Labs in the Online Semester


2 March 2022 | Prasann Viswanathan, Priyanka Bagade

Although the pandemic seems to be a 'thing of the past,' it is crucial to reflect on our successes. Here we discuss one of the notable victories of education in a time of disease—implementation of online lab activities; through conversation with the teams of EE337 (Microprocessors) and EE214 (Digital Circuits) lab courses held last year.

First, we have Prof. V Rajbabu, Abhinav Sridhar and Nihar Himanshu Shah of the Microprocessors lab team. To build bridges and break walls between students and faculty, we have made an effort here to search for answers to most of the queries students may have had concerning the lab, which went as follows:

What was the motivation for keeping the lab online?

The microprocessor lab needs to run parallelly with the corresponding theory course. To stick to this and complete the lab at the earliest possible, we decided to hold it in an online fashion. Delaying it further would cause the batch of '18 to do the lab in their final year, which would have been too late. We knew of the online nature of Spring 2021, midway through Autumn 2020, around which we decided to hold the lab in an online fashion.

What was the process of making the lab kits?

The lab kits were made entirely by WEL lab and its staff. It was logistically a very intense activity and required a lot of capital investment. We had to cut out experiments involving input and output signals and limit sensors, translating into academic decisions. We ordered the new kits and tested every component in them. 95% of the kits worked with no significant changes necessary.

What was the experience of teaching the course in an online mode?

Preparations for teaching remained absolutely the same. The difference was that offline, we would explain to a class of students and online, we explained things to a wall. It was convenient because students watched the pre-recorded lectures, worked on their experiments and presented their work every week. was the course website where the installation videos were uploaded. The website was made through the efforts of Prof. Saravanan and it played an important role in disseminating information among students. The website is being used this year as well, and a similar concept was adapted in the Digital Circuits Lab. An issue, however, was that the lab timings often extended beyond the stipulated slot because hardware errors are harder to check and rectify over video calls. Simple problems like forgetting to press RESET or loading the processor into bootloader mode resulted in much wastage of time.

What were the stark contrasts between offline and online offerings of the course?

  • "Offline, they would have made mistakes and learnt to work with more components. Making measurements during a practical session was another thing missed in online mode", says Prof. Rajbabu. Whereas in the online mode, students got the satisfaction of doing a major course project. Instead of the course project, offline students had to give a midsem and an endsem exam.
  • Class performance cannot be compared as the grading was excessively relaxed. No finer grading could be done with the mode the lab was conducted in.
  • When asked if the professors preferred online or offline mode, they unanimously chirped in favour of offline mode. "But some of the learnings we made online we must try to reflect offline, such as discipline and planning of the course," said Prof. Rajbabu. Teaching Assistants Abhinav Sridhar and Nihar Shah also mention the necessity for more pre-emption from the Teaching Assistant's side. They needed to figure out the error via camera feed and the student's description of the error, which needed thorough preparedness of the experiments to tackle.
  • "As the grading was very lenient, there weren't any cribs," quipped Nihar Shah.

In the same spirit, we next have the Digital Circuits Lab team. Madhumita Date ma'am, Soumyajit Langal, Sandesh Goyal and Mangesh Malgi join us to answer questions about the experience of running EE214 in online mode for the first time.

What were your motivations for keeping the lab in an online fashion?

"We thought on behalf of the students at home that they hadn't got the opportunity to work on lab experiments and assumed that they were interested in doing something, as engineering without hands-on exposure is of no use," remarks Madhumita ma’am. "We could not predict the duration of the pandemic, and the imminent second wave at that time made things more uncertain. Conducting the lab online was the safest way of seeing it through. Since the experiments were software-based, an online setting would enable creativity and allow them sufficient time to deal with bugs. We could not foresee any chance of an offline lab for the current batches."


What was the experience of making the lab kits and handling the logistics?

  • "Letting students perform experiments from their hostel rooms was not new to us, and the boards had always been designed such that the students could take them to their rooms and work on it. Bringing kits to hostels and homes was the whole idea behind having the lab kits which have been in use since 2011." "Since the kits were already designed, the main concern was the shipping of all boards. We had to make hard deadlines to ensure all students got their kits on time." "We had to outsource the construction of around a hundred boards and ensure it was cost-effective. All this during a pandemic, the challenges of which cannot be ignored." "Testing and packing of all boards was done by WEL staff. Each board was tested twice, and they were packed such that they were self-sufficient as there was no possibility of resupplying the components. Overall, for around a hundred and sixty students and thirty teaching assistants, more than two hundred kits needed to be prepared and shipped."
  • When asked if the process was somewhat more manageable for the Digital Circuits Lab offering for sophomore students in Autumn 2021, Madhumita ma’am remarked, "Additional boards did not need to be manufactured despite the batch size going up from around a hundred and sixty to roughly two hundred students. The new Scan Chain setup does not need another board, and this was made possible by the efforts of Gaurav Kate and Vidur Shah, so now all experiments can be done using just the Krypton Board. This development saved a lot of time in the testing of the boards."

What was your experience teaching in an online mode?

  • "Our baseline expectation was that students should be able to deliver things from their end, and with that in mind, we designed most of our experiments. We tried to give them a feel of offline labs with the help of demo videos and live presentations," explains Sandesh Goyal. "We demonstrated the experiments to check if they could be performed within the lab slot. Similarly, we did time analysis for the exams."
  • "On the bright side of things, the course required a lot of planning in the online mode, which ensured smooth running through the semester. We plan to bring this to offline settings as well." "Recorded lectures are not available in offline mode, but here they were." "It is also much easier for us to verify and check copied code in online mode, something we were comparatively oblivious of in offline offerings," says Madhumita ma’am. "I missed seeing students the most," she regrets. "We felt guilty when students had genuine concerns, for example, the board not working or some trouble from the software end. However, the frequency of such occurrences was minimal," mentions Sandesh Goyal. "It is also comparatively harder to keep track of students having difficulties in the offline mode." For the Autumn 2021 offering of the course, the lab was run in parallel with the theory course, forcing them to give more time to conduct experiments. Therefore the course progressed slower in comparison to the Spring 2021 edition. New experiments and modifications to old experiments had been introduced in order to curb plagiarism.

Any closing remarks you wish to add?

"Being asked if we prefer offline mode or online mode is like being asked if you prefer to read a book or conduct a google search", quips Sandesh. Madhumita ma’am adds that there should be a combination of the two in an ideal case. “Maybe we can achieve that during hybrid education. Only time will tell”. "Given a choice, we would keep it offline, but we have to make decisions based on our constraints, so we cannot say if we prefer one mode or another", reminds Soumyajit Langal. "There was a lot of trial and error involved in the online offering, and maybe the students did not appreciate this," says Sandesh. "If the students are positive (not Covid) and making an effort, the WEL staff never get tired". Mangesh Malgi adds that Madhumita ma'am and Professor Maryam would stay in the meeting until all students completed their experiments, which would take up to 7 pm, after which they had faculty discussions as well. Many teaching assistants would miss their snack breaks to ensure that all students completed their experiments.

The funding required for the kits to be created and shipped was a non-trivial amount of money. It required funding apart from that provided by the institute. The initial estimate was close to twenty lakhs. The institute very generously offered to chip in fifty per cent of the amount. The department and Wadhwani Donation Funds provided the rest. Additional alumni donations were also received as a part of the CHERISH IIT Bombay Campaign, which may be utilised for other lab courses.

Another critical point to add here was that when the time had come to ship the lab kits; the second wave was raging. Lockdown was being imposed on different parts of the country at separate times. The solution administered was to divide the students into groups based on which cities or states they were in, each with their lab staff coordinators. The lab staff coordinated closely with the students whenever the lockdown was lifted in a state or a window of opportunity showed up, putting the team in good shape to continue for the next semester. Prof. Siddharth Tallur, who is the Faculty-Incharge of the WEL Lab, mentions that how he wishes this is the last time we "do it at home", but the workflow established is well in place if a similar situation is again faced in the future.

In conclusion, Prof. Tallur has a few noteworthy thoughts to leave us with. A firm believer in student-teacher interaction in education, he says, "If technology were the solution to revolutionise education, it would have done so sixty years ago. Online is perhaps better than nothing but the best way to learn is by interacting, as we are, after all, social animals." This thought is beautifully expressed in the Veritasium YouTube video titled 'The Most Persistent Myth'. He also leaves us with a lesson; "Undergraduate students don't appreciate the necessity of persistence. If you are working on a tougher problem than expected, you should not give up or say grapes are sour. People lose interest very quickly if something doesn't work. In lab courses, we see students try a little, fail, and throw their hands in the air, saying, 'This is not working!'. Learn to describe the problem. If you can describe it, you can perhaps get to the solution. Debugging is a skill we should develop." He continues, "We cannot teach these skills via lectures. You need to practice them yourselves. There will be frustrations, that is inevitable. But lab courses are the road to overcome technical frustrations and to learn persistence and debugging."