The UOC offers the Bachelor's Degree in Telecommunications Technology, which contains practical subjects in the field of electronics. As the electronics subjects are taught online, introducing practicals using machinery is complicated.
In the first intake of the degree course, students were asked to buy an electronic circuit board to do the practicals, but the teaching staff on the course soon noticed that the limitations of this format, and the solution, were too great for the students to be able to acquire the knowledge envisaged.
There is a need for the university to innovate its teaching to be able to send practical equipment, ie a type of laboratory, to the student's home. The ITOL group (Interactive Tools for Online Learning) at the UOC was tasked with finding a solution to the following challenge: constructing a physical and virtual circuit board so that the students could carry out basic practice (assembling circuits, measuring current voltage, resistance, etc.) on a very tight schedule and, especially, at a very affordable price.
The electronic circuit board solutions that were on the market were designed for professional use and exceeded the UOC's needs in terms of function and price, at about €150, for the study practice. The budget element was a determining factor, as the cost was included in the enrolment fee paid by the students, and a high price could have an impact on the trainers' time.
ITOL carried out an initial approach regarding the requirements of the practice equipment, and it contacted the Diprotech company to assess its development.
Diprotech is an industrial and electronics engineering services company that specializes in developing software and hardware solutions. The head of its Hardware Department was a member of the lecturers-tutors on the course. This was a key element as this awareness of the students' practice needs and the teaching format enabled the project to make very rapid progress.
The requirements that ITOL gave Diprotech were for a circuit board that would allow the user to assemble the circuits and the electronics part while using a graphic interface on the computer to monitor the tests. This element further complicated the project as it had to be compatible with any operating system that the students might have on their home computer.
With regard to the manufacturing cost, it had to be as low as possible. In producing the first prototype, this was the central element it provided to produce the minimum viable product.
The development process took little more than two semesters to create the prototype and three or four months for the software. During this phase, there was very close interaction, on the one hand due to the fact that it was between similar technical profiles, and on the other because a work protocol was in place (calendar and established project tasks).
Once the equipment was ready, Diprotech was also tasked with producing the relevant documentation, the study guides and user manuals, and with industrializing it to be able to send it to enrolled students.
The result was the Lab@home equipment, a tool with a cost much lower than market cost, with all the functions needed for electronics practicals at home.
Results and assessment:
Lab@home has been a successful product because, on the one hand, its configuration, both software and hardware, continues to be valid, and on the other, it has had a low number of incidents, which is reflected in the high rating that the students have given the experience. All of this has created optimum results with regard to learning effectiveness and efficiency in saving in the training action.
The academic impact has been very positive as we have been able to ensure teaching quality through the practicals and the project has allowed us to publish various articles and it is planned to write a paper in a technology journal.
In addition, the Lab@home equipment has qualified for a Spanish utility model entitled ""Electronic circuits assembly and measurement system"" and registration code U201230432. This protection offers ITOL-UOC and Diprotech a number of opportunities.
Opportunities and challenges:
To assess the market value of the equipment, in late 2013 ITOL visited a number of teaching institutions to present it with the aim of getting feedback to make it more attractive to a possible market. From these visits, a series of improvements were identified and defined that will be rolled out in a second product development phase.
In March 2014, the UOC and Diprotech signed an agreement in which they both stated an interest in providing access to the product to other schools, universities and training centres; in addition, the use for private purposes will be reserved and licences/royalties will be received from sales. To this effect, Diprotech will take on the production and direct commercialization of Lab@Home. This point meant the incorporation of a new line of business at Diprotech, which would go from offering exclusively engineering services to becoming an industrial business. It is a strategic challenge that the company undertook with great enthusiasm."