The Hidden Value Proposition Via On-Campus Digital Learning

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

When the national media fervor over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) reached its peak a couple of years ago, I argued they were, in fact, not destined to be the magical elixir that would dramatically and instantly reduce the cost of a college education. Instead, I saw them as another tool for educators that might complement the residential college education. Since then, the clamor has settled down and we are indeed finding ways to make advanced educational technologies realize their potential to transform the quality of pedagogy and engineering education in general.

Used wisely, these new digital and on-line technologies have the potential to improve not just the quality of engineering courses, but their capacity to excite and engage students so they will be more likely to remain in science, technology, engineering and math fields. This is important at a time when employers are starved for qualified graduates and engineering schools nationally are trying to retain students, particularly in the demanding first two years of the program.

As highlighted in our cover story of this issue, more and more of our faculty are experimenting with these technologies in the classroom. They have enabled a change from the traditional lecture-followed-by-homework model. In several sections of our core required courses students now are expected and motivated to engage the fundamental concepts of the lecture topic before class via carefully designed digital content, such as short videos and questions to assess initial understanding. They then look forward to solving problems during class time, typically in small groups seated around tables as both the instructor and a set of upper class learning assistants roam this new “studio” classroom offering guidance and answering questions. Early indications are that this approach is working terrifically.

As educators, we are looking at two primary metrics to gauge the effectiveness of these new techniques. One is student performance and we are seeing that students are performing at least as well as – and in the cases of struggling students, much better than –
they did in conventional classes. But even more important, I believe, is the shift in attitude we are seeing. Students are clearly more engaged in the studio classroom and are conveying an increased interest and enjoyment of the courses themselves. All of this stands to benefit not just them, but also society as they are more likely to stick with their engineering majors.

We have also begun are sharing our experiences with colleagues in other STEM departments at BU — such as math, physics, chemistry and biology — where our students take several of their courses. I believe students in other STEM fields have as much to gain from these new technologies as engineering students do.

As with anything new, there are challenges associated with this approach. One is the technology itself. We need to improve the formats so faculty can use them comfortably and creatively without having to become IT experts. We will need faculty who are successful with these new technologies to mentor others and show them the way, while providing faculty the time they need to develop these courses.

One of the more immediate challenges is creating the physical space the studio classroom requires. Packing students into neat stadium-like rows is space efficient, but not conducive to peer learning and roving instructors. Converting conventional classrooms to the more effective studio format is now one of our fund raising priorities.

But I believe these challenges can and will be met. As with the best engineering, education requires us to push into new territory and use our experiences to improve. I believe that the future of engineering education will look much different, and produce more and better engineers ready to move our society forward.