Almost daily on my commute to and fro UCL Bloomsbury Campus in Central London, I get to meet at least one of my former students. Sometimes we nod at each other, say one or two pleasantries, and rush off in our different directions. But sometimes we get talking, andsometimes this little chit chat leads to a coffee, and yet more talking. And sometimes this talk-over-coffee leads to heated arguments about technology, university education, and the rights and wrongs of our current approaches to Engineering, and sometimes it focuses on my own personal philosophies and approaches to Engineering Education. No holds barred! I love an argument, I thrive on intellectual argument, and my students know this.
Indeed, London has a strange way of re-uniting academics and their former students. That’s the beauty of London. If you are a long-serving academic, then it is highly likely that there is always a former student within shouting distance of you. Five years at the University of Zimbabwe, four years at the Catholic University in Zimbabwe, six years at Exeter, and 15 months at Bath means that I have a network of former students reaching into all parts of today’s technological frontier. Some are in cutting-edge computer programming, some in telecoms, some in power systems and some in technology consultancy, and even some in banking – I mean that form of banking where they daily roll out these wickedly complex mathematics to drive the world financial systems. I get to hear it all from my students.
I lovingly call them “my students”, but the roles have changed – they are now my teachers, and I am now the student. Not only a student, but the acquisitive, eager, and purposeful student learning the new so as to teach the latest batch of students. Being current, being in the know, especially in things technological is a must for an Engineering academic. But each and every day new technologies are coming online. In fact so fast is the technological innovation in some sectors that yesterday’s “latest” so easily becomes today’s “obsolete”.
Books and publications now struggle to keep pace with technological change. Only those living and working on the technological frontier can hope to keep pace. So is there any hope for an academic like me who has to deal with day-to-day teaching and administration, and various other things that constitute academic life? No hope in hell, you can say. But that’s where networks of former students come in. For me, these networks are a living encyclopaedia.
As a current academic, I am embedded into multiple former student networks, and also immersed into my own academic networks, including my current students. I now live in a world of networks. I have seized to be a source of knowledge. Instead, I am now a channel of knowledge. I now serve to direct “state of the art” technological knowhow into academia, and to keep my former students connected to higher education, and connected to all my other former students. I am now a node of connectivity.
And when teaching gets tricky, as it sometimes does in such areas like computer programming, project management and software engineering, how do I get by? I can spend a week cramming the latest, so that I can download it onto my innocent class. I still do that, but not always. The best teacher is the one who has experienced it all – after all, experience is the best teacher. So increasingly, I find myself bringing along my former students to co-teach with me. And some are better teachers than myself. But we all stand to gain – the current students get to learn from the best, I get good student returns, and my former students get to know what it feels like to be a lecturer. Their organisations get to be known by the students, and links between the university and industry are strengthened.
But it’s not like my new students are just a sink hole for knowledge. There is no better source of “flash of the bulb” inspiration than the eager minds of students. Many a time, after having delivered what they thought to be the Oomph Lecture, I have witnessed a visiting lecturer seriously questioning their approaches to technology. An insightful thought, innocently thrown at the visiting lecturer, is enough to convince anyone that we are now all a community of learners. Current students learn from us, I mean from both the full-time academics and the industry experts, and, in turn, we all learn from the current students, and together we build the future. That’s what makes Engineering Education so interesting for me. I am always in the game, but only so long as I stay connected to both my academic and former student networks.