An Entrepreneurial Angle on Virtual labs New emerging solutions in Virtual labs like online live or recorded video-based courses have become preferred mode for technology training

By Suneel Sharma

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The Virtual Labs - An Introduction

A Virtual Lab is a set of hardware and software assembled or hosted in such a way that the underlying tools can be remotely-accessed by various stake holders like students, researchers, developers, mentors, lab technicians, auditors, and investors. The basic objective of a Virtual Lab is to provide remote-access of computational resources, code libraries, ready programmable use-cases and projects. This makes an easy accessibility without time and location dependence. The labs support sharing of expensive hardware resources, handle logistics and cyber safety, provide asynchronous access and collaboration thereby removing many constraints for a superior learning and research environment.

A 'Lab' is the most high-tech department of an University or a Company which house best of hardware and software resources to dive deep to learn, research, brainstorm, and create something innovative and extraordinary. Such spaces are normally high in demand by the researchers and developers because of direct implication of use of latest technologies in projects. Physical distances in metros, lack of office spaces to accommodate ever expanding research and development staff leads to over-utilization and sometime under-utilization of such spaces. The lack of availability of computational resources make projects lack in performance, stress-testing experiments, especially when sophisticated hardware and software tools are required. There is technical resource crunch at faculty, technicians, and mentor level as well.

It has been observed the utility of such resources becomes very high as students and developers are curious and motivated with availability of latest resources for their project developments and to conduct research experiments. The Labs are normally equipped to cater to basic and advanced advance levels of resources to map with the equivalent learning and development ability of the Lab users. The Virtual Labs are often integrated with Learning Management System (LMS) of an University or a company where the use of the resources can be monitored and learning analytics can be done. The R&D and learning objectives require various sophisticated tools like web-resources, video-audio series, demos, simulations, and collaborative environment.

In past there have been many initiatives by Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) of Government of India under the National Mission on Education through ICT where such Virtual Labs created to be utilised by major IITs and other such institutes. NEWTON project, as a part of European Union's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme has been developing virtual labs to revolutionise the way Science, Technologies, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects are taught throughout European schools and colleges.

Building the Entrepreneurial Spirit

New emerging solutions in Virtual labs like online live or recorded video-based courses have become preferred mode for technology training. New age institutes and companies deploy resources in development of high-tech labs in the new areas like: Internet of Things (IOT), Blockchain, Machine Learning, Big-data analytics, and Application Programming Interfaces (API). A predefined set of functions and procedures allow access to data, operating system, applications, or other services.

For example, an IoT lab can consist of IoT Kits with sensors and ready cloud based codes, like Python and Mathematica libraries, which can be used to program and experiment with IoT devices. By practicing in such a virtual lab a student is able to understand how to use IoT and APIs, for example, to interact with Blockchain based smart contracts.

Similarly, the Blockchain lab enables developers to understand and differentiate between different Blockchain frameworks, design, to deploy and audit smart contracts, create and share Distributed Applications (DAPPS). This allows participants to experiment with new applications and possibilities of innovative solutions.

Machine Learning and big data labs, often integrated with Google's Tensor flow framework or IBM Watson Labs, provide an unprecedented access to algorithms and test data that can be quickly deployed in emerging applications and solve live world problems

Traditional training and development methods have been very costly because purchasing computers for labs, rent and travel costs made an expensive proposition. With cloud based virtual labs many such costs are eliminated. Cloud-based virtual labs not only reduce expenses but allow better monitoring enabling participants to use facilities to maximum capacities. The maintenance of infrastructure is also easier through in-house or out-sourced maintenance contracts. There is substantial savings on the capital expenditures as well as implementation and operational expenses.

Utility and Effectiveness of Virtual Labs

While there have been concerns in past regarding the effectiveness and implementation of virtual labs, recent research reports have provided substantial evidence that with efficient tools it is easier to overcome these challenges. Augmented reality and virtualization of senses, enhancement of sight and hearing and general perception in the development process has not only helped bridge the gap between real and virtual but also created another level of simulated research. More accurate and application oriented studies have thus shown the positive impact of virtual labs on students' learning and developers' engagement.

Suneel Sharma

Faculty in Information Technology, SP Jain School of Global Management

Prof. Sharma is a Faculty in Information Technology and heads the Professional Technology Programs at SP Jain School of Global Management.

His research interests are in the areas of Data Analytics, Machine Learning, Computational Finance.   

He is Board member at many companies, mainly in Social Entrepreneurship & IT. He is adviser at Ministry of Corporate Affairs specifically for e-governance initiatives at IICA.

Known for his visionary thinking, strategic insights and execution capabilities, Prof. Sharma earned many awards and recognition. He is at Board of Advisors, HarVa – Harnessing Value at rural India and was nominated for Board of Directors (OAUG) at Oracle.

He holds Degrees in Engineering, Humanities, Science, Education and Business Administration from BITS-Pilani, IIM-Bangalore, Stanford University and Lancaster University and obtained Glider’s Pilot License and medals in swimming during his college days.

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