Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Difference Between Virtual Labs and Simulations

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a virtual lab and a simulation? Both have their advantages, but a high-fidelity simulation is a better option for an IT curriculum.

Virtualization is when an operating system is run on a virtual machine. The benefit of virtualization is that multiple operating system instances can run at the same time on a single physical computer. This essentially creates multiple computers out of a single physical computer.

In the case of an IT curriculum, virtual labs means labs that use virtual machines. First, virtual machines are installed on a physical computer. Each virtual machine is accessible to students through the Internet. Students log on to one of the virtual machines and work on it as though it is a “real” computer.

The advantage of virtual labs is that students are working with an actual operating system. In a simulation, only relevant and related features are enabled.

Depending on how thoroughly a simulation has been created, there might be significant differences between the simulation and a live system. With LabSim, TestOut has created very high-fidelity simulations, meaning that we get pretty close to the real thing in the areas we have chosen to program.

There is sometimes a negative stigma attached to “simulations” because of low-quality, low-fidelity, screen-shot simulations people often see. Educators who are considering passing over LabSim because it is a “simulation” should carefully consider what they are trying to teach students, then evaluate LabSim labs to see the type of freedom and fidelity that is available. LabSim provides the ability to experiment, get things wrong, and identify and correct mistakes.

There are many advantages of the simulations in LabSim over virtual labs, including:
  • Targeted scenarios. LabSim labs are designed with clear tasks to target the skills students need to master. Many virtual labs start with a running operating system but no instructions about what the student is expected to complete.
  • Scoring. LabSim labs provide task-by-task scoring with detailed score reports. Scores are automatically added to the student progress record where they can be easily tracked. Most virtual labs cannot be scored. If instructors want to verify completion of a specific task, they typically require students to do screen captures or just log their time.
  • Screenshot from lab in LabSim A+
  • Hardware labs. LabSim labs provide a way to learn and practice hardware configuration tasks. Virtual labs are limited to being able to work with the operating system and applications—there is no possible way to work with hardware components or physical network connections.
  • Restricted operations. LabSim labs let students practice administrative tasks—tasks that are often disabled or prevented on virtual machines. For example, LabSim includes labs on configuring BIOS settings, reformatting hard drives, and changing virtual memory settings that often cannot be performed in a virtual lab due to security restrictions or other limitations.
  • Capacity. TestOut has not yet encountered a situation where a student could not complete a lab because there were too many current users of the lab. Virtual labs can only support the number of simultaneous users based on the number of available virtual machines.
  • Scheduling. Students can complete LabSim labs at any time and from any computer that has an Internet connection. Virtual labs can only be completed on a computer with a virtual machine installed. To complete a lab, students must work during a scheduled time.
  • Time limits. Students have full access to LabSim labs, can spend as much time in the labs as they like, and can return to any lab at any time. To further reduce the capacity and scheduling problems, many instructors using virtual labs limit their students’ time in those labs.
  • Performance. Performance of LabSim labs is typically equal to or better than virtual labs. TestOut has had several customers report dropped connections or inconsistent access through virtual labs.
  • Misconfiguration. With LabSim labs, if a student makes a significant mistake, he or she simply restarts the lab. With a virtual lab, starting over might not be possible or might take a significant amount of time.
Investigating virtual labs is a logical thing to do when looking for a solution to providing hands-on practice. The advantages of LabSim make it a better choice for most institutions. TestOut has several customers who initially used virtual labs, thinking that the “real” thing must be better, only to find out that students weren’t getting the experience they expected and that managing and scoring the virtual labs was problematic.

One final note about simulations. Pilots, NASA, and the military recognize simulations as a valid and often preferred alternative to “live” training. Much like a good flight simulator or a bike with training wheels, LabSim simulations are sufficiently lifelike to provide realistic experience. In addition, LabSim is specifically designed to target the skills students need for certification exams and for future careers.

Don Whitnah, TestOut

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