Educating Future Engineers Worldwide With the Photovoltaic Distance Learning Lab

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"The rapid flexibility of LabVIEW means that we can also easily incorporate new functionality whenever we wish, which keeps the laboratory up to date with advances in the field."

- Sheryl Williams, Flexible and Distance Learning Manager, Loughborough University

The Challenge:
Teaching distance learning students pursuing engineering and science degrees the practical skills they need to complete their courses.

The Solution:
Developing a remote learning lab using NI software and hardware that can be accessed through the Internet so distance learners can fully engage with real experiments and carry out their own investigations despite being on the other side of the world.

Sheryl Williams - Flexible and Distance Learning Manager, Loughborough University
Richard Blanchard - Loughborough University

Practical laboratory classes have always been a major component of science and engineering degrees, and they help us teach students the skills required to become competent and experienced researchers in the future.

With the increase in university admissions, it is becoming more difficult and costly to organise fixed laboratory sessions during the day. Many universities have set up virtual labs that simulate real data and measurement techniques to address this. However, these are merely simulations with predetermined results, so the acquired skills are not an adequate replacement for those gained in real experiments. This was an issue for us and a number of universities offering distance learning courses that must use virtual labs. Although students can use virtual labs to work through their assignments in their own time with less hardware required, students never gain the experience of working in a physical laboratory environment.

With the ever increasing speed of the Internet and wireless communications, we can now stream live video feeds and remotely control a variety of hardware from anywhere in the world. Creating a remote controlled engineering lab seemed like a natural development.

At the Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology at Loughborough University we have created the world’s most advanced photovoltaic (PV) remote learning lab. We initially developed this lab to enhance the experience of students undertaking our highly successful master’s degree in renewable energy systems technology through distance learning. We wanted to try and find the middle ground between traditional hands on and virtual teaching methods. We wanted our remote lab to offer the time flexibility of a virtual lab whilst maintaining the authentic feel of a conventional lab session. Students would be more engaged, could use genuine hardware, and design their own experiments instead of working through a fixed simulation.

Remote Laboratory

The system mimics a physical laboratory designed to measure the characteristics of PV panels commonly known as solar cells. With the rise in global energy production causing increased concerns, teaching students the skills and methods involved in PV investigations develops their experimental ability and helps prepare future scientists and engineers for careers in green technologies, which is a fast growing economic area.

We wanted to accurately reproduce the existing experimental setup used by full-time students. Students can use the remote lab to:

  • Control the power output of a light source to illuminate the PV panels
  • Change the PV panel being investigated
  • Determine the irradiance from the light source
  • Control and measure the temperature of the PV panels
  • See the hardware they are controlling

Figure 1. Overview of the Experimental Setup


Figure 1 shows the experiment setup. A bespoke LED array simulates sunlight, which students can use to test the PV cells under different light and temperature settings. A set of photodiodes measures the irradiance, and a resistance thermometer monitors the temperature. To vary the temperature, users have control of a Peltier module situated behind the PV cells to heat and cool as desired. We built a turntable rig to house the PV cells, which students can rotate using a stepper motor to select which PV module to investigate. The hardware connects to a computer for remote access to the system. An NI DAQ device facilitates most of the hardware connection.

Figure 2. Birds-Eye View Schematic of Our Hardware Setup With Everything Controlled Using LabVIEW


We used LabVIEW to control this hardware so we could quickly connect to both NI and third party hardware. LabVIEW provides a simple interface for instrument control and prebuilt drivers available on the web made it even easier. We used GPIB connections and an NI DAQ device to collect all the data and control the stepper motor, LED power supply, and Peltier device. We also integrated a web camera into the program so students could see the experiment as it unfolded. This further fostered the feeling that they were in a conventional laboratory environment.

Figure 3. The Front Panel of Our Remote Lab


The remote lab incorporates a booking system (using LabVIEW) so students can book a convenient date and time to perform the experiment. Once logged in they can perform a series of experiments to demonstrate the effects of irradiance and temperature on different types of PV cells. They can then save and download the data. Not only was LabVIEW ideal for instrument control, but its web publishing tool made it possible to operate the whole program through the Internet. LabVIEW was the clear tool of choice to implement our system as we could control hardware, manage time allocation, and control the system through the Internet using just one platform.

Student Feedback

The remote lab went live to students in October 2014. In conjunction with the launch, we conducted a study that subsequently won a Loughborough University teaching innovation award. The aim of the study was to evaluate the effectiveness of remote laboratories in comparison to hands on and virtual labs. The study focused on cost effectiveness, student learning, pedagogy of different technologies/mode of delivery, and the opportunities for inclusion in the future of e-learning.

We invited a total of 30 students including 18 distance learning students sitting the remote lab module to participate in the study. The remaining students included on-campus postgraduates and undergraduate students doing the hands-on equivalent lab and distance le arning students who had previously undertaken the module using the simulated version of the lab. After conducting the experiment, we asked students to complete an online questionnaire. This questionnaire considered the ease of connecting to the lab, the clarity of our instructions, and their views about the whole experience.

Feedback from students was extremely positive. All students agreed that the remote lab helped them visualise the concept being investigated and understand the theoretical material, and equipped them to describe the effect of temperature/irradiance on the IV curve. The user interface was rated >3 (on 1-4 scale) by 90 percent of the students surveyed with screen layout, ease of navigation from one variable to another, ease of use, and repeatability cited as excellent.

For those who undertook all versions of the lab there was a marked preference for the remote lab in comparison to both the practical on campus or simulated labs. Users remarked that it “feels like you are doing a real experiment with real devices while the simulation raises doubts about the realism of the simulator”. For international students the remote lab was a big success with students saying “the mere fact of being able to inflict live controlled actions and measure their effects remotely from Egypt all the way in England; all while watching it is absolutely brilliant”.

The remote lab was so well received that many students said they would “love to see something similar for the other modules” and “Using the same concept for other subjects would just be great for distance learning students”.

As a result of the successful implementation of the remote lab and the encouraging words from our students, we plan to continue to use the PV remote lab for this module and have secured funding to develop similar remote labs for other modules on our course. Furthermore, we are promoting the concept across the university with growing interest from other disciplines now wishing to develop similar labs


With the help of LabVIEW and NI hardware we created a remote laboratory that gives distance learning students control of a unique apparatus. We have proved the functionality of the lab and analysed the student experience. The project has received high praise from both our students and the university. Furthermore, the activity has been disseminated at a number of international conferences and in various publications. We plan to improve the learning experience for students by using this technology to further develop controlled experiments. The rapid flexibility of LabVIEW means that we can also easily incorporate new functionality whenever we wish, which keeps the laboratory up to date with advances in the field. Our ultimate goal is not just to use this technology to enhance the learning of existing students but also to offer this practical learning experience to a much wider audience.

Author Information:
Sheryl Williams
Flexible and Distance Learning Manager, Loughborough University
School of Electronics, Electrical and Systems Engineering, Sir David Davies Building
Loughborough LE11 3TU
Tel: +44 (0) 1509 227127

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