Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Role of Engineering Educators in the Age of MOOCs

The traditional lecture format has significant limitations and leads to a high level of inefficiency in the learning process. Unfortunately, in the past, we could not come up with a better alternative. So the education process primarily relied on lectures as the medium for disseminating the knowledge. However, that changed with the advent of the Web. Increasingly, Internet and social media are providing new ways to revolutionize the learning process.

Delivering lectures in classes containing large number of students is always hard. The delivery might too slow paced for some students. Others might think that the instructor is going too fast. If a student is distracted for few minutes, he/she may find it hard to follow the rest of lecture. Reducing the class size and creating interactive lectures has been difficult due to resource constraints.

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have potential to fundamentally change the learning process. MOOCs, at least in theory, can enable class sizes of “one”. Students can watch videos of lectures at their own pace and replay portions that contain unfamiliar content and fast forward familiar content. The advent of MOOCs is prompting us to rethink the traditional education model.

A change in the learning process will also require significant changes at the educational institutions. Some educators feel threatened by MOOCs and argue that computers and videos on Internet cannot replace human educators. We all will be better served if the conversation focused on how to take inspiration from MOOC movement and significantly improve the efficiency and outcomes of the learning process at universities. A step towards this goal would be to list all the functions performed by the university faculty and figure out how to improve the execution of these functions. My personal experience indicates that the main functions performed by engineering faculty include the following:
  1. Creating new knowledge
  2. Designing curriculum
  3. Selecting and/or generating instructional material
  4. Delivering the instructional material
  5. Individualized tutoring to clarify concepts/doubts
  6. Ensuring that students have mastered the content
  7. Challenging students through projects/competitions
  8. Inspiring and motivating students to reach their potential 
  9. Imparting non-technical skills (e.g., writing, presentation, project management)
  10. Mediating and resolving conflicts in group projects
  11. Helping students in being connected to the professional network and finding jobs
The first generation MOOCs are mainly targeting items (3), (4), and (6) in the list above. I anticipate that MOOCs will also play a role in item (2) in the future.

There are many questions about effectiveness of MOOCs and their long term financial viability. Most likely the concept of MOOCs will undergo significant changes as MOOCs are widely used and go through rigorous evaluations. But it is clear that the information technology will fundamentally change the education process and will hopefully replace traditional lectures with a much more effective knowledge delivery mechanism.

Rather then focusing on MOOCs in their current form, I am interested is exploring how the education revolution fueled by the advent of MOOCs will change the role of human educators. As the above list indicates, human educators will have several important roles to play in the education process. My experiences are confined to engineering education. So I am interested in exploring how we can enhance the learning process in the engineering education.

The increasing use of information technology will reduce the burden on faculty to deliver lectures to large classes. Hopefully, this will enable human educators to focus their energy on activities that enrich learning experiences for students. I see the following possibilities:
  • Engineering students can learn a lot by participating in competitions. Faculty advisers can play a major role in mentoring and coaching teams participating in competitions. Faculty advisers will also need to make sure that all members of the team are learning the engineering principles and skills as a result of participation in the competitions.  Currently, very few engineering students participate in competitions due to resource constraints. We should encourage majority of engineering students to participate in competitions.               
  • Engineering students learn a lot by participating in research projects. This allows them to create new knowledge or new products.  Mentoring students and guiding them through challenging research and design projects is an important role for the engineering faculty. Most faculty members already perform this role for their graduate students. We should start providing significant research and/or design experience for every undergraduate student. We should create an environment where every engineering undergraduate student creates something new before graduation!
  • Non-technical skills are extremely important for the professional success. However, acquiring these skills requires significant amount of practice and working with a dedicated mentor. Faculty members should mentor undergraduate students to ensure that they learn presentation, writing, communication, project management, and team work skills.  This will require that students have an opportunity to practice these skills with their faculty mentors in individual sessions.  
  • Many engineering students do not fully understand what practicing engineers do. Unlike medicine, many engineering students graduate without doing engineering internships.  Professional networks are very useful in providing students useful information and context about the profession and help them make informed career choices. Faculty members will have to play a major role in developing the right kind of professional networks and connecting their students to these networks.  This will require engineering faculty to be connected with practicing engineers in the local communities.         
The list above is just a start to get the discussion going. There are many other functions and roles for engineering educators that will become clearer as we start embracing new education approaches. Historically, the majority of engineering faculty members have focused on delivering traditional lectures. Many of them may not feel comfortable in new roles or functions. So we will need to make sure that engineering faculty members quickly acquire the right skills to be productive in the information age. I am really excited about being in the middle of new education revolution.