Intitial musings on e-learning

During my first decade as a higher education I have heard politicians and administrators hammering on about e-learning and digital teaching aids. It has been put as an obvious necessity, with very little discussion of the why, and even less about the how. Where would we have been if the powers that be had spent some of the resources on technical support, rather than all on bureaucrats and reports?

Developing a new module this semester on Discrete Mathematics for Level 2 Computer Engineering, I decided to take a dive into it, abandoning face-to-face lectures in favour of videos. In the next couple of weeks, I shall comment on some of my experiences and review a number of techniques and tools which I have adopted, or rejected.

Useful as it may be, e-learning technology is not the magic wand which miraculously transforms immature students to skilled graduates. We had one guest speaker from the university bureaucracy tell us of the necessity of e-learning. Lectures at set times in given locations do not suit modern students. Maybe they need to be somewhere else. They should be able to listen to the lecture whenever and whereever they find the time. The future is flexibility.

Truth is, the majority of students lack both the self-discipline and the self-motivation to complete a degree under unrestricted freedom. Their success depends on dedication and concentration, rather than flexibility and casual attention. There is a group of students who florish in a completely free and flexible environment, hardly requiring teachers at all. Most of us teach a different group of students. Where is the e-learning benefit for us?

The classic lecture suffers from two flaws

  • being transient, they do not help the students who miss it due to illness or who need repetition.

  • 45 minutes without break is at least three times the normal concentration span.

Video can resolve these to issues. Portioned into 5-10 minute clips, students can take reasonable breaks without the logistic overhead of a full class moving in and out of the room. They can take the time they need to do exercises before the next clip.

In my opininion, the opportunity to make 5-10 minute servings is the greatest benefit of e-learning. It helps me highlight key concepts, preferably one per clip, reducing a risk of an important material being passed by with the class half asleep, as often happens midway in a 2h lecture. Effective talks can be saved for reuse next term. Less effective ones can be polished and remade.

Little seems to be lost when video lectures replace the classic one-way communication of some lectures. I have a number of colleagues who have introduced video clips as an extra help for repetition over and above the convential teaching methods. For my own part, I wanted to go further, and reserve the scarcely scheduled contact hours for student interaction and responses to actual problems and questions. This personal interaction is critical. Not only do the students need continuous feedback to learn to solve problems themselves. Additionally, I need the continuous feedback from students to find the right pitch for the videos.

Without one minute believing that e-learning is the way to remote teaching, relieving rank-and-file engineerings students from the burden of on-campus presence, I continue with the project. There is no free lunch. The way is riddled with technical as well as didactical challenges. Doing it half-way is hardly worthwhile. With a massive effort one may hope to get a little improvement in learning outcomes, and recoup a some of the costs on the next course delivery another year. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe not.

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