5.10 Technology Enhanced Learning, including E-learning

I tried to define e-learning in Chapter 3 and recommended that you look at the book by Diana Laurillard (2002). You should also look on the web site of JISC (the Joint Information Services Committee of HEFCE, www.jisc.ac.uk) for reports of the many IT projects they have sponsored over the last few decades. It might help you in thinking about e-learning to distinguish between e-learning (students using a computer or mobile device to access learning materials) and e-delivery (the teacher using technology to help with the delivery of teaching). I emphasised earlier that good e-learning should offer activities which cannot be provided by a handout, a book or a whiteboard. I will now try to suggest some specific technologies which you might consider using.

Personal response systems (clickers or smart phones) allow students to respond instantly but anonymously to your questions during classes. Most systems require dedicated keypads (one per student) and a small receiver which plugs into your computer, but there are now several mobile-phone-based systems which do not require dedicated hardware. I will use the single word “clickers” to imply either a dedicated system or a phone-based system such as Poll Everywhere [www.polleverywhere.com]. The two great advantages of clickers are that you can find out during a class whether the students are having problems, and that you simultaneously collect a record of individual and aggregated responses which you can not only use in real time but also can analyse at leisure as you try to improve your class next year. The Wikipedia article ‘Audience Response’ provides some good background.

Although clickers are sometimes light-heartedly dismissed as ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire? buttons’ they have several really useful applications. At the simplest level, if used sparingly (perhaps 3 or 4 times in an hour session) they can break up the monotony and force student interaction at just the optimal time – the end of their 15 minute concentration span. Alternatively they can be used to conduct a formative test during a class. They are some advantages to allowing students to anonymously assess their own progress; A student who got the question right but sees that there is a significant minority of students who didn’t may be more tolerant of the lecturer’s need to repeat material. In the opposite direction a student who sees that he is among a small minority of people who didn’t ‘get it’ might be spurred on to try again knowing that it is possible to understand it. The key point is the anonymity of the responses, giving the student the confidence to respond truthfully.

Taken more seriously, you can use clickers as the basic tool for what is usually called peer instruction[1] . Eric Mazur (a physicist) has championed the use of concept questions with clickers (Mazur, 1997). A concept question is one which requires an understanding of the underlying concepts, but usually require little in the way of factual knowledge. A well-known example, from the popular Force Concept Inventory (Hestenes, 1992), might be: If a heavy truck collides head-on with a car are the forces on each vehicle at the moment of impact a) greater on the car; b) the same, or; c) greater on the truck?  This requires no calculation to answer, merely an understanding of Newton’s third law and the ability to distinguish between force and momentum.

There are not yet major compilations of concept questions in Engineering, but collecting them would be very worthwhile and the NSF has just funded such a project, ciHUB, in the USA [http://cihub.org/]. I also have the beginnings of a collection, harvested at CDIO conferences, which now amounts to about 80 questions. Ask me if you want to share it.

Mazur suggests that every class period (which might previously have been called a lecture) should be preceded by the setting of a student study task (e.g. reading about the topic to gather some knowledge). The class then proceeds in the following way:

  • The lecturer asks a concept question, asking the students to think about it and answer it on their own;
  • The answers are collected via clickers;
  • If > 70% of the answers are correct, a further (more difficult) question is asked;
  • If < 30% of the answers are correct, a further (easier) question is asked;
  • If >30% and <70% of answers are correct, each student is asked to turn to her neighbour, who is highly likely to have answered differently, and discuss their reasons for answering, and arrive at an agreed answer;
  • The answers are again collected using the clickers;
  • The fraction of correct answers is now usually much higher, and an explanation might be given to the whole class;
  • A further, more difficult, question is posed and the class continues.

The key element in this procedure involves students explaining to each other why one answer is more appropriate. This involves a number of good features. It attempts to resolve misconceptions by getting a peer to explain the issues – the peer student is in the best possible position to appreciate the difficulty. The students also gain experience in explaining, thereby learning rapidly as they have to ‘teach’ someone else. This is the ‘peer instruction’ activity. Usually the student with the correct understanding will prevail, but if she does not, the subsequent explanation by the lecturer should clarify the situation.

An essential aspect of this peer instruction process is the use of good concept questions. Writing these is not trivial, and the engineering education community needs to work together to develop an extensive database of questions.

There are a few issues to consider before starting to use clickers:

  • If you choose to use clickers during a class, then you must be prepared to adjust your subsequent teaching in the light of the responses you get. This means you may not get through everything you had planned, but you will be more certain that the students understand the material which was treated;
  • The capital cost and time overhead for setting up both used to be significant, but were usually associated with the handset so could be zero now that every student has a mobile phone;
  • The set-up time for the lecturer is very small (a minute or so), once the software has been installed on your laptop at the start of the year;
  • The type of question which can be answered (and thus asked) is nowadays very wide. The latest handsets and software allow multiple choice responses (one or many answers), correction of answers after a re-think, numerical answers and even text entry;
  • There have been plenty of experiments with the use of mobile phones, or even on-line web sites as personal response systems (see for example Polleverywhere above). This works, but carries some installation overheads and the business model for paying for the service is not yet clear. The use of mobile phones to send answers by SMS (texting) seems to be taking over, because it does not require a specific phone (see below);
  • Finally – almost all students like clickers. I have been a user for several years with first and second-year and the most frequent question from students in later years of their programme is ‘why don’t we use clickers any more?’

There are plenty of low-tech alternatives to clickers. You can issue coloured cards, or ask student to hold the appropriate number of fingers in the air or against their chest (it is quite easy to scan a large class and see the range of responses) but the huge disadvantage of these methods is that the student’s response is not anonymous – they can look around to see what their peers are voting, and indeed they may be inhibited from making the response they believe to be correct because of peer pressure.

Digitally responding to a question during a presentation
Digitally responding to a question during a presentation


We can now assume that every student in our class has a mobile phone capable of sending and receiving SMS (texting). This opens up possibilities for using this familiar technology (at least, familiar to the students, many of whom are probably using it as you speak in a class). Texting has some of the advantages of clickers – principally anonymity of the sender (to his neighbours) but individually attributable by you. It permits bulk sending of, for examples, questions to a whole class or year group. Your university computing or telephone services probably offer a bulk texting facility to class lists of students. It also permits great flexibility of response, but as yet there are almost no systems which can organise and collate the student responses. Texting, because of its familiarity and ubiquity, can be decoupled from class times so in principle allows the student to consider questions after class and then respond. However some observers have found that because of the implicit immediacy of texting, students either respond immediately or not at all. The MELAS project at the University of Wolverhampton explored many of these issues and its final report can be read at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearninginnovation/melas


The technology to ‘podcast‘ an audio or video file is now well established. The file can then be reviewed on a mobile device such as an MP3 player or smart phone. It is not dissimilar to mounting a recording of your lecture on your institution’s VLE. Many lecturers are doing this, so that their students can review the lectured material if they were absent or ill. An equally useful technique, adopted by many students who are listening to the lecture in their second or third language, is to review the lecture more slowly, with frequent pauses to assimilate (or replay) words which were not understood first time. This seems to me a very good idea, although I have colleagues who  comment that some students will use absolutely everything you make available, so a few students who don’t really need a further review of the material may spend time on it, simply because it was provided. To which I reply that if the student properly owns his own learning, then he should not choose to repeat exercises after he has achieved understanding.

A more interesting way to use the technology of podcasting is to broadcast timely updates on your module or programme. John Fothergill at the University of Leicester, for instance, prepares a five minute audio podcast every two weeks during his module. On it he records items he has heard or read over the intervening fortnight which provide contextual background to the module. There can be few topics in Engineering which are not amenable to this sort of treatment, with some sort of application in the news. Since all of us, I am sure, read one or more technical journals as well as the general news this is not a demanding task. The resultant podcast both adds relevance and context to the students’ learning and also gives the (correct) impression that the world of engineering is not static and is relevant to society.

Finally, a number of lecturers report that students do listen to feedback in the form of a podcast.  This is an easy way of giving timely user-friendly feedback to the whole class.

Wikis and blogs

Many lecturers, although few as yet in engineering, establish blog or wiki sites for their students. This facility is usually available within your university’s VLE, so does not involve using an external site. The strength of either of these technologies is that they enable students and staff to help each other, to ask questions, and to learn asynchronously beyond the timetabled class periods. The weakness is that engineering does not appear at first sight to be a subject where discussion or opinion plays a large role. However I remain hopeful that wider use of these shared facilities will encourage the transfer of understanding among students and the spread of positive attitudes about the study of engineering. The big advantage of an academically-initiated blog or wiki is that it is not immediately considered as a purely social site, as might be the case for Facebook, for instance.


As I write, Facebook is the dominant social networking site – although it might not be by the time you read this. However I wager that social networking is still an important feature of student life. The question for us is, to what extent do we attempt to use such sites for academic purposes?  My answer is that we should not, for a number of reasons. These include the feeling that we should encourage our students to take engineering more seriously than is implied by a purely social setting, together with the desire not to be perceived as snooping on student behaviour which is, I would argue, none of our business. However, while I don’t think we should consciously use Facebook, I welcome student behaviour which makes use of such technology to arrange meeting of groups and teams. I just don’t think we would succeed in demanding such behaviour.

Second Life

On-line environments such as Second Life have a superficial appeal for universities, but have not proved successful – certainly in engineering. It is relatively straightforward to create an academic space in Second Life, and to populate it with lectures and study support material but I do not believe that this represents good value for our effort. It is time-consuming, if not particularly difficult, to establish a useful presence and I find myself unpersuaded that the resultant environment offers more to the student than his institution’s own VLE. Effort spent in creating a credible second world for your programme or module will be considerable and the resultant environment, even if initially of high quality, is unlikely to survive more than a few years. Second Life is already a bit passé and is perceived as a leisure environment rather than a study environment, so I would not bother with it.

YouTube, Scribd, Slideshare, Flickr …

There is a plethora of file-sharing sites. Currently YouTube clearly specialises in video clips, Flickr in images, Slideshare in presentations and Scribd in text files, although the borderlines are becoming blurred. A new entrant – little known as yet – is Kritikos, which presents images which support engineering teaching. Other sites will un-doubtedly emerge.

Kritikos (kritikos.liv.ac.uk) is a visual-based search engine tailored to the needs of engineering. This facility enables students or staff to search for images, videos and presentations on engineering topics. The results are presented as visual thumbnails and are filtered to display engineering topics first.

The academic argument about using these sites is qualitatively different from that for Facebook or Second Life. These are not sites occupied by students, but sites searched by students and staff in search of useful material. You have probably already included a clip from YouTube in a lecture. Recent experience with a project on Open Educational Resources (core.materials.ac.uk) indicates that resources designed to be used for teaching (micrographs, video clips, animations, lecture notes) are discovered more frequently on these ‘Web 2.0’ sites that on sites designed to provide academic support. So if you want your material to be used by students and teachers around the world (and if it’s good, why wouldn’t you?) consider uploading it to a Web 2.0 site. It will be found more rapidly by a search engine than if it is buried in your VLE.

On-line tests

My final example of technology to enhance learning is the on-line test. There are two (perhaps three) huge advantages of on-line testing: the marking is instantaneous; questions can be re-used, and; (if you have the technology) formative feedback can be offered immediately. Most universities now have access to a VLE which incorporates an on-line test capability, and there are also stand-alone commercial products (e.g. Question Mark) and publishers who offer on-line tests with feedback (at a price, e.g. Pearson’s Mastering Engineering). There are also question banks available in some subject areas, often available via the UK Subject Centres.

Some of the issues to bear in mind when using on-line assessment are:

  • Many question types are now available, so the days of over-simple ‘choose one correct answer from four’ are long gone. You can use drag-and-drop, multiple correct answers, clicking on an active image, numerical answers or even textual answers (but beware the time it might take to mark these);
  • On-line tests can be formative or summative – you can offer them for practice, or for marks;
  • Tests can be timed – both in duration and in the window during which they are available;
  • You can usually select whether the student can have a single attempt or multiple attempts. Bear in mind that some students will take a perfectionist approach and strive to get everything completely right. This may not be the most effective or appropriate use of their time, so you might not want to permit unlimited attempts;
  • Remember that in all cases except when you are patrolling a test in pseudo-exam-room situations the students can consult other resources (including their friends) while they are taking the test. You might consider allocating each student a random sub-set of questions from a larger bank, and setting questions which are not amenable to looked-up answers.
  • You can add a question or two to any test to get feedback from the students.  This is likely to attract a better response than an end-of-module questionnaire and in addition is less onerous and more timely.

I will close this section with a word of warning. Consider carefully the cost-effectiveness of engaging with any specific technology. Whatever the technology, we can be fairly certain about two things: It will be fun, but it will take a significant amount of your time to master it (and mastery is needed or you will simply lose credibility with your students when things go wrong or are perceived to be clunky or passé). And it will not be around in its current form for more than 5 years. In the week I am writing this, the iPad has been launched and Bebo has been withdrawn. You are unlikely to have used the social networking site Bebo since you were 12 (if at all) but the point is that a technology used by tens of millions can (and regularly does) disappear in an instant. These are not reasons for you to ignore the latest technology, but they are reasons why you should focus on the engineering content (which will still be valid in five years time) rather than on the exact delivery vehicle. If you need help mastering the latest technology seek help from your students and, if you have them, your children. This is co-operative learning (see above)! Alternatively if you have any influence on the budget of your School, suggest that the appointment of a learning technologist, to help you and your colleagues make best effective use of your time, would be a sound investment.

[1] Notice the unfortunate use of the word ‘instruction’ again

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

4 All Responses to “5.10 Technology Enhanced Learning, including E-learning”

  1. Peter Goodhew

    I need to add in here a section describing Kritikos (kritikos.liv.ac.uk) which is a visual-based search engine tailored to the needs of engineering. This facility enables students or staff to search for images, videos and presentations on engineering topics. The results are presented as visual thumbnails and are filtered to display engineering topics first.

  2. Peter Goodhew

    Liverpool is now using “poll everywhere” instead of clickers but there is some evidence that the novelty of in-class response has passed and that student uptake has saturated.

  3. Reina

    A piece of eriutdion unlike any other!

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