Saturday, April 14, 2012
PhETs and Java on an iPad? (CloudBrowse)
In physics education the PhET simulations from the University of Colorado group are among the most valuable interactive learning tools. They have been thoroughly authenticated with educational research. PhETs are available for a diverse range of topics in middle school, high school and university science teaching, particularly in physics and chemistry. They started in physics, and originally PhET was an acronym for Physics Educational Technology project. We routinely use them in our introductory physics course, as do many universities across North America and indeed in much of the world.
Physics Nobel Laureate Dr. Carl Wieman is considered the founder of PhETs. Dr. Wieman, along with Dr. Eric Cornell and Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on Bose-Einstein condensate. Dr. Wieman has devoted much of his energy over the past decade in furthering science education, and is arguably the most passionate current advocate for using research authenticated teaching and learning methods. He was awarded the 2007 Oersted Medal by the American Association of Physics Teachers. In 2007 the University of British Columbia attracted him to the university (although he retained a partial appointment at the University of Colorado at Boulder) and the Carl Wieman Science Institute was formed. With such high scientific credentials, and strong support from a number of foundations, it is not surprising that PhETs are probably the best known, and the most valuable, science education simulations in the world.
The PhET website gives the following statement with respect to the iPad: "iPads cannot run any of PhET's sims because these devices lack full support for Java and Flash." In most cases they also do not run, or do not run adequately, on Android tablets. Given how rapidly tablets are making inroads in education this is a serious limitation, and it appears that neither are the developers likely to issue iPad friendly versions, or is the iPad likely to support Java (and Flash), anytime soon, if ever.
When I recently learned of an app that promised to run Java and Flash on the iPad I was cautiously excited that perhaps this would offer a way to run some PhETs, even if in a limited manner. Therefore I spent part of this weekend giving the CloudBrowse app a try. The app gets around the lack of Flash and Java by running the content on their own servers and you interact with it through a special web browser within the app. While this sounds slow and complex, I have used the CloudOn app that allows you to run Word, Excel and PowerPoint from within an app via a server, and that runs surprisingly well, so I was at least hopeful that possibly CloudBrowse would bring similar functionality to PhETs and other Java simulations. After trying it out over the past day, I am sorry to report that it does not work well enough to be useful.
When you start up CloudBrowse you are in a web browser within the application. I must say that response is remarkably sprightly for searching on the web to get to the location of the Java that you want to run. So I searched for PhET, quickly connected to the site, and the home page simulations seemed to display just fine, and I was optimistic.
But when I actually ran a PhET, depending on the PhET, it either nearly ran or hardly ran. It is frustrating, because it almost works. For example I loaded the Capacitor PhET (see below) and it did come up on my iPad (an iPad 2 running the most recent iOS), allowed me to use the tabs to change different functions, and it allowed me to turn on and off various indicators such as for total charge or energy. However, when I tried to implement sliders for battery voltage or dielectric placement I had no success. I tried a number of other PhETs. The static electricity (balloon and sweater) one sort of half worked, I could move some charges around, but very slowly. I tried several kinematics and force PhETs and could not get them to operate properly at all. It seems to be the control elements, as opposed to the video, that is problematic.
CloudBrowse, developed by AlwaysOn Technologies, is normally priced at $2.99 for the basic version although as of this writing it is available as a free download (although it says it will revert to basic service if you do not upgrade after twenty-four hours). So if you act quickly you can try it out yourself without cost. With the basic plan you can only stay on any particular site for 10 minutes. For a subscription fee of $4.95 per month that limitation is taken away, and the speed of the server is improved by 50%. They also have a $5.95 plan that has a 100% improvement in speed (and some other functions - see details). Given how poorly CloudBrowse ran PhETs in the basic service I did not try subscribing to either of these.
I realize that CloudBrowse may well run more effectively at different times when the server is less busy. However I tried a number of PhETs over several hours and none of them worked adequately to be even minimally useful. Even though I see potential for apps like CloudBrowse, I am afraid I need to give it a failing grade of 3 out of 10 for running physics simulations such as PhETs. The company website includes positive reviews, and CloudBrowse probably works well for some Flash and Java implementations, but not with PhETs. In a future column I will look at apps to run Flash and Java from a Mac or PC on your local network. I suspect that this will work much better for running PhETs but does not accomplish the sort of independent use needed in educational environments.
Hopefully before too long a way to run PhETs that really works will become available. Comments on the PhET site suggests that the conversion from Java to iOS for the PhETs is complex, since some of the user interface is not readily converted to a touch screen. However, the porting of the complex and impressive iCircuit app (apparently accomplished in two months by a single developer using MonoTouch) will perhaps encourage Java education simulation developers to port to iOS.