A microchip off the old block

March 12, 1999

Computers could easily replace lectures, says Nick Coleman. Academics only need to write imaginative software that lets the student learn.

Is the university lecturer about to relinquish his job to a box of microchips? Unlikely, but my controlled experiments in computer-aided learning over the past few years have convinced me that it is worth considering dropping conventional lectures altogether.

The reason: our evidence at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne shows this technique might, at the very least, give struggling students a better chance.

The first-year computer engineering course seemed to be a good candidate for our experiments. The course originally comprised about 15 hours of lectures and the equivalent in laboratory work. We set about writing a suite of "courseware" that would allow the students to study all the original lecture material themselves.

Five years on, the course has been redesigned around the computer-based material.

While it is too early to draw any strong conclusions, analysis of student performance suggests that the courseware may be better than the original lecturing in bringing weaker students up to the standard of the others.

Computer architecture was the first courseware trialled. The course was written in collaboration with seven other universities as part of the Higher Education Funding Council's teaching and learning technology programme. What made this subject particularly suitable for a computer-based approach was its use of lots of visual information.

Introductory computer architecture covers the internal organisation and operation of a simple computer. Data moves around inside a computer under the control of a program.

Eminently suitable for animated display, the courseware could bring the material to life in a way that had been difficult in the lectures. Students could be invited to try out different solutions to problems and to see the results for themselves.

There were pitfalls. The electronic equivalent of a textbook, even with any number of animations tagged on, is not likely to engender enthusiasm for what is, to start with, an intuitively unappealing and abstract subject.

We tried to counter the risk of boredom by constructing courseware with a rhythm of juxtaposed pace, style of presentation, rhetorical approach and activity.

Question-and-answer sessions were interposed with factual delivery, animations alternated with statics and interactive sequences were used as much as possible. From time to time, a simple tutorial format was used, ("here's a fact - learn it"), but most issues lent themselves to a more inductive approach, for example: Question: What does a computer do?

Answer: It inputs information, stores it internally, processes it, then outputs the results.

Conclusion: So a computer must have four blocks of electronic circuitry: to input, store, process and output the information respectively. They must be connected so as to be able to pass information to each other.

Controlled experiments involving half the class doing courseware and the other half the lectures suggested courseware was more effective than the lecturing in bringing up weaker students.

Encouraged, we launched an independently funded project at Newcastle to develop more courseware, covering number systems and assembly-language programming. The first dealt with the binary and hexadecimal arithmetic systems used instead of decimals throughout all computer work. The second covered the intricate programming techniques to design a microprocessor system. These are core areas for many electronics undergraduates but, like computer architecture, are rather abstract.

Our imagination was stretched to the limit in avoiding the "theoretical-textbook" look. Taken together, these three modules covered my entire computer engineering course and have been in use for two years now.

The courseware occupied the students for less than half the time of the original lecturing. We used the timed gained for more practical sessions, in which my demonstrators and I could work with the students individually.

The weaker ones gained remedial support, and the stronger ones were introduced to more advanced ideas that would not have been appropriate to the general level of the class.

There is no doubt that the onus has shifted. I no longer deliver any basic factual knowledge: it is now up to the students to do the learning, and it is my job to advise and guide them. But have we not been here before?

The principle sounds not unlike the way things used to be, when the closeted student "read" for a degree under the genial guidance of his tutor.

If there is a faint echo of Christminster, then intelligent, well-motivated students can only be the better for it. They need not to be told everything. They can sort out the basics for themselves. How else does one acquire the self-confidence to survive in a subject that turns itself inside-out every few years, let alone survive in the world?

Nick Coleman is a lecturer in the department of electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Email: j.n.coleman@ncl.ac.uk

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