PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education

Putting Web Learning to the Test

With more universities pushing their academic wares online every day, it's clear that distance learning is stepping out of the shadows of correspondence courses and 30-second commercial spots on late-night TV. Fueled by the Internet and the promise of greatly increased accessibility, distance learning is poised to become a major force in U.S. post-secondary education.

What isn't so clear, and remains a key point of contention for those who think the new bells and whistles lack real benefits, is how well Web-based learning measures up to traditional teaching methods. Hard data is scarce or nonexistent. Like many aspects of education, determining the true efficacy of distance learning is a complex and elusive target.

"We began by asking, 'Why use the Web?'"

David Wallace, MIT

David Wallace, a Web-savvy industrial design professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was concerned about this lack of data, so he decided to find his own answers by running several controlled studies. What he discovered is at once encouraging and cautionary for the future of technology-based education.

Wallace's first step, though, was a step back. "We began by asking 'Why use the Web?'," he explains. After concluding that the Web's educational strengths lie in its great flexibility and ability to accommodate different learning styles, Wallace and his collaborators set out to take full advantage of those strengths by finely indexing one lecture's worth of material for an on-campus, graduate-level product design class. Students could thereby choose both what they saw and the order in which they saw it—guiding themselves through the material however they find most comfortable.

For his first experiment, one half of the class received a traditional lecture, while the other half reviewed the same material via the Web. Wallace then assigned a project drawing primarily on that material, and discovered that on the whole, the Web students performed better than did the traditionally-taught students.

But Wallace's successful experiment led him to new questions, ones that go beyond the distance learning debate to encompass technology's wider impact on higher education. If a carefully prepared Web presentation, studied independently, could trump his ability to present the same material in a traditional lecture, might there not be more effective ways to spend class time than a redundant treatment of the same concepts?
In a second experiment, an entire graduate class studied material on the Web on their own. Half of the class then received a traditional lecture on the same topic, while the rest used the class period to do an experiential exercise based on the Web material. The students who did the exercise performed better on a subsequent project, demonstrating that Web-based self-guided instruction could in some cases replace lectures, freeing professors to use valuable class time for effective educational methods that often get squeezed out—such as individualized instruction, application-oriented exercises, and informal discussion.
The work has made a believer of Wallace, who now has nearly five lectures' worth of material in the online format, and is slowly working toward converting the entire product design class.

Wallace is well aware that what he's talking about requires both a Herculean effort on the part of educators, and a fundamental shift in the way many view the professor's role and the learning process itself.

"Not all faculty [members] have the facility with technology to do this," he says. "The structure of traditional teaching is designed for a particular technology: the blackboard. You can't just pour a traditionally designed course onto the Web, because technology can't compensate for something that is not well thought out."

Wallace's experiments are certainly not definitive. Questions remain about whether undergraduates will be motivated enough to thrive in this format, though for his part Wallace has had success and feels that properly designed Web material naturally produces the necessary motivation.
In the end, it could be that both the naysayers and the proponents are right: technology for technology's sake isn't going to help anyone, but carefully constructed Web-based education in many cases may allow equal or even superior instruction to traditional methods. Applied properly, that same care could make the rise of viable, well-respected distance education programs not so distant at all.

For more information on David Wallace's studies, see the Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 86, No. 3, and Vol. 87, No. 3, online at www.asee.org/jee .

Ray Bert is associate editor of Prism

The Far East Via the Midwest

You might expect courses that teach Japanese to American engineers to be obvious candidates for distance learning, but you might not expect the instructors to be in Wisconsin.

The new master's of engineering in technical Japanese (METJ) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, kicking off this fall, is part of the growing new breed of master's degrees aimed squarely at professional engineers who don't have the luxury of going to school full time. Though they learn a measure of both Japanese vocabulary and grammar, METJ students are not expected to become fluent, just to learn specific skills to help them perform their jobs more effectively. "There are many opportunities out there to learn conversational Japanese, so we try to focus on what is least available," says Madison associate professor James Davis, who directs the program.

What is least available is practical coursework for working engineers who need some facility with Japanese to decipher relevant technical material such as conference proceedings, journal articles, or patents. The target audience, as well as the university's nine years of experience in delivering Japanese courses at a distance, made the decision to offer the program via satellite, videoconferencing, and videotape a foregone conclusion. Of the 12 students currently enrolled in the program, nine are full-time engineers.

Courses, which are taught by Davis (who speaks fluent Japanese) and another instructor, include 24 credits in language, technical Japanese, and technology development in Japan. Several options exist within the program to accommodate both students with a background in Japanese studies, and those who are complete beginners.

—R.B.

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