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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
tech view
Logging on to Class

By Mary Kathleen Flynn

An award-winning teacher experiments with online lectures.

As the pressures to cut costs add up to increasingly larger class sizes, the Internet may provide a better way to deliver lectures than the traditional huge halls of universities.

One engineering professor experimenting with online lectures this fall is Ralph Flori, associate professor of interdisciplinary engineering at the University of Missouri, Rolla (UMR), and the recent winner of ASEE’s National Outstanding Teaching Award. Flori is known as something of a pioneer in computer-assisted engineering education. More than a decade ago in a project funded by the National Science Foundation, he led the development of a program that simulated the dynamics of machines and parts. The predecessor to more sophisticated programs used by engineering instructors today, the program was distributed with textbooks in the mid-1990s.

Earlier this fall, Flori had to miss some classes due to travel in connection with his job as assistant dean of engineering for pre-college and undergraduate programs for UMR’s School of Engineering. He considered trying to a find a substitute instructor for his scheduled lectures on Introduction to Rigid Body Motion and Relative Velocity Equation. “But it’s hard to find a teacher to cover for you who knows dynamics, and the students are convinced it’s not the same material when it comes from a substitute,” he explains. Instead, he decided to create online presentations of his lectures.

To generate the online lectures, he used several software programs, including a business presentation program, a drawing program and a multimedia screen-capture program that let him record both his voice and whatever he was doing onscreen, such as drawing a diagram. The end result is like an animation with voice-over narration.

Flori published the online lectures on his area of the university Web site, where he also posts his class schedules, hints on homework assignments, additional problems for his students and past exams. Viewing his lecture online is not exactly like sitting in an engineering classroom. You watch him work on the blackboard and listen to what he is saying, but you don’t see his face or body. And of course, I couldn’t interrupt him with a question as I could in a live classroom. But, Flori points out, students can and do e-mail him with questions throughout the week—they rarely even attend office hours in person anymore.

Comparing the preparation of the online lecture with a live lecture, Flori says, “It takes more work to create the materials and put them together, but I found I could cover more ground in a lecture. And once you’ve done it, the lecture is permanent. Best of all, like publishing an article, the permanence of the online lecture forces you to do the highest-quality job.”
According to Flori, his students liked the online lectures. He sees great potential for online lectures in the future, when he expects the economics of education will demand much larger class sections. “With a bigger classroom, the quality of education diminishes. Students like personal contact, and some need it. You don’t have a continuous flow of communication in a big lecture class.” The online lecture offers an alternative to the big lecture class. “You could put lectures and materials online and then meet students once a week for a problem session and answer questions.” Flori notes an additional benefit: “You could have your best teachers prepare the material.”

Mary Kathleen Flynn has covered technology for over 15 years for a variety of media outlets, including Newsweek, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, CNN and MSNBC.

 

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