A little over a year ago, the UK entered into its first national lockdown. Lectures and courses went online and exams took place in the home. And while the shift brought some convenient aspects, it rendered many crucial university tasks impossible — such as laboratory work, and other group and practical work.
But despite the initial (and ongoing) disruption, the shift to home-studying has also triggered new innovations that may well become a part of the ‘new normal’ of university teaching.
Universities, like many businesses, were forced to adapt once they shut their doors to students. And what were once seen as temporary measures — such as conducting lectures over platforms such as Zoom and Skype and launching open-book exams — have now become established, viable methods for effective engineering teaching. In short, coronavirus has forced many teachers to rethink how they can teach engineering as a subject. And this re-evaluation of teaching methods has birthed some notable improvements.
New teaching insights
Teaching over Zoom is great for so-called ‘synchronous’ learning, a teaching style where students can directly ask questions to their tutor. It’s also great for ‘asynchronous’ lectures, which are pre-recorded, and in which students can learn at their own pace. But both are obviously insufficient for many engineering modules. Much of the practical work just wouldn’t be feasible — and would be outright dangerous — if attempted outside the laboratory.
So Zoom teaching has morphed into four types, the aforementioned ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ learning styles, of which most people will be familiar. Along with a more enhanced version of lessons for studying lab effects, and even a practical style.
To make Zoom lessons fit with design-and-make classes, computer-simulation courses and so on, engineering academics had to go back and look at what the actual learning outcomes were for students working in the laboratory. They found that lab-lessons often fluctuate in what they offer. Some are more hands-on and are essential for honing skills and crafting experiments. But others were just about getting a glimpse of phenomena already taught in lectures.
In the latter case, the University of Sheffield has taken the initiative of integrating high-frame-rate cameras into the lab and filming the experiments for their students. With the ability to slow the experiments down, students could then see them more clearly and close-up, enabling a better understanding than what they might have witnessed in the laboratory itself.
Sheffield is also trialling e-lectures with a demonstrator in the laboratory, in which the students can ‘give instructions by proxy’. Proxy lab lessons over Zoom also have the added benefit that they offer increased opportunity for students to ask more questions and to really develop the experimental approach, as the environment is more controlled by an experienced demonstrator, who can effectively carry out tasks on command.
Sheffield is also toying with the idea of sending out home lab-kits so that students really can do at least some experimentation at home. Obviously, only the simplest experiments can take place safely at home — such as simple chemical kitchen counter experiments, or circuit boards for students in the computer science department. Such packs will also be useful for students in vulnerable high-risk groups, or for international students who may have moved abroad.
Another notable example of innovation is the sudden introduction of virtual reality (VR) headsets by London South Bank University into the e-classroom. The benefits of VR are obvious. Without the pandemic, this step forward might have taken years to ordinarily introduce into teaching.
The lockdowns have also forced engineering academics to rethink how they conduct exams, which has led to innovations that are also likely to outlast the pandemic.
Before the lockdowns came into effect, most engineering exams were based on memory. Specifically, how well students could recall specific formulas. But this isn’t reflective of the real world of work. In the real world, rather than remembering formulas, engineers just look them up. Then they figure out how to apply the formulas to the content.
To better reflect the workplace, engineering tutors are turning to open-book exams. Like in the real world, students are tested on their ability to think about a formula, then search for it, apply the information to a project, and finally, to then sense-check the results. Not only does this approach get around issues such as potential at-home cheating, it’s actually a more productive way of measuring a student’s informational and applicational skills.
The future of engineering and online learning
Even if universities were to fully open back up again tomorrow, it’s highly likely that many of the innovations described above will become part of the new ‘blended learning’ normal.
This means a greater mixture of online lessons, open-book exams, and maybe even smaller, more socially-distanced lab classes.
But what isn’t certain is if the online solution is viable for all engineering courses in the long run. After all, engineering is heavily dependent upon international students and their tuition fees. The sector needs their money in order for UK engineering to remain world-class. Too much over-optimisation for e-learning could be self-defeating in the long run.
How to strike the balance between ‘too much’ and ‘just enough’ e-learning is something that’s still being worked out. What is for sure though, is how brilliantly the universities have adapted to the challenge of teaching engineering online. Just ask the students. No doubt there will be many who will be in pleasant agreement of just how quickly the institutions have taken up the challenge of ushering in new methods of teaching, that may well stick around for a long time to come.
You might also like: Managing and monitoring COVID-19 risk: 5 lessons from the frontline