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Published October 13, 2015 | Multidisciplinary

Blended Learning to Teach Ethics to Future Engineers

At Concordia University, I have been teaching the ENGR 201 Professional Practice and Responsibility for some time, which is a mandatory rite of passage for any student who wishes to become an engineer. This means that there are a large number of students, which seems to be growing every year. Given this growth, we wanted to see if we could consolidate a couple of sections into one section to meet the demand. The course is offered in the fall, winter and summer semesters, and each section has about 200 students. Our first experiment was with 200 students in one section who were all enrolled in the blended course. We are now regularly offering the blended course with 400 students each semester.

The ENGR 201 Landing Page on the eConcordia Learning Management System

Prior to moving to the blended course, there was a lecture component and a tutorial component. It is the lecture component that was eventually replaced with the on-line material. We have tutorial assistants that manage the in-class sessions. Ethics are tricky to develop in a student from a purely theoretical approach, which is why we use case studies to have a more experiential learning approach. Remember that Concordia students come from around the world to study and have different legal systems, cultures and values. Half of the students in my courses were born in other countries. The students work in groups, thinking about the answers to the various questions within the case studies. There are a total of 6 case studies to match the number of tutorials within the semester. The imposed limit of students per tutorial session varies from semester to semester, but ranges from 40 to 50 students per tutorial.

The course has 4 big modules, which contain a total of 11 lessons. The modules include:

  • What is a profession? (Quebec, Canadian, and global perspectives)
  • Ethics (understanding and application of ethics)
  • Duties of professionals towards clients, the general public and the profession within the Quebec context
  • Legal module (legal aspects of the profession, i.e. intellectual property, legal systems in Canada and the world, torts, contract law)

A typical lesson dashboard with the different components of the learning.

Working with a Team

Thankfully I was not alone when I began adapting the course to a blended format. At Concordia University we have an independent organization called eConcordia, whose mandate is to assist faculty to put courses on-line. I was granted partial release time for the fall 2014 semester to work on the adaptation of the course, which was a semester-long process. Actually, we had 10 weeks to put everything together. I spent the first part of the semester working with a team of IDs and the latter part with Graphic Designers. After a series of initial meetings to talk about the project objectives, Instructional Designers (IDs) began to develop the course with a series of measures. IDs think about the course structure, objectives, etc. They have expertise in moving from face-to-face to on-line learning without distorting the original intentions of the course. Our challenge was to come up with a format appropriate for the class. Then we had to populate eConcordia’s –in-house learning management system that hosted the course and fill out the lessons. eConcordia has a catalogue of e-learning templates that helped us to move quickly. They brought all the material together and created an assessment plan. Everything had to be ready before the university closed for the holidays!

We opted to use podcasts for the lectures and also provided a transcript. This meant that the lectures could be downloaded to a listening device, such as an MP3 player or smartphone. This constituted the major portion of the theoretical learning. The audio was recorded in a studio at Concordia, which allowed us to make the podcasts without ambient noise or distractions that can detract from a recording. A video was also recorded to introduce myself to the class and provide an overview of the course. This was one of the rare opportunities the class saw me during the semester.

We wanted to add some interesting elements for the students, which we call “inter-activities.” Given the short time frame, we could only manage to make 7 or 8 of these, rather than having one in every lesson. One example of an interactivity was a world map which has pop-ups commenting on the different legal systems. The interactive exercises are not marked, but they provide a chance for the learners to better understand the material. Given that we were not able to do an interactive element for each lesson, we spread them out a bit throughout the course.

The eConcordia team was very creative. To illustrate different types of ethical frameworks, namely those based on actions, consequences and the individual, the graphic designers used an example of a person dropping a television to represent each of these three frameworks. The students will often remember the animations more vividly than a text, which helps us get certain important points across to them and helps their retention.

An example of some of the graphic design used to make the learning more visceral

The students also had access to a virtual bookshelf which had links to actual laws, such as the Professionals Act, the Engineers Act, etc. Although many of these documents were associated with Lesson 2 of our course, they were accessible from anywhere within the course.

Adapting Student Support

Given that blended learning was a new concept for many of the students, we also had to consider how we would support them during the semester. The Teaching Assistants were available for in-person office hours once a week, in addition to being available via e-mail. The TAs were also encouraged answer questions and clarify certain concepts during the tutorial meetings while students were working on case studies. There were also discussion boards available on the eConcordia platform for the course for general or assessment related questions. These discussion boards were monitored by the instructor and TAs on a daily basis.

Once students had completed the on-line component and all of their tutorial meetings, I hosted a review session before the final exam using the Adobe Connect synchronous platform. As I was working through the review, the Teaching Assistants were on hand to respond to questions as they appeared in Adobe Connect’s chat window.

After the first semester of running the blended course, I sensed that we needed to make some changes to the assessment, which we had transferred from the face-to-face course to on-line with little adaptation. The quiz format specifically needed to be changed. When the quizzes were done in-person, each student worked on their own and put in the necessary time and effort. In the on-line version, students had more time to complete the quiz, but relied too much on collaborating with others. I wasn’t happy awarding 45% of the final grade for quizzes and having no real control over whether the students earned it or not. So I reduced number of quizzes, the weighting for each quiz, and changed its format. The final exam weighting was also increased, and the topics on the exam were cumulative for the whole semester. I also increased the number of questions and did away with the essay questions.

As for the students, I think my second group was happier with the class, even though they felt that there is a large amount of material for a 1.5 credit class (3 credits is the norm for most courses). This is the one class where they get exposed to a whole lot of professional issues and it is important that they are conveyed. The learning experience is better in general since it is self-paced. The student decides when they want to work and how much effort to put in. That said, the students need to be diligent. If you fall behind in class, it will be difficult to keep up afterwards. I also learned that students develop a sort of path-dependency after having studied the same way over several years. There is a bit of inertia and resistance to change that needs to be managed.

Lessons Learned and Advice for Teachers

So what are some of the things I learned about moving to a blended format? There is an enormous amount of work to redesign a course. Before, when I needed to make some changes to the syllabus and lecture content, it was a few hours work. For this reason, we will probably only make periodic changes to the course, every two semesters or so. For Teachers who are looking to move to a blended format, you need a significant amount of lead time, and must be ready to invest a great deal of effort in the preparation. You need to think about how much time and resources you can commit. There is a process to developing an on-line class that goes beyond simply posting PowerPoint presentations. You also need a good learning management system or platform.

If you want to post your theoretical content in an on-line platform, you need to think about how you will reach out to your students to help them to stay on track. As the content is self-paced, some students have a tendency to fall behind. There is a level of disconnect between the professor and student since it can be hard to keep tabs on them. I would periodically post announcements to remind the students that a quiz or other important event was coming up. I also tried using gamification and badges to encourage student engagement. I use a knowledge quest bonus of 5% if students answered an average of 80% or more of the questions  on at least 6 of the 11 assessments.

The move to a blended format for ENGR 201 has been an adventure. While the university has a vested interest in developing online courses as a means of controlling costs for the course, while also meeting the growing demand, I seized this opportunity to provide more flexibility for the students. I believe that ensuring they have an experiential learning design that allows them to develop their professionalism and ethics will ultimately give them the tools to meet the ethical challenges that await them in contemporary engineering.

About the Author

Govind Gopakumar is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society, Concordia University in Montreal. Dr. Gopakumar’s research centres on the socio-political aspects of urban infrastructure and has appeared in the “International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Water Policy, Water Alternatives, and Mobilities”. He has contributed significantly, in terms of pedagogy and content, to developing the Impact of Technology on Society course and the Professional Practice and Responsibility course. He also developed and teaches the Development and Global Engineering course for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in the faculty.

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