In the time of lockdown and social isolation, it is not business as usual, putting community social fabric under strain. This is testing our resilience to change and agility to adapt through innovation. The University sector is acutely impacted where physical interaction forms a large part of our value. As a community of learners and teachers, we thrive on the interpersonal interactions that happen seamlessly on campus, the sensory inputs from interacting with our peers, teaching staff, equipment and experiments. The very vibe of the University experience is being challenged with the current COVID19 health lockdown.
Despite this unfortunate event, we are also gifted with this opportunity to innovate and continue to enhance our teaching endeavours. This is a golden opportunity to fully integrate a digital layer with the traditional physical layer of interaction. The School of Engineering has introduced different interaction models, such as asynchronous laboratory sessions, podcast audio lectures and plenty of lunch box experiments into the teaching of our students. We are currently experimenting with each of these digital and remote techniques in order to preserve, reinvigorate and elevate the student experience for our Engineering cohort. Notably, the current lockdown and dispersed learning have also emphasised the importance of physical interaction. That this digital interaction may be adjunct to the physical interaction that will hopefully be reinstated soon, once we ‘flatten the curve’.
Digital layer overlay
Since 2018, we have been experimenting with a large scale, vertically integrated, project-based learning pedagogy incorporating the commercial collaboration software from Australian IT company Atlassian, JIRA and CONFLUENCE. Utilising this cloud software, we can provide a digital view over the progress of each student, their small group, their combined team and the cohort as a whole. Using iPads, and a platoon of eight tutors watching over 300+ students we have been able to ensure each small group of 6-8 students are effectively working as a team that contributes to the project objective. Tutors use their iPads to access JIRA to review tasks, progress and issues using agile Kanban boards and the CONFLUENCE document repository and wiki for each group to review in-progress work products. This enables the tutor to physically approach, engage and verbally give feedback as to how each group is performing within their team planning, documentation and execution. This has proven to be a very effective use of technology, as any members of the 45 small groups can seek feedback on technical issues from any tutor and the tutor is able to address the issue in real-time with the inquiring group. The positive result from this engagement and interaction in 2019 was the design and production of 11 small scale elevators. This was previously described in the Teche blog (https://teche.mq.edu.au/2019/11/lets-elevate-authentic-project-based-learning/).
Let’s take it online
As we know how difficult it is to have students still feel engaged during such locked down and homebound periods, we have created online communities that aim to replicate and enhance the interaction between students of different cohorts. We wish to create a true sense of community within the School of Engineering. To replace the casual interactions that occurred on the campus we have created, using the Discord platform, a series of channels that span both subject areas as well as cohorts. We currently have in excess of 30% of the student cohort community engaged on this virtual platform. The aim is to inculcate a sense of community within the Engineering student body with special chat channels around cohort years and disciplines. We are hoping that the generality of the channels will break down the unitisation that currently exist within the student cohort: that if you study a certain unit you feel you should only interact with those students within that unit about that unit. Furthermore, the informal channels such as memes, ideas-initiatives and societies enable all students to have fun and see opportunities to get involved. We hope to see this initiative take off and extend the ability for students to connect beyond physical interaction in class.
Podcast audio lectures
As podcasts become mainstream, with average daily listeners in excess of 1.6 million in Australia (http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/8056-podcast-listeners-australia-march-2019-201907190703), they are becoming the go-to source for entertainment, media updates and continuous learning (https://www.podcastinsights.com/podcast-statistics/). The School of Engineering has been experimenting with switching out lectures for high-quality audio podcasts. We have invested in a set of great value RØDECaster Pro (mixer and mic set) and renovated an existing office into a sound studio in which we can easily create a high-quality audio recording with academics, experts in the field, corporate guests and the student community with ease. Echo 360 lecture recording audio quality was a particularly sore point in a recent engineering student experience survey conducted in 2019.
As technology becomes more ubiquitous and that asynchronous work/life schedules are becoming more prevalent, we too must embrace mobile learning as a mean of inclusive delivery of relevant and contextualised education for our next generation of leaders. Within the SPINE units, which are a series of units that aim to develop transferable skills and employability skills for our engineering students, we have embraced this medium to promote the habit of continuous learning during and after their university education. We currently have a SoundCloud channel which is accessible via https://soundcloud.com/mqsoe.
Lunch box take home labs
After the trials of the take-home lunch box sized experiments in electronics in 2018 and 2019, which was well-received by both the students and the education community, we have rolled it out en-mass this year. The results of the 2018 introduction of lunch box labs for digital electronics was presented at the 30th Australasian Association for Engineering Education (AAEE) conference (https://researchers.mq.edu.au/en/publications/lunch-box-labs-utilising-small-and-portable-practicals). It is fortunate that in these unprecedented times it has become a very viable tool in maintaining student’s engagement and being able to maintain the hands-on experience for students learning electronics and circuits. In 2020 we introduced the option for first-year students to purchase their own Arduino based starter kit. This kit will be utilised by the student throughout their entire University education. Many of our first-year students are currently benefiting from their purchased kit in the Introduction to Circuit Building series of practical sessions. Us offering and their commitment to acquire, such equipment greatly enhances their agency for their study in the engineering field and empowers them to be able to test their understanding by hands-on engagement in the comfort and safety of their home. Sadly, the total lockdown has highlighted some unexpected shortcomings with this approach which will be rectified with future deliveries. We are also exploring the possibility of utilising and extending this take-home approach in conducting workshops for other disciplines of engineering.
Traditional textbook questions/exercises rely on teachers to be able to diagnose a student’s misconception and provide instruction. With the shift to online-only delivery, this 1-on-1 support takes significantly longer and a simple request like “show me your working”, for maths problems or fixing a misplaced wire in electronics, are no longer trivial and require additional technology outside the learning management system: iLearn. We, therefore, need to invest in methods and tools that allow for self-diagnosis and provide fully worked solutions for all questions.
In 2020, we are trialling the use of McGraw Hill’s Connect tool in a 1000 level engineering unit. The tool links e-textbook passages to a randomised question bank and a personalised learning report to help students focus their study on what they don’t know or thought they knew. The advantage in closed questions, that are typical of foundational engineering knowledge, is immediate feedback through worked solutions and unlimited re-attempts with new parameters being generated for the same question. The personalised learning report is made possible with question confidence being polled when the solution is submitted. Allowing the student to see what they know (knowledge), what they don’t know (knowledge gaps) and what they thought they knew (misconceptions). From there they can help themselves by revising the linked chapter topic and what misconceptions they need to ask tutors about.
As can be seen, difficult and challenging times are not necessarily a signal to stop innovating and just sustain business as usual. If anything, it should be a call for more innovation and challenges to the status quo and to design new approaches to be more robust and resilient in our operation. In Chinese, there is phrase Wéijī (危機) which contains both the character of Wēi (危: danger, risk, uncertainty) and Jī (機; opportunities, changes). As engineers and educators, we should always embrace the opportunities that unexpected difficulties bring.