Technology and Learning

High-level administration goal is to increase the number of college graduates and reduce achievement gap. The questions immediately appear- how are these administrative goals affecting the goals for engineering education and how can we utilize them to improve the current system in the specific issues that we identified so far? I believe that we have to start from the human behavior. Research tells us that our current “seating-time based” measures of educational attainment are not working anymore, and we need to modify the system by organizing it around competence, flexibility and individual approach to students. The system needs to relate to beliefs, identification, independence, usefulness to goals, and choice – since they all relate to interest, motivation, effort and educational achievement. A step towards this is increase in students’ self-directed learning, by partially giving up power by teachers and allowing students to take control and responsibility for their own learning. Then, we can include project-based learning
with real-world problems, discussion, evaluation, re-design, group work, reflection, broader impact perspective, lifelong learning, etc. In addition, we can have improved assessment techniques, and all that in different size groups or for individual work inside of larger learning communities that can include teachers, different-level students, experts, and parents.

Something of this scale was impossible to accomplish 20 years ago, since the necessary technology was not developed. However, we now have the technological basis that can be used for fostering learning and assessment. Most of the software and hardware is readily available. We have broadband Internet, improved processing and graphical power, wikis, blogs, digital content, mobile and real-time access to information, social networking tools, etc. However, it is not just that obvious technology part – just as
blackboard and chalk were a revolution at some point in time as a tool to present large amounts of information to many people, they required additional development in standards, methods and practices. Potential areas for improvement are:

• Revise standards on state, district and other administrative levels
• Develop new learning methodologies for learning and assessment
• Provide large-scale training for teaching force technology skills
•Further develop technologies, such as simulations, collaboration environments, virtual worlds, games, and cognitive tutors
• Leverage social networking technologies and platforms for creating communities of practice and crowd sourcing environments
• Increase the access to technology through reducing software, hardware and Internet prices, supporting open-source technologies, and building the necessary infrastructure
• Develop metrics and methods for frequent evaluation of productivity and achievement

All this would make us first rethink basic assumptions in the higher education system. Interconnecting students, educators, parents, school and governmental administrators would require the increase in responsibility in all levels. However, the change cannot be just on the university level. There is a need for a nationwide emphasis on formal engineering education starting from the middle school level. This would start the early development of necessary skills, and allow teenagers to experience engineering as a
process –not just as related to math and science.

Instead of a conclusion, I would like to leave you with one point for reflection – try to imagine the future world where the Department of Education has a research budget equivalent to the current budget for the Department of Defense, and vice versa.
References: Weimer, M., Learner-centered teaching: five key changes to practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Engineering Workplace

A great deal of philosophical work throughout the centuries is dealing with reality – asking questions such as what, why, and how. Relating this to reality in the engineering work place, there are two engineering realms – the object world and the world of social processes. Object world is defined as angle of reality focused on the object under analysis, while the world of social processes tends to give different angles of reality. In this sense, we have engineers that have different perspectives or different angles of reality. Those angles of reality then relate to their identity and motivation as engineers.

The fact is that there are different types of engineers – just as there are different types of people. Different engineers have different levels of development and preference for some knowledge or skills. And just as with people, this diversity should be the advantage. However, the problems arise inside the often-narrow definitions of company’s hierarchy. On the one side, there are often problems with unnecessary desire to have “equal” distribution of technical workload among employees. On the other side, senior engineers do see the importance of skills, so they often emphasize on the skills that person has. From their perspective, skills might be more important as harder to teach employee, while you can easily have knowledge transfer using senior engineer’s experiences, manuals, and training. In addition, the structure of companies are often rigid, allowing senior engineers to often only progress as managers and not necessarily as very highly skilled engineers. Finally, companies fail to motivate engineers, relating the motivation only with money rewards. However, according to recent research in the area of higher
cognitive skills, motivation primarily comes from autonomy (the desire to be self-directed), mastery (the urge to improve at work), and purpose (making a contribution through transcended purpose).

Having in mind the emphasis on skills, coming from senior management, the list of engineer’s skills keeps on expanding: structural organization, analytical skills, problem solving, innovation and creativity, organizational behavior management, interests negotiation, mathematical modeling, conceptual problem solving, fast learning, working in team, establishing order in the uncertain and environments with lacking information, audience analysis, analytical listening, life-long learning, etc. However, what is higher
education offering students? It is offering them: frequent abstraction of the object world, given and solvable problems, often no wider context and with little connections within disciplines, lack of application of knowledge, focus on theoretical science.

So? Problems? But we are engineers, aren’t we? When problems appear, we solve them. So we just need to remember this, since apparently we forgot somewhere on the way. One thing is sure – change is needed not just on the university level, but also inside the companies, that are often operating by 19th century principles.

First of all, the change needs to start from faculty. In my undergraduate education, the relationship among students and faculty was a relation of less and more experienced colleagues. We actually did addressed each other as “colleague”. I see as beneficial that faculty involves in a more open-ended relationship with students. In addition to that, there is a systematic use of modern computer, information, and communication technology. Solution can be increase in time spent in school or increase in credit hours, adding some management and writing courses, but can be also flexibility in choosing courses instead of some engineering or other area courses. The class structure needs to change too, including exercises, problems, courses scopes to achieve balance of science and practice, along with active discussion of real world problems, putting students on the spot to articulate and defend their approach and results.

Beside the change in the university, there needs to be change in the companies too. This change would be a result of the start in the change in the universities. Companies need to recognize different types of engineers, accept that diversity and use it better. This should not result in creating more positions but should reflect in liberating the choice for position. In addition, a flexible structure has a potential to allow individuals to achieve optimal performance by finding intrinsic meaning in their work. In addition, relating the salary to seniority and achievements and not necessary to position is another of the potential solutions.

Reference: Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Riverhead
Books, 2009

Some points related to Assessment

The recent two decades introduced some changes, while education systems are still trying to address previous issues and respond to the new requirements. Engineers of today are required to go beyond simple knowledge about discipline-related concepts. Topics such as communication, teamwork, understanding ethics and professionalism, work in the global and societal context, lifelong learning, knowledge of contemporary issues, context of engineering, perceptions of engineering, beliefs about own abilities, higher-order thinking, design process, adaptive expertise, intellectual development, etc. were different aspects of “knowledge for a new generation of engineers”.

According to ABET, universities are now accountable for demonstrating their effectiveness of teaching, especially due to the focus switch from input measurements to the output measurements. There are different approaches to teaching itself that are trying to influence the development of these engineering and professional skills. Ethics can be taught across curriculum with specific examples that could raise student’s awareness about the potentially “unintended harm” cases. Study-abroad programs and humanities and social sciences adopted for engineers can also play a significant role in the curriculum. In addition, there is a need for early exposure to “real” interdisciplinary, hands-on engineering practice, team work, systems thinking, and creative design. This could be coordinated to include close interaction with industry, broad use of information technology, and horizontal and vertical integration of subject matter. Finally, life-long learning is usually related to professional engineer licenses.

But this is not all. I see this dynamic behavior in education through a metaphor from basic control theory, represented as a feedback (closed-loop) control. The output of the system (students’ knowledge and skills) is fed back through a sensor measurement (assessment and evaluation) to the reference value. The controller (faculty and staff) then takes the difference between the reference (ABET) and the output to change the
input (teaching, administrative policies, equipment, etc.). Under the previous complex requirements and increased teaching efforts, the question of assessment becomes crucial.

But what is assessment? By its definition, the assessment is the act of collecting data that can be used to measure individual student’s competencies. This data is later evaluated, leading to “reasonable” accurate results and evidence about the student’s performance. So, assessment is an integral and inseparable component of education. Assessment can present information not just on student’s knowledge but on professors teaching techniques and university’s organization.

There are many requirements for modern assessment techniques. One of the most important one is that they have to be relate to expected, clear and important learning goals. They have to be cost-effective in terms of time, and applicable for transparent communication. Assessment techniques of today need to address all the forms of diversity present among students. This is the reason assessment has become a NxM scale problem since we have different student types (N) and we are trying to assess different skills and knowledge (M). So, we need robust and effective assessment techniques. Fortunately, there are many of them already existing, so we “just” need to implement them (interviews, conversational analysis, randomized control trials, verbal exams, small on-line quizzes, blog activities, multisource feedback, project rubrics, self-ratings, behavioral observations for evaluating attitudes, employer assessment of graduates’ preparation, etc.). These techniques can be used for direct and indirect assessment of communication, team work, process effectiveness, innovativeness, sustainable design, and other skills, in addition to simple knowledge evaluation. However, this implementation is where our professional judgment, as future faculty, needs to determine what, when, and how.

To conclude, professional skills required nowadays are harder to assess, especially since most of college professors are self-taught in the area of assessment design. Instructors would need to collaborate more with education researches for improving their techniques. Emphasize should be on the continuous assessment of students and one-on-one assistance, while providing a variety of ways for expressing the knowledge. In addition, faculty needs to create detailed (per lecture) learning goals in order to teach and later on assess specific skills. Faculty should be supported to increase the utilization of electronic testing resources that could improve cost-effectiveness. Finally, awarding faculty (with more time, resources, different tenure criteria, etc.) that invest additional efforts and develop new teaching techniques should become a state-of-practice.

Learning in Organizations

Considering constantly changing environmental circumstances, all the modern organizations need to constantly adjust in order to stay competitive. Unfortunately, organizations often tend to neglect the variability of factors, external and internal information, falling in the similar trap of not considering adjustment of structure and procedures. This is one of the scale and complexity issues that lead to the need for large scale improvement and change in an organization. A nice example can be an analogy of a journey determined on the map without considering the real-time road conditions, neglecting that revision and improvisation are the essential parts of the process.

Organizations often have many of potential areas for improvement, and one of them is the discrepancy between the canonical and non-canonical practice that appears while operating in real conditions. Differences often appear between the actual practice and the procedures described in official manuals, training courses, and job descriptions that organizations have. I often recall an example of training courses for traffic signal technicians that usually do not cover the details about the actual field equipment,
and how that information is usually received from older technicians. In addition, organizations tend to believe that there is not interrelation and compatibility of working, learning, and innovation. Finally, the bigger the organization is, the more inertia against change there is, although in order to adjust to environmental change, the needed modifications are often comparatively small.

Representations of organizations are often oversimplified as just a simple collection of individuals. However, organization and its knowledge are a combination of its individual’s knowledge and they are  often able to perform sets of actions that individuals cannot. Organizations are often characterized having the accumulated wisdom of practitioners and they have established procedures for acquiring new members. In addition, there is development of organization’s individuals in the organizational and institutional context, and vice versa – the operational consequences that the activities of these “developed” individuals bring to the organization. On the other hand, organizations can have some features of the individual, such as identity, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation sources.

Literature suggests that inside organizations there are three learning levels (individual, group, and organizational) and four related processes (intuiting, interpreting, integrating, and institutionalizing). The first two processes are related to individual, integrating is related to groups, while institutionalizing can be only performed on the organization level. I personally think that the key to initiative for change is intuiting and interpreting on the individual level. This is where it all starts – with an innovative individual. However,
the change cannot be institutionalized if there is no integration on the group level. Following structure of these levels, there are feeding forward and feeding back flows of information. In this process, some information is lost and new levels of information are added in transfer among levels. Considering that change originates on the lower levels (individuals and groups), a reasonable degree of autonomy along with simultaneous increase in connectivity could accelerate the change.

Facing the fact that modern universities are similar to companies we need to approach the issue of change in universities similar to the issue of change of any other organization. First, we need to ask ourselves is education and reaching excellence still the main identity and goal of these organizations with the specific human-related output? Next, is downskilling for the sake or reduction of short-term costs intentionally neglecting the increase of long-term and external costs? Are the present procedures providing motivation for action by individuals, considering that universities often do not have the
“champion” that will push forward for the sake of his/her own benefit? And finally, some discipline-related questions have to be posed, such as the level of influence by E.I.T. and P.E. exam’s content on the engineering curricula?

One thing is sure – universities need to continuously adapt to changing social conditions (e.g., emergence of social networking websites). This would require changes on student, faculty, and administration levels to create culture for supporting the right values. There needs to be increased communication between all involved parties – the people that implement the actual procedure, the people that create those procedures, and people affected by procedures implementation. For example, developing hypothetical learning trajectories is similar as goggling the route from A to B, having only the directions but without any real-time information. There are also issues with predefined curricula that were constructed long time ago and sometimes not even by the experts in the fields. Increase of classroom-based analysis needs to influence instructional design, and vice versa. There needs to be teaching of students for learning in groups and from groups, along with developing their capabilities for identifying personal learning styles and learning styles of their peers. Including students from organizing the curriculum up to the phrasing the exam questions, along with modifying “hidden” rules conveyed to students. Finally, self-reflection and openness to change, on the individual and on the organizational level is essential if institutional change is
to become a part of the university’s culture. However, all this has to start somewhere, and I strongly believe that we as future faculty should be those initiators of change.