A lesson from the Corona virus lockdown: Some advice for Engineering Students (and Educators)

Introduction

That COVID-19 has adversely impacted higher education is without doubt.  In virtually all institutions of higher education worldwide, normal lessons ended abruptly mid-way through the academic year, giving way to online delivery. Labs and other practical activities designed to equip students with hands-on skills in their disciplines stopped overnight, and the normal university bustle and activity critical for academic engagement between students and students, and between students and academics also evaporated overnight. Though online activity has replaced much of  our university life, there is a general perception that this is not quite enough – we yearn for that period of time again when we can go back to the old university life we are so much accustomed to. Yet, this disruption has opened us up to new possibilities that we could never have thought of.

Disruptions as opportunities for learning

One such possibility is this: online learning is not all bad – there are definitely some aspects of online learning that can improve learning and teaching.  The other is this: whilst face to face lectures remain the de facto signature pedagogy for universities, possibly we don’t need so much of them – there are definitely other ways to achieve the same goal, especially with blended learning approaches like flipped learning. And then there is this one: whilst we have tinkered around with the undergraduate engineering syllabus by adding more active learning components like problem/project-based and design-based learning, the engineering syllabus remains heavily oriented towards content delivery. Do we really need to be teaching all this content? Should we not move some of this content-teaching aside and focus more on higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation of knowledge?

This is precisely what I am discovering during this lockdown period. Virtually all the content that we deliver in the first and second years of university level engineering education is freely available on Internet.  Name it – it’s there – be it circuit theory and electronics, engineering dynamics and materials, physical chemistry and transport phenomena, calculus and programming or structures and fluid dynamics. This was not the case two or more decades ago, yet, save for the cosmetic changes, the undergraduate engineering syllabus remains virtually unchanged. Of course, it doesn’t mean we should stop teaching this content in universities. With so much high-quality academic material out there on the Internet, it is now the responsibility of the student to make an effort in acquiring these foundational skills. Indeed, with regard to engineering education, it is no longer a case of taking the horse to the water. The horse is already in the water, it’s now a case of the horse choosing where in the water it should take its drink.

Self-directed learning skills as the key to success

The civil engineering student may be motivated to pursue an engineering degree by a desire to design better roads, or a desire to understand bridge design; the electrical and electronics engineering student may be motivated to undertake university level studies by a desire to design and manage power system networks, or a desire to build and operate communications networks. Indeed, the Internet is awash with introductory material on all these fascinating subjects. In addition to the standard text-based lecture notes, there are also a wide variety of online videos and a plethora of interactive, simulation-based courses on all aspects of engineering. Whilst the lack of equitable digital access does indeed suggest that some students experience varying levels of digital exclusion, the current penetration and extent of ICT technologies would suggest that in developed countries almost everyone has reasonable access to the Internet.

Increasingly, students should drive their own learning, and this starts with demonstrating some preparedness to seek out information and to direct their own learning. In turn, a student who engages with their own learning has a deeper understanding of what they seek to achieve in their learning than one who waits for someone else to direct their own learning. This, in turn, will force universities to spend less time on foundational material, and to concentrate on equipping students with the higher order knowledge skills that employers are now demanding. Indeed, students who take it upon themselves to equip themselves with the requisite foundational knowledge are better able to focus on addressing the issues facing engineering today, thereby ensuring that they are better prepared for successful careers in engineering.

The student we should be welcoming into engineering

Traditionally we have demanded a certain level of academic competence in mathematics and the physical sciences for anyone contemplating doing an engineering degree. Which is a better predictor of success in engineering – a demonstration of passion and engagement in engineering, or straight A grades in A Level mathematics and physics? Surely it should be the former, but I accept, traditions take a long time to die away. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the leaky pipe phenomenon has persisted in engineering. By prioritising A grades in A Level mathematics and physics over passion and interest in engineering, we are inadvertently admitting individuals who have mastered the art of being career students, and shutting out those students whose heart is in engineering.

A call to arms

In conclusion, attainment in engineering education is no longer the responsibility of academics and institutions alone. Rather, the student now has a bigger role  to play in their own development as prospective engineers. It’s no longer about paying fees alone and attending lectures and completing the odd assignment;  it’s now more about students  demonstration a willingness and capability to drive their own learning.

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