

Charlie Wiseman, Ken Wong, Tilman Wolf and Sergey Gorinsky, “Operational Experience With A Virtual Networking Laboratory,” 2008 SIGCSE Proceedings, March 2008.

Tilman Wolf, “Assessing Student Learning in a Virtual Laboratory Environment,” to appear in IEEE Transactions on Education.

Tilman Wolf and Rui Yang, “Design of a System to Track Student Progress on Virtual Laboratories,” to appear in Proc. Of 2009 Northeast American Society of Engineering Education Conference, April 2009.

Other Products: 

This project expects to generate a number of products, including: concept quizzes in network physics; an assessment database for evaluating understanding in networking and ONL; a Remote Laboratory Interface with session-sharing and session-recording; and a session analyzer.