Evaluation of a virtual computer architecture lab
Virtual labs are excellent means to provide students with access to advanced microprocessor hardware. Running the lab, a remote server relieves students from complex installation of simulation software. With the long execution times of microprocessor simulations, a lab server provides results faster than the students' local machines. We report results about the practical use of our Virtual Computer Architecture Lab (VCAL) during a 36 day evaluation. A straightforward designed web interface simplifies the usage of the simulation software, thus allowing the student to concentrate on experiments and parameter settings. In the beginning, the students used the web interface more often, but they conducted experiments only towards the end. We conclude that students first learned to handle the web interface and used it afterwards. Although no student had previous experience with the SimpleScalar simulation software, they had no problems using the web interface, demonstrating the great potential of web interfaces to reduce usability problems compared to complex native user interfaces of simulators. Although only a subset of the simulator's parameter settings is available on the web interface, this still was sufficient for the subjects to be explored.. The students' rating in a questionnaire after the end of the evaluation phase showed acceptable simulation response times and improved understanding of the course content with the help of VCAL. Moreover, the web interface is simple enough to be used from mobile devices, thus improving mobile learning opportunities.
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