Hardison points to the first iLab experiment at the University of Queensland, in Australia, as an example of what good interface design can achieve. “We had just gotten the first version of the service broker up and running and the source code available for people to download,” Hardison recalls. The iLab team at MIT began getting e-mails from Joel Carpenter, a Queensland undergrad, who was trying to put a standard control-systems exercise online: students had to accelerate a pendulum at just the right rate so that it would come to rest pointing upward. Carpenter’s interface offered an animated depiction of each run of the experiment and a way to compare animations of different runs. But it also indicated which part of the control program was being executed at each point in the run. If something went awry, students could immediately determine which lines of code were responsible. “The success rates of people being able to balance this pendulum went way up,” Hardison says. Indeed, even students who were physically in the lab with the pendulum chose to use Carpenter’s iLab interface rather than the standard control system, which simply allowed students to set the initial conditions for the pendulum’s acceleration.
Like the students in del Alamo’s transistor physics class, however, many of the students who have used the iLab system seem most enthusiastic about the flexibility it offers in scheduling. Its chief benefit is “the ability to repeat the experiments as many times as possible until a concept is fully understood,” says Moninuola Olufola, who used the system to run experiments on the ELVIS as an undergraduate at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University. “I could learn at my own pace with no instructor to shout at me, and I can even go back to perform an experiment long after every other person has forgotten about it.” Even, presumably, between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. on a Thursday night.