3.2 Innovative and less-conventional teaching methodology

Many – indeed probably most – undergraduate programmes in engineering and science include a small amount of non-conventional teaching and learning. It is common, in modular programmes, to find a small number of modules delivered via problem-based-learning (see below and Chapter 5.4) or with varying amounts of active learning (see Chapter 5.8). There are also plenty of examples of the use of technology to support student learning, although most of these are at a very elementary level – for example the use of a VLE (virtual learning environment) to store handouts or Powerpoint presentations for later study. These techniques are covered in more detail in Chapter 5.

Although such examples of innovation are to be found scattered within undergraduate programmes almost everywhere, it is extremely unusual to find a programme which has been designed and delivered based entirely on unconventional methods (i.e. not based on ten or more lectures per week). It will be interesting to see whether the introduction of MOOCs (see below) changes this situation over the next decade.

It is worth trying to define some of the more frequently used terms in the area of less-conventional teaching and learning. Each of these is, regrettably but inevitably, imprecise and all of them are used in different ways by different authors and in different countries. With these caveats, my descriptions can be found in the paragraphs below.  Several of these topics are explored in more detail in Chapter 5.

Assessment can be formative (it helps the student understand) or summative (it results in a mark) or both.

Posters1_el

E-learning usually implies the use of a computer to access material to help with learning. The terms TEL (technology enhanced learning) or ELT (enhancing learning through technology) are now sometimes used. At its lowest level e-learning might simply imply the use of a VLE (typically based on Blackboard or Moodle) to store lecture notes or Powerpoint slides. At a more developed level it might embrace formative or summative on-line assessment or offer support material for assignments. In its most developed form, e-learning should offer activities which cannot be offered by a handout, a book or a whiteboard. These might include detailed interactive simulations of engineering processes or virtual scenarios for teams of students to operate within.

The use of the terms e-learning or TEL by unsophisticated teachers may merely refer to the lowest levels of engagement – perhaps putting their notes on the institution’s VLE. I find this use rather disappointing, when the power of true e-learning is in its ability to offer much more than previously-available techniques. However no doubt the situation is improving as I write. For a thorough and detailed exposition of e-learning I recommend reading Laurillard (2002), and also see Chapter 5.

Distance learning (DL) would appear to be uncontentious, but beware!  DL is often used to imply e-learning, available at a distance, whereas it should merely mean learning at a distance, as most strongly typified by the Open University in the UK and several large on-line universities based in the USA. These institutions often use paper-based material as well as on-line or off-line CD-based materials. There is also an increasing appreciation that learning materials developed for use at an implied long distance (another city or country) can equally be used by local students who are merely not in your lecture theatre or classroom when they study it. The International Centre for Distance Learning at the Open University in the UK, supported by UNESCO, used to have a large database of literature on DL together with a long list of providers but its web site appears to have been removed. See also MOOCs below.

Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) have been appearing since about 2010. As I write it is not clear whether they will grow to become a major feature of higher education or will merely establish a niche presence.  The typical characteristics of a MOOC are a large enrolment (many thousands or tens of thousands of students), no fee, a low completion rate, no award of credit (although this may change rapidly) and a relatively simplistic delivery mechanism (videos of lectures, for instance).   Several international consortia have been established to share the burden of developing the delivery and housekeeping systems necessary to enrol and keep track of hundreds of thousands of distant students.  Principal among these are edX, Coursera and Udacity, based in the USA and FutureLearn led by the Open University in the UK.  The state of the MOOC movement in 2013 has been excellently reviewed by Haggard (2013).  A more detailed discussion of MOOCs in the context of engineering can be found in Chapter 5.12.

Work based learning (WBL) is usually what it says it is – learning in the workplace. WBL obviously offers advantages in access to tacit knowledge, skills and know-how, and in reducing costs for the student. The issues here are principally with assessment of the learning outcomes and with accreditation of prior learning (i.e. learning gained before registration for the current programme). [Gray, 2001; Adams et al 2004]

Part time study. This seems to be obvious – it relates to students not attempting as many modules at one time as would be possible for a full-time student. However there are those who assert that most students are now ‘part-time‘ in one or two senses: they may be working to earn money in parallel with their studies and/or they may be living at ‘home’ and enjoying the same social life as they had before enrolling as a student. This applies to the 18-21 age group as much as to older ‘mature’ students. Such individuals may not think of themselves as full-time students, embedded in the ‘student lifestyle’ but as members of their local society which will include friends at work as well as those studying. While in many ways this is very healthy, it may account for negative responses to a lecturer’s suggestion of activities beyond the ‘working day’.

Group or team working. Group work involves exercises undertaken by groups of, usually, between 3 and 8 students. Team working might imply that the groups are competing in some way, but is often used interchangeably with group working. Projects are often undertaken in groups but there are plenty of other learning activities which can take advantage of co-operative learning among a group of peers. Several of these are described in Chapter 5.

A Liverpool Formula Student team and their car
A Liverpool Formula Student team and their car

It is dangerous to assume that many aspects of working in a team will spontaneously occur to students. Some sort of training is thus highly desirable. It is debatable whether this is best reserved until after the students have had their first experience of working in groups and have therefore encountered some of the issues. It matters little, in my view, which semi-formal approach to teamwork is taken and it does not need to take very long. Some lecturers choose to expose students to the ideas popularised by Belbin (Team roles: Plant, Resource Investigator, Co-ordinator, Shaper, Monitor Evaluator, Teamworker, Implementer, Completer Finisher and Specialist) or Tuckman (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing), or use a Myers-Briggs analysis of personalities. Look them up on the Internet for thousands of pages on any of these.

However it seems to me more important that this is done only once, in a consistent way, during an undergraduate programme. This requires a good oversight of the whole content of the programme – something which a Programme Director should in principle have, but may in practice be lacking. It is worth bearing in mind, as with a number of other topics, that your student cohort may contain individuals with widely differing experience of working together. It might be a good idea to exploit this experience during the teamwork training, to take full advantage of the pre-existing expertise.

Angela Dean writes: There is a case for students to learn ideas, knowledge and know how, but it is difficult for them to be become engaged in the real sense to enable them to absorb and retain the use of these.
One of the best modules I have been involved with was Appropriate Technology which used a very successful pedagogical approach which had complete engagement from the students.
Over the seven years that the module ran students studied a range of real technological developments around Derby, including a project involving the proposal to install a ‘waste to heat’ incinerator plant in Sinfin, south of Derby city centre. For this project student groups were formed representing a number of stakeholders in the proposed project:
For the incinerator

  • the local authority
  • the developers

Against the incinerator

  • the local residents
  • environmental lobby group

Student groups were required to talk to the real stakeholders in the city, interview them to discover their views (and the views of other participants) and represent them at a mock public enquiry, at which each of the four groups would present their findings, and the decision to go ahead or not would be made by an invited group of stakeholders.

Problem-based learning (frequently abbreviated to PBL) is a technique in which the students (usually in a group) discover for themselves the solution to a carefully-posed problem  (Overton, 2005). They usually operate with the aid of a facilitator, who may or may not be an expert in the field (opinions differ on the relative merits of these two approaches). In working on the problem, students have typically to re-formulate the problem in terms they can understand and which help them reach a solution; devise an approach to a solution; discover, understand and interpret data, knowledge and concepts which are required; co-operate to develop their ‘best’ solution and present the solution (and possibly their thinking) to the facilitator or to others.

The PBL approach was adopted enthusiastically by medical educators in the period 1990-2010 to such an extent that the clinical aspects of the curriculum in many medical schools are now delivered almost entirely by PBL.

PBL has also been used extensively in science and engineering, although there are few examples of complete curricula delivered by PBL. PBL shares many characteristics with Project-Based Learning (see Chapter 5).

A recent study at my own university – an avowedly  research-led institution – revealed that almost every student in Science or Engineering does encounter non-standard teaching, usually in every year of the programme. However these activities will, in almost every case, occupy only a small fraction of the student’s time – they are the exception rather than the rule. 85% of the teaching staff appeared to offer no alternative to the 50-minute lecture and their only concession to ‘innovation’ was the use of Powerpoint and the mounting of their handouts on the local VLE.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
― various versions of this are attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Confucius.

Mike Ashby writes: “This section seems to me to sum up exactly the value of Activity or Problem-based learning. ABL or PBL, by themselves, don’t provide an overall structure in the way that a well-designed lecture course can, but by using information rather than just remembering it, it becomes embedded more deeply in the mind. There is a case for a balanced combination of lecture-based and problem-based teaching, the first providing what you might call the grammar and syntax of the subject, the second providing fluency in applying it.”

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

2 All Responses to “3.2 Innovative and less-conventional teaching methodology”

  1. Mike Ashby

    “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
    ― Benjamin Franklin.
    This seems to me to sum up exactly the value of Activity or Problem-based learning. ABL or PBL, by themselves, don’t provide an overall structure in the way that a well-designed lecture course can, but by using information rather than just remembering it, it becomes embedded more deeply in the mind. There is a case for a balanced combination of lecture-based and problem-based teaching, the first providing what you might call the grammar and syntax of the subject, the second providing fluency in applying it. DONE

    Reply
  2. Angela Dean

    I think there is a case for students to learn ideas, knowlege, know how, but it is difficult for them to be become engaged in the real sense to enable them to absorb and retain the use of these.
    One of the best modules I was involved with was Appropriate Technology which used a very successful pedagogical approach which had complete engagement from the students.
    Over the seven years that the module ran students studied a range of real technological developments around Derby, including a project involving the proposal to install a ‘waste to heat’ incinerator plant in Sinfin, south of Derby city centre. For this project student groups were formed representing a number of stakeholders in the proposed project:
    Ÿ For the incinerator
    ¢ the local authority
    ¢ the developers
    Ÿ Against the incinerator
    ¢ the local residents
    ¢ environmental lobby group
    Student groups were required to talk to the real stakeholders inthe city, interview them to discover their views (and the views of other participants) and represent them at a mock public enquiry,at which each of the four groups would present their findings, and the decision to go ahead or not would be made by an invited group of stakeholders. DONE

    Reply

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