Thursday, June 12, 2014

MD1 Blog Post: RSCH - 8350D -1 Advanced Qualitative Reasoning and Analysis

Shifting From Hands-on Hardware Labs to Simulated Labs

           Dr. Thornburg spoke about the change in the use personal computing to the use of low-powered netbooks as educators aim to go “green” (Thornburg, 2009a).  Similarly, educators in higher education have been slowly phasing out the use of hardware in hands-on lab environments to the use of software simulation.  For example, at the college where I am currently teaching as a visiting professor, students no longer physically open up PCs to perform troubleshooting labs. Instead, students are now conducting hands-on activities via LabSim software simulation tool. See the following video for a LabSim demonstration.

           Software that allow learners to perform simulated labs go beyond simple PC troubleshooting hands-on labs to complex networking activates, all done without physically working with hardware such as routers and switches. The college where I am currently teaching introduced networking students and professor Cisco’s packet tracer virtual environment a few years ago. Learners were given a choice between using hardware devices (that is, routers and switches) and the packet tracer simulation software.  My observation was that older (more traditional) students and professors were not in favor of the implementation of this emerging technology.  So, of course they opted for using the “real” equipment.  As time goes by the number of students and professors who choose to employ the simulated environment has grown. See the following video for a demonstration of the packet tracer simulator.

Challenges Associated With Simulated Labs

              The main challenge associated with using computer simulated labs in higher education is that traditional learners and professors are not comfortable with the idea of not physically working with hardware devices in the learning environments. Based on personal experience, this can cause a rift between students and professors where those who opt to use the “real” equipment will be esteemed as more knowledgeable than those who choose to work in virtual environments. Another challenge is that employers with traditional mindsets might have a marginalized view of networking students who have never used actual routers and switches during their degree programs.

Societal Need and Benefits of Using Simulated Labs

           The use of simulated labs has tremendously lowered the power consumption in colleges. Even though some companies, for example Cisco, sells hardware devices that are considered to be “green” technologies, they still use a vast amount of wattage. For example, at initial system boot, many Cisco routers will consume 108W, and then the wattage will increase to 330W once all processors are connected (Miercom, 2009). This cost can be entirely eliminated or lowered whenever simulated networking labs are used in place of these hardware routers and switches.

Room for Improvement/Avoiding Pitfalls

           Although simulated environments are not new to the world, they are new to many schools. Thus, every college that offers computer networking courses will need a champion who throws his or her weight behind an innovation to overcome resistance that the new idea may provoke in the organization (Rogers, 2003). This will increase enthusiasm among students and professor who will most likely explore these virtual labs.  Having champions will also help to make the innovation become mainstream to the extent that employees will be more open to accepting learners who utilized virtual labs. Still, I would recommend that colleges require that learners use both environments –physical and virtual.  This way, everyone on either side of the rift will feel at ease. Moreover, schools will still benefit because using simulated devices along with hardware devices will consume less power than if only hardware devices are being used.
Miercom. (2009).  Lab testing summary report: Aggregation services routers – power efficient. Retrieved from.
Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.
Thornburg, D. D. (2009a). Current trends in educational technology. Lake Barrington, IL: Thornburg Center for Space Exploration. 


  1. I am not in your group, but enjoy reading the different blogs. I think simulations are a great approach to learning. We are working on creating this type of learning at our center. I agree with your comment that a combination of the two is a good solution. I see the simulation as a way to practice a new skill and then moving it into application by transferring it to a real life situation.

  2. Yes Shannon,
    Simulation is an excellent way to practice a new skill before executing it in real life. This way, the student can practice without fear of ruining devices and causing operational failure to a company. Still, virtual environments are will not work for everyone just as how online learning mode is not for everyone where some learners will thrive better in F2F environments. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think that a new technology should be used by everyone, especially if has obvious benefits?


    1. Ena,
      In a school environment, I feel that students need to use what is required. In a corporate environment, I would think that is up to the educational team. I do not mean to disagree, but I think that simulations are different from online learning. It is discipline, self learning, and time management that are often a roadblock in online learning. To me, it is a shift in thinking that is the roadblock in using simulations. I personally would not make it an option, but in the same thought, I guess the end result that one is looking for is the mastery of a skill. In my environment, if we put a simulation in a lesson, that is the requirement. I also noticed that you said "virtual environment" in your comment. That would also sway my opinion in comparison to a simulation. I see them as two different things, so it may just be semantics. In a virtual environment, I agree that some people may not thrive in that role of learning.

    2. Shannon,
      I would say although virtual environments and simulations are different, still, simulations usually occur in virtual environments. In short, they are closely related.

      Hence, networking students at the college where I teach at present have the option to choose between conducting hands-on labs with physical devices or to use virtual tools to complete virtual labs.

  3. From Michael H. : I like your thought that colleges should require the use of simulated and real labs. Personally, thinking as a student, I would like to experience the simulated lab and then the real lab. I would like the training provided by the simulated lab but there is something about that hands on experience that I prefer. I wouldn't "feel" prepared if I only experienced simulated labs. I do realize feelings are not necessarily fact. However, I have a stigma regarding the ability of a simulated lab to take account of the synergy of all variables in the lab which effects the outcome. The experience of the unexpected, I think, is what I want. Then again, it depends on what kind of lab it is.

    1. Michael,
      I can understand exactly where you are coming from in terms of having a desire for physically touching the equipment after performing virtual labs. I would say this is where Gardner’s (1993) Multiple Intelligences come in where some learners have well-developed bodily kinesthetic intelligence over others. What are your thoughts on this?


      Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. Basic books

  4. I would think that the topic of virtual labs could be quite controversial. How long has your college been using them and do teachers/students have a choice between virtual and hands on labs? What kinds of labs are offered virtually? I would have loved not having to smell and touch the frogs in Bio 1. =)

    1. Hi Brandy,

      My college has implemented the use of virtual networking labs for about 5 years now. Students do have a choice between conducting hands-on labs with physical devices (e.g. routers and switches) or to use virtual tools to complete virtual labs. Most students, especially the younger ones tend to choose virtual labs over using the physical devices. The older more mature students tend to request using the physical devices for authentic scenarios.

      What I find most disturbing is that A+ hands-on troubleshooting labs (where student used to physically open up PCs) have been totally replaced by LabSims, a virtual simulator. In short, I think eventually networking labs which include the use of physical devices will also be entirely replaced by virtual labs. Still, I would recommend that colleges in general should require learners use both environments –physical and virtual. This way, everyone on either side of the rift will feel at ease.

  5. Ena,

    I know in nursing there is a push towards using simulation labs for students due to a lack of available clinical sites for nursing students to obtain real hands on experience. There are many hospitals that are reluctant to have too many students in the facility at one time. Simulations provide a way for students to have experiences and react to various situations without placing a live patient or themselves in harm's way. The difficulty is though that the simulation will never be able to react like a real human would. People are funny and can react in ways that no one can anticipate. That's why in nursing especially, I think that hands on experience will never be fully replaced by simulators. Do you think there is a similar element of surprise in other simulation environments that necessitates the use of real, hands on experience?