DigitalEdFuture-proofing STEM courses to create world-class digital teaching and learning

Future-proofing STEM courses to create world-class digital teaching and learning

STEM subjects traditionally rely on in-person teaching, but UK universities implemented significant changes to this model in the face of the pandemic

Since March, universities have made radical changes to the way they teach STEM subjects, not only responding to the challenges of Covid-19, but also taking the opportunity to change and review pedagogical models. A Times Higher Education panel, hosted in partnership with DigitalEd, brought together a group of academics from around the UK who outlined the various ways institutions had adapted to remote teaching.

As in other disciplines, STEM courses have adopted remote, blended and asynchronous learning methods (with some on-campus teaching still happening on a staggered basis, especially for labs), building on digital tools already in use before March. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams have proved helpful – indeed, Amy Patten of Aston University pointed to their usefulness in improving engagement levels with students, which were “considerably higher than last year”.

Aston University has incorporated DigitalEd’s Möbius learning platform and uses Labster simulation software to address one of the biggest challenges of teaching STEM online – offering laboratory teaching at a distance. Although remote learning has been around for a long time, the two-way nature of distribution technology has been a “real game changer”, according to Michael Kölling, vice-dean of education at King’s College London (KCL).

The pandemic accelerated the existing need to change learning models for STEM, suggested Hanifa Shah, pro vice-chancellor and executive dean at Birmingham City University, who argued that pedagogy needs to be rethought to encourage “deeper conceptual understanding, creativity and problem-solving skills”. 

Catherine O’Connor, head of communication, business and law at Leeds Trinity University, argued that increased remote learning had made it easier to engage with industry. Kölling described how the pandemic had led KCL to experiment with the traditional lecture format, breaking long classes into smaller online chunks, a move that received positive student feedback. 

Anatoliy Markiv, director of distance learning programmes at KCL, argued that constant technological improvements were creating a “high-flex blended education” model, with remote labs allowing robots to be operated virtually. Still, the challenges around offering practical labs persisted. Neil Audsley, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of York, said: “We are starting to push the edges of what is possible in the virtual world… Students who have started in physical labs have expectations, the challenge is how to replicate that.”

Conducting assessments in fair and secure terms online was another hurdle, with Audsley arguing that three-hour examinations are outdated, especially with a data-rich online learning environment opening up new options. “How do we move a 500-year-old process into the digital world?” he asked. In response, Christina Perdikoulias, DigitalEd’s president and chief operating officer, described how the company would be led by the academic experts, but was looking at digital alternatives such as ongoing micro-assessments. “There are a lot of good conversations about reimagining the pedagogy around STEM learning,” she said.

In broader terms, Perdikoulias spoke of technology’s potential to provide “immediate feedback”. She addressed the panel’s concerns about “digital poverty” from the vendor’s perspective: “We need to balance providing the technology with making sure it is equitable.” As a tech company, DigitalEd is exposed to innovations in machine learning and facial recognition, which claim to guard assessment integrity. “I see a lot of movement there, but that is a very problematic area… We need to work harder on technology decision aspects,” Perdikoulias said.

Looking forward, the panellists stressed the need to ensure the welfare of both staff and students in a more isolated online and blended learning environment. From the chair, Alistair Lawrence stressed that soft skills needed to be maintained, especially as STEM graduates are in great demand in the workplace.

The panellists agreed that a return to a pre-pandemic norm would not be desirable. Shah suggested that a blended model was the future: “Students will want a good reason to come on to campus.” Markiv expressed hopes that regulatory bodies would allow innovation to be sustained. For DigitalEd, Perdikoulias pointed to positive trends in international collaboration and course-sharing engendered by the pandemic, albeit with some room for improvement. “Certain core elements are easily shared, but there are inherent differences. Tweaks need to be done. Everyone has good intent. We are looking at that from the sharing side,” she said.

The entire session is available above and on the THE YouTube channel.

Find out more about DigitalEd and higher education. 

The panel:
Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
Neil Audsley, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science, University of York
Michael Kölling, vice-dean of education, King’s College London 
Anatoliy Markiv, director of distance learning programmes, King’s College London
Catherine O’Connor, head of communication, business and law, Leeds Trinity University
Amy Patten, teaching fellow, Aston University
Christina Perdikoulias, president and chief operating officer, DigitalEd
Hanifa Shah, pro vice-chancellor and executive dean, Birmingham City University

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