Digital technology in higher education is allowing the sage on stage to pivot; transforming the model used in lecture halls since mediaeval times.
Today’s students demand a more flexible blended learning environment, with the option of mixing face-to-face and online lectures and tutorials.
Dr David Kellermann, lecturer in mechanical and manufacturing engineering at UNSW, is an education innovator with a deeply pragmatic streak. When the university signed up 470 students for a course he was teaching, in a lecture theatre with 320 seats, he had to quickly come up with a solution.
But it needed to be a solution that did not compromise the learning quality of the course. He is scathing of “advances” that have compromised educational outcomes.
The multi choice answer card is, he says, “one of the most detrimental things to happen to education.” Deployed to save money by allowing machines to mark exams Kellermann says its introduction meant; “We went from in-depth answers and calculations, written answers and essays, to a,b,c or d.”
The lesson is clear; “Beware technology that saves time money but compromises learning.”
However applied intelligently, technology preserves the best teaching and learning practices, and then augments them.
To effectively teach a class of 470 who would be split between the lecture hall and online Kellermann explains; “We live stream our lectures – if web students watch the lecture live they have sense of urgency,” felt by on campus peers. Live chat allows remote students to pose a question of Kellermann and have it answered during the lecture as if they were on campus.
“Digital ink, projected and streamed is a critical component, instead of a blackboard which is difficult to see over video. I need to be able to put things right here that are perfectly clear and crisp for students at home,” says Kellermann.
He bought a Surface Book – the only device able to deliver the quality and speed that the blended learning environment demanded. “This is the first time the pen experience has been good enough for me. I can write really good looking mathematics on screen – laminating the digitization layer to the LCD layer makes it feel like you are just writing on the screen.”
The suite of Microsoft technologies also supports a much richer learning environment providing live synchronised notes for students and fostering online interaction.
“I can write out the solution to a mathematical problem and students at home and in the lecture theatre have live version in their notes on their computer.”
UNSW-wide access to Office 365 also helps Kellermann forge closer links with his students wherever they are located. Using student email addresses from the enrolment spreadsheet Kellermann can instantly create working groups for students on his course.
Using OneNote Class Notebook he can create a digital notebook to be shared with all the students in that group.
Access control means; “I have a place I can make notes that they can’t change – then there’s a collaborative space where they can write a question and another person can see it and answer it, and a third place which is personal notebook they can write things and only I can see it.”
By pivoting his approach to teaching Kellermann is seeing “incredible” adoption rates from his students who are hungry for knowledge. “I have an Instagram account and there are 160 students following me.”
The fresh approach allows Kellermann to provide the same information and rich content to every student wherever they are located; encourages the group to collaborate and solve their own problems which is an important element in achieving genuine understanding; and still provide one on one support where required.
Try doing that in a 470 seat lecture theatre with just a stick of chalk.