Rex di Bona is a lecturer in the School of Engineering, who approaches teaching and his students’ learning as a series of very interesting engineering problems to be solved. It’s not just about the technical for Rex, it’s also about finding solutions to common teaching dilemmas: How do you get students working together in teams? How do you oversee and guide learning while not being the only person ‘teaching’? How do you ensure that students are as prepared professionally as they are technically?
Rex is also a recently-awarded Advance HE Fellow, and in his Fellowship application, spoke about his commitment to enabling ‘real-world learning’ for his students, with one reviewer commenting on Rex’s extensive understanding of the professional contexts his students would be entering on graduating, and the requirements for working effectively within those contexts. In this TECHE #longread, Rex talks about the ways in which he has shaped his teaching approach to meet both the professional needs of students and industry. As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia.
The technical and professional – ‘the spine’ of engineering
I teach technical units in digital electronics – so how computers work all the way from the ground up – and I also lecture on networking in computing, something I’m very interested in.
My main focus is on what’s called the spine in engineering – essentially, professional practice for engineers. Engineering is a professional degree and part of the rules for the degree is that the students have to come out with a set of not only technical knowledge, but also a whole bunch of additional attributes.
In talking to the employers of our students, there is great demand for these types of skills, so I’m doing both technical and less technical teaching, in – well, I don’t want to describe them as necessary life skills, as the problem is that when you say things like that, people think they’re all just fluff units and they’re not. They’re actually really difficult units, because to learn to communicate professionally, to learn to express yourself, and to work in groups, is actually really difficult, but those are the things that students need to know and need to be proficient at when they leave. Students find that these skills are invaluable once they graduate.
They don’t realise it at the time, and a lot of the students think they don’t need to learn this sort of stuff – they think “I’m here to be an engineer”. It takes a lot of encouragement for them to come to the understanding that they need to have these skills as well.
Then there’s the technical side: in the industry, there are various technical tools that they will use, and two of them are provided by an Australian company called Atlassian, one is Confluence, a document management system, and the other is JIRA, a task management system. We put the students into their groups and teams and they are set up like an actual company using these professional tools that they will use out in the real world.
Group work versus team work
Q Is there a difference between working in teams and working in groups for engineering education?
Yes, a group is a set of people working on a task, but all working on the same aspect of the task. Groups are typically quite small. They may be diverse, but they’re all trying to solve exactly the same problem. Whereas a team is a lot of people, usually more than a group, and it may consist of multiple groups, that are working on the same project, but they’re all working on different parts of the same project.
To give an example: we’ve currently got a unit running at the moment which involves both teams and groups. The team project is to build a robot that will run around and collect tennis balls. There are up to 60 students working on each robot, and they’re broken into about nine groups. Each group is working on one particular aspect of that robot. One group is dealing with the software. One group is dealing with the super structure and the mechanical structure of it, and things like that. There are very different needs and skills for working in a group and working in a team.
Student projects that run across years and disciplines
Q How do you incorporate the different skills, attributes, and capabilities typically found in workplace teams into the student teams and groups?
At the moment, we have a project that is running over multiple years. We have both second-year and third-year students in two different units working together. The students are split into groups and we make sure that there are second- and third-year students in each group. The second-year students have learning outcomes on the technical information they provide and the technical work they do. The third-year students have a learning outcome that is about management and about how they manage the group. They all bring that different focus to what they’re doing. The project includes students from all the different disciplines in engineering.
The challenge we have as teaching staff is coming up with a problem that encompasses all the different forms of engineering. We aim to end up with a group with technical skills in, say software engineering, working and collaborating with a bunch of mechanical engineers with their different experiences, on so on.
So, when the students come into this unit in second year, they’ve already heard that they’re going to build a robot – that’s their expectation. When they get to their third year, it’s the same project but with a different robot, and a different expectation put on them. The third-years know what the second-years are going to do but what they have to do is slightly different, and because they’ve just completed it, they’re able to actually guide the second-year students much better. Because of the repeating nature of the project, and the fact that they’ve gone through it at one level and then they go through it at a different level, we’re finding that the students are walking away with significantly better skills, both for the technical level, because they’ve seen what can be done, but also at the managerial level – it gives the students different exposure.
Generally, the student cohort moves through the course together and all the ‘spine’ units are structured such that they are essentially a program in their own right, and students study them every session, across every year, including the beginning of fourth year. And so we have the advantage of having one unit set up so they learn something, and then they actually get to implement it in another unit.
I don’t know of any other examples of this kind of multi-year and multidisciplinary project at Macquarie. Getting this up and running was a bit of a gamble, but it’s paying off now.
Lunchbox learning – supporting students to learn in their own time
Q You wrote about ‘lunchbox learning’ for your Fellowship application – can you tell us a bit more about this concept and how you made it work for online?
The lunchbox learning idea came about, because, when I first joined the university, I was teaching a very equipment-intensive unit in which the students were only able to come in and use the equipment during their scheduled lab time. They would come in and only have time to focus on doing one particular task and then have to leave and they didn’t get a chance to fully engage. Industry experience tells us that’s not the way people learn how to work with this sort of equipment. And because electronics are now so cheap, it’s feasible for students to have their own set of equipment.
So I organised for each student to have their own kit of parts (it’s literally in a lunchbox) and all of the labs to be based just on using that kit. The kits are cheap enough that students can take them home. Then we say ‘Here’s the labs, talk to the other students, play with it, just have fun because you will see these in your professional career so you might as well get used to playing with them now’.
It worked out really well and the students really like it. There’s this ‘spontaneous peer-assisted learning’ going on between more-advanced and less-advanced students, and it’s really helped all the students get lots of experience with the equipment.
I felt so vindicated when one day I was wandering through the building and there was a group of students sitting around with their kits, talking about what they were doing and talking about the labs.
In the third week of Session 1 2020, when we had the COVID halt, we’d already given all the students their kits so when we moved to online learning, we were able to just continue. Essentially, the practical sessions became a Zoom session where we would give them assistance and guidance with their kits. So it absolutely does work for online. In fact, now we’re using the lunchbox kits in three other engineering units. Starting this year, we’re selling the kits to students in first year. If they are studying electrical engineering, they will use it in first, second and third year and they can play with it whenever they like. The kits cost about $55, which is cheaper than the students could buy it themselves, and it’s also completely tailored to what we want. I’ve asked the other Unit Convenors what they want in the kits- so there are specialised components for particular units. We construct the kits in-house – someone lines up all the boxes and puts the parts in.
There were some downsides though. One problem was that because it was physical equipment, if anything went wrong, or if they were unsure, or made a wiring error, that became really hard to address. This year I tried to solve that problem by giving them software that would test out their wiring so the software would test it all out for them and they could find all the hardware problems to begin with, independent of the software problem.
Overall though, it works really, well – I’m very happy with it.
Peer assisted learning – vertical and horizontal
Q You’re a proponent of ‘vertical peer assisted learning’. What is this and how is it different to ‘regular’ peer assisted learning?
We have two different types of peer assisted learning. We run one in our vertically-integrated class that I talked about earlier, so we call that ‘vertical peer assisted learning’ to differentiate it from standard (or horizontal) peer assisted learning. So standard/horizontal peer assisted learning (PAL) is where you’ve got learners at the same level and they’re trying to learn something together.
Vertical PAL is where a student has completed the unit, but now comes back and is effectively doing the same project, but with a slightly different focus, and they’re working with a student who hasn’t done the unit yet, so the first student now guides the second student. So they’re not in the same year or at the same level, but they’re close enough for it to be peer assisted learning.
One of the things we’ve really noticed is that with any sort of peer assisted learning you need to enable communication between the students and have really rich communication paths between them.
So we gave the students different ways of talking to each other – and they have really taken to using Discord instant messaging. So we use both Discord and iLearn. They had the option of setting up a Facebook group as well but the reason we don’t really want them to use Facebook is because in some professional companies, conducting any company business over Facebook is almost a sackable offence, particularly for talking about internal proprietary information; you can’t just IM someone over these sorts of things, it has to be a very controlled channel. So we set the same scenario for them. We try and push “you are an employee, you are in a company” – it’s a key course design decision.
We’re trying to get the students into the mindset that when they first start university, they are an apprentice professional engineer and they must think like that all the way.
Guiding students through stages of competency
Q How do you help students achieve competency, not just in technical concepts but in professional practice?
I laugh so much about this because, when I did some teaching as a professional instructor out in industry, there was no guidance provided whatsoever. It was basically ‘here’s some technical information, now go and teach’. Only after coming back to the university have I started looking at the pedagogy. And sometimes academics complain that students don’t understand something that they think is so simple and obvious. Because I didn’t do an engineering degree and haven’t been a teacher and academic for all this time I came with a completely different viewpoint and there were some things that I hadn’t used or even remembered since I was at university, so I had to relearn them, or at least brush up on some of these things.
And it was at that point I realized that if you’re doing something all the time it becomes so easy to assume that because it’s easy for you that it’s easy for someone else. Then I discovered that yes, this is unconscious competency – and so well – welcome to the stages of competency!
Basically, there’s four competency stages:
- The first one is you not knowing that you don’t know something, so that’s unconscious incompetence.
- The second stage is conscious incompetence – you suddenly realise that there is this thing out there that you don’t know about. Our students typically are at that stage, because they’re hopefully a little bit advanced from they have no idea what they’re doing.
- While you’re learning it, you become consciously competent at it, so you can do it but you have to think about it.
- Eventually, after you’ve practiced enough, you become unconsciously competent at it.
A good example of that is learning to drive a car. When you first start driving a car, you know that there are these things that have to happen but you’re not very good at it. Then, as you get better, you are able to drive a car and then eventually you get to the point where you get in the car and you’re driving to work and suddenly you’re at work and you have no idea how you got there because you were too busy doing other things and you were just running on muscle memory. That is an example of total unconscious competency – you can do it while doing something else completely.
It’s a problem that people that have been teaching the same thing over and over and over again fall into because they understand it so well, it’s just obvious to them but not so much to the students they’re teaching!
Now my solution to that is to talk about the history of something. How did we get to this point? How did this technique become developed? Because to do that you then have to talk through the stages of development. You have to actually explain the background and in doing so, you bring the students along on the journey.
In digital electronics there are a whole bunch of really obscure things that we do. It’s really quite strange that in the last 50 years we’ve managed to build up this whole set of techniques that are done that currently make no sense, but make total sense when you understand the history. It’s also engaging for the students because it’s more than you just going blah blah blah. It’s you talking about the history, it’s lived experience, and they love that sort of a story.
Using a textbook to make tea
Q Students sometimes find large textbooks difficult to read and engage with. What was your strategy to guide students through a very long and detailed text?
The fourth-year unit textbook is incredibly comprehensive. Originally written in the 1970s , it’s been updated since and it really is THE manual on how to design products. But it is so dry and so boring. I got dropped into a unit a few years ago, and at that time, the students would each read a chapter and then they would then discuss it in a group. The students actually called it Bible study.
So I needed to make the whole thing more engaging. What I did to begin with was instead of a full-on Small Group Learning Activity (SGLA) where everyone had to talk about their feelings about a chapter, I put them into little groups in the active learning space, and each group was given a set of stimulus questions to guide them through the chapter. They then had a discussion amongst themselves and at the end of the session the groups would talk to each other.
There are several reasons why I believe this worked. The first one was because they were in a small group by themselves and the staff weren’t involved, they were more willing to talk to each other and reach a consensus amongst themselves. A lot of students are quite hesitant about talking in a large lecture or tutorial class.
I had to be very mindful that there could have been students who were just drifting and being carried by the others which is a problem and I don’t know if I solved it fully. The way I attempt to solve that was to put them in a group but then break it apart to do a separate but related task so that each person still had to do something by themselves.
The other thing was because they were working in the group when they finally presented, they were quite polished, they were more confident in what they were speaking about, because they’d already essentially talked it over within their group.
So that worked well in the first year I taught that unit, but it was still a very academic exercise because all they were doing was just talking about the textbook. In industry, nobody reads the textbook in a linear fashion; the textbook is used as a reference to solve a particular goal. I am a big believer in project-based learning so the next year I set them a project called the Internet of Tea Maker. I tried to pick a project that was silly and foolish. It’s essentially an automated tea maker that you can connect to the Internet and then discuss the teas that you’re making or control it remotely – an Internet controlled kettle!
This gave the students a really good focus and so the textbook became their guide through the process of developing this product and, rather than just reading the textbook – which is boring – they were now using the textbook to solve the real-world problems of developing this product and applying the textbook information straight away.
The point about this was there was a single focal point for everything, a goal and it all built on each other.
Two things changed in 2020. We decided that the information we were teaching in this 4th year unit would actually be better taught way back in second year where it was really needed. And rather than us coming up with a project, we sent the students out to try and get a real-world project instead. They were supposed to talk to councils in rural and remote NSW for a particular engineering project that they could then work on to use that as the focal point instead. Unfortunately that didn’t work too well as it turned out that apparently, most councils were not interested in working on these sorts of projects.
However in 2021, we talked to Ryde Council and we ended up with three problems from them and so we just got the various student groups to all focus on one of those problems and actually come up with a solution. So same textbook, same style, but now it’s it is literally a real-world problem instead of an artificial problem. That again seemed to be quite engaging – and that’s my focus, engagement with the students on the problem they’re trying to deal with.
Building international students‘ confidence
I had a bunch of international students and for various reasons they weren’t engaging or engaged in the ways I needed them to be. I’ve previously taught in Asia – professional teaching in China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and India. Students in those places are taught differently and have different expectations of teaching and teachers. As a teacher over there, generally speaking, I would never be doubted and the students would never even question me. Whereas Australian engineering students have the reputation of being … well, they will quite happily tell you you’re wrong to your face! They won’t even say I believe you’re wrong, they’ll just say – You’re Wrong. They can eat unprepared lecturers alive.
So many international students have to deal with the very different teaching cultures here. I find international students are far more deferential and they don’t want to be wrong or appear to be wrong or not be articulate, and they also don’t want to be disrespectful to the teacher. So my solution was to put those students in a group. I’ve tried two ways and I’m not really sure which way works best.
I’ve tried forming groups where it’s just international students and they actually find that really nice, particularly if it’s a monolingual group, they’re very comfortable speaking in their own language. When they come to present, they already have the answer, they’ve decided what’s the correct thing to say, and they have practiced that, so when they present, they’re much more at ease and do well.
But the problem I’ve got now with that is that I don’t actually want international students to be in just international groups. I find that personally, as a teacher, it doesn’t give them the full experience. Whenever I was overseas, I was quite happy to go off exploring and talking to random people all over the place and I guess, I want the students to gain those links and that experience to interact with Australian people and cultures. So I usually put more than one international student in a group – I might put two students from China or from India in a group with a bunch of local students. I try and get them so that they have someone else they can talk to so they get that comfort level and don’t feel isolated, but then there’s also a bunch of other students they can interact with and get that little bit of fluency.
By the end of their fourth year, I’ve found my international students are much more able to say what they want for their learning.
Always on a learning curve
Q In your Fellowship application you indicated your commitment to continuing professional development. What does this look like for you?
For me, I’m still on this big learning curve, it seems like forever now. I joined the university as a casual academic in 2016. It hasn’t been that long and there’s just all these things I’ve got to learn on how to actually teach properly.
I’m still trying to learn all of the actual concepts in how people learn. It’s really difficult to truly understand that people want agency in their own learning, that people engage differently, different people prefer different ways of learning, that different people respond differently to how they’re instructed. Because I’m so new at it, one of the things I have to do an awful lot is to reflect on what I’m doing and try and think how did that work, what could I have done better and is there a different way of doing this? I’m still trying to catch up on all the literature on this.
For my own professional development, I find there is just so much to learn at the moment. I’m picking the brains of other academics. The whole community is just an eye opener in all the different ways that people are doing things. And because I am so new at this, I am also very happy to try things that that people wouldn’t normally try. So the whole lunchbox labs and the integrated spine are things that are not normal academic practice.
Using student reflections to help uncover students at risk
One of the things I really push on students is the importance of self-reflection, and that is now an integral part of the engineering course and our students are now asked to submit a self-reflection at least four times a year.
Part of my role is to help students with degree progression and one of the problems with engineering is that the degree is so structured that if a student fails a unit, they’re really in a bad situation to try and progress. That is something I’d like to be able to fix.
I was chatting to a guy from another Sydney university and his job is worse than mine in that he helps students to come to the realisation that they shouldn’t continue their degree. As a result of this conversation, one of the things we are thinking of trying to do is to look at these self-reflections and see if we can identify students who aren’t progressing or who are at risk, through what they say in their self-reflections.
So the reflections are now part of their assessment and we’ve started guiding them by giving them topics to self-reflect about as we are trying to get them to think carefully in certain areas.
There are various frameworks we use. In first year, we go through how to do a reflection: you have to sit down, identify something that happened or describe something that happened, identify what was your experience in that, look at what went wrong or what could have happened differently that you would have preferred, and then work out how you could have had it so that occurred and how would you do things differently next time? We cover four different frameworks (see below) just in case they like one more than the other.
Students want shorter, more focused videos
Q What other ideas would you like to implement to enhance the learning of your students?
We’ve been online for the last year and a half and it’s really strange that the university has this interesting dichotomy in that it wants everyone back on campus, but it wants all units to be online. They want students back on campus because they are complaining, and possibly rightly so, that they miss being on campus, they miss all the feel of the campus. So, we sat down and asked ourselves what is it that the on-campus university experience offers that you can’t get from just pure online? For engineering it’s slightly different because, like a lot of the sciences, it’s very equipment based, there is a lot of quite expensive equipment that the students get to get to play with.
What I’m currently focusing on is getting the online experience to be as good as possible as the on-campus experience. What we’re looking at closely is what did the students actually enjoy about the online experience?
A lot of my students have expressed that they like having lectures they can watch at any time rather than having a scheduled time for the lecture. But the problem they found was that the lecture itself was too long. They don’t like sitting there for that period of time. What they much prefer is a set of smaller, more focused lectures.
Although they could re-watch our lectures if they found they didn’t quite grasp something when they were trying to do an exercise, we discovered that the students weren’t using our lectures, but searching Google instead, and finding 5-minute YouTube videos. They quite happily admitted this and to sharing these videos amongst themselves.
So, what students wanted was short 5-minute videos but created by the unit convenor because the convenor can put it into the context of the rest of the unit: context and concept.
What we’re working really hard on at the moment then, is doing really short videos, single focus videos, and I’m now spending a large amount of my life in front of the camera. The students are finding this really useful, and we are giving them the tie-in between the concept and the actual equipment. So that’s part of what I’m focused on at the moment.
Creating student connections
I’m very upfront with the students about my teaching style. I tell them that I will not respond to email questions about content of the unit – I insist that they put those questions in the forum and I’ll answer them in the forum. So, I check the forums every day. But what l also ask is that the students answer each other and that builds that interaction. It’s also an example of online peer assisted learning as each person answering the question gets better at it, and it gives a collegial feel to the unit rather than students feeling isolated.
The students are also using Discord which is close enough to a real time interaction. I’m amazed that I will have students sitting almost next to each other chatting to each other over instant messaging, they are very comfortable with that.
Every student in the School of Engineering is invited to the Discord server. For our vertically integrated project, each of the teams has their own Discord channel. We give them lots of ways to be very focused in who they’re talking to and they seem to find that quite useful.
There are a bunch of generic channels on Discord too, and some of them are quite weird, such as one posting pictures of cats. But there are questions from students. Then there are channels for individual units where they are asking technical questions or clarification questions and an online chat session. Each of the student societies has their own channel where they can talk about their stuff.
There are channels for each of the engineering disciplines and then each of the cohorts. The idea here is that each student has a place where they know they can go, and even if there’s no one there at the moment, they can leave a message. Students are leaving messages for the other Unit Convener and myself asking questions and we can come back and answer them very much like the discussion forum, but the students seem to enjoy this much, much more. It’s really, really strange.
I still have the forum as there are still some students that use that form, so I’ve got to do both. I’ll check all my units every day, answer anything and respond to it all. My goal is to make sure that all of the students are responded to – that they’re not posting questions that just sit there forever, they need to feel that engagement with the teaching staff.
I think that one of the key things we have to do is be very responsive to the students, particularly at the moment because they’re very isolated. We find that the students are a lot more colloquial in something like Discord than in the iLearn forum but we’ve told them that’s acceptable. The forum is much more structured and official. There’s a lot more traffic on Discord than in iLearn forum.
I also set up my unit Zoom sessions as ‘join anytime’ sessions so they’re occurring at any time. I allow the students to join at any time without a waiting room and I have noticed that every so often students will join and have a chat amongst themselves. And I get an email about it.
They seem to make arrangements – I’ve seen it in the discussion forum where someone will say ‘I have a problem with this’ and someone else will say, ‘well I can come and help you at this time’ and they’ll arrange to meet in the unit Zoom. I don’t know how much they’ve done it, but I’ve noticed that it has happened on several occasions. Each unit has its own Zoom room.
It’s actually sadly a problem because as the host I can’t host multiple Zoom rooms at once. So, if I try and join another zoom room it will kill that one, which is slightly annoying. My solution to that is I’m trying to get the tutors to be hosts now instead.
Generally, I find the students are giving each other very good advice, not always, but generally it is very good advice. At the beginning of each session, the better students are the ones that are giving the advice and then later you’ll start to see other students suddenly stepping up and starting to provide advice. Now sometimes it’s not the best advice, sometimes they’ll suggest something and then I have to be very diplomatic to suggest there may be a better way of doing it, but I can’t recall anything that’s just been wrong.
Online teaching – embrace it or perish!
Q From everything that we’ve talked about today, what would be your advice to others?
The biggest thing I would say is Online Is Coming. Embrace or perish, there is no way you’re going to avoid it. It is here already – deal with it, or basically you’re just going to be dead. You’re going to have to look at how things can be done online but, given that we are a university, we can offer more than just being online. That’s how we have to distinguish ourselves.
So look at who’s doing what and steal it (as appropriate and with suitable references and acknowledgment!). And like with everything else, if you’ve got a problem, talk to other people and just solve it. I’m always willing to try and solve problems that we don’t have a solution for at the moment.
Dr Rex di Bona is a Lecturer in the School of Engineering. His interests are digital electronics, automated assessments and professional engineering. Rex graduated with a Bachelor of Economics and has been, at various times, software developer, hardware developer, industry trainer, alpaca breeder and computer and network security consultant.
View his Research Profile
Frameworks for reflection:
- Description, Feelings, Evaluation, Analysis, Conclusion, and Action – Gibbs Reflective Cycle
- Situation, Task, Action, Result (Learning/Planning) STAR(LP) reflection framework
- Describe, Examine, Articulate Learning DEAL framework :
- What, So What, Now What? -Rolfe’s Framework for reflective practice [Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., & Jasper, M. 2001. Critical reflection for nursing and the helping professions: A user’s guide, Palgrave Basingstoke.]
Banner image: Fidel Fernando
Teamwork vs Groupwork graphic – Light Bulb Ideas Creative Design Concept: Business photo created by rawpixel.com – www.freepik.com
All other images supplied by Rex di Bona