It is widely assumed that engineering, being a practical, largely experimental, subject, is unsuitable for distance learning. However it is worth questioning whether this needs to be the case. There is more to distance learning than the delivery of whole programmes to students living far from the host university. The key characteristic of distance learning is very limited attendance of the student at the host institution. This usually (but not necessarily) implies;
- Access by the student to learning materials which might be on paper, on line or on portable media;
- The facility to study at any time (non-synchronously) and at any pace;
- Access to an on-line discussion/tutorial group of fellow students;
- Occasional on-line access to a tutor;
- On-line formative assessment;
- On-line or conventional summative assessment.
These are also the key characteristics of a MOOC, but can be applied to a single module, or even part of a module. This can offer a number of advantages such as;
- reduction of timetabling constraints;
- reduction of student travel time;
- reduction of time constraints so that a module could be studied at any time, e.g. for re-sit purposes;
- parallel use of a single module for locally registered and remote students;
- study of one or more modules by students on exchange schemes, work placements or field trips.
Edirisinga and Fothergill (2009) report an example of a single module (in this case ‘Optical Fibre Communications Systems’) delivered in an on-line environment which includes e-lectures, podcasts, video clips, animations, quizzes, background reading, links to other web sites, summative assignments and a discussion board. Removal of timetabling and room booking issues meant that they were able to package each e-lecture and podcast as a 5-10 minute segment. The e-lectures could be repeated in successive years while the podcasts were up-to-the-minute, recorded afresh every couple of weeks to ensure currency. As with many newer techniques, after the set-up effort had been expended the running costs of the module were not markedly different from those of a conventional face-to-face module, while student reaction was positive.
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