E-tutor of the year: Decision to automate is cause to celebrate

February 6, 2004

THES/LTSN competition winner Mark Russell tells how he slashed the failure rate on an engineering module

The last thing I expected on a cold Monday morning last week was a telephone call to say that I had won the e-tutor of the year competition run by The THES and the Learning and Teaching Support Network. What was more surprising was that my submission centred on a first-year fluid mechanics and thermodynamics module with a failure rate of 23 per cent.

Before the appellants make their plea, I should point out that the previous year's failure rate was 50 per cent.

That improvement, I argue, is down to a range of electronic technologies I have developed to nudge, nurture, challenge and assess students. Fluid mechanics and thermodynamics are core engineering subjects that are often seen as difficult. This perception probably arises because of the language and mathematical competence involved. At first-year level, the University of Hertfordshire brings these subjects together into a common module.

Teaching a group of about 150 first-years is never easy. To ease the situation, I decided to use a battery of electronic courseware to supplement lectures.

Much of the e-tutoring involved Hertfordshire's bespoke managed learning environment (MLE), StudyNET. My aim was to encourage collaborative and independent learning, to set regular activities, to develop the students'

confidence, to challenge and extend their understanding and to help close the learning cycle through feedback on their weekly computer-assisted assessment tasks.

Rather than sitting at my laptop like some omnipotent guru uploading course notes and answering questions, I decided to be proactive. I set aside one to two hours a week for the MLE. This allowed me to drip-feed information, offer tips, seed questions and seek student views. I pointed students to websites, added news items and uploaded extra materials. Much of this had been done before: the difference was the weekly assessed tutorial sheet (Wats) I developed.

Students were set individual weekly tasks with different datasets that they were encouraged to work on in collaborative self-help groups. Their answers, however, had to be their own and submitted to an electronic data-collection program I had written. I knew the idea was working when I looked at the "time stamp" on two students' submissions - one had been sent at 3.47am, the other at 3.53am.

Microsoft Excel read submission files, marked the work and sent back an individualised email based on performance. This program fed back results with a fully worked solution. After writing the Excel scripts, all I had to do was "click a button".

Although this facility did not invent itself, my computer programming experience, coupled with a few weekends' work, means I now have a wonderfully tailored facility that provides a wealth of information about my students in a format that I want. Not only are the technologies useful for giving students automated observations, but they also feed information back to teaching teams with an interest in diagnosing student difficulties.

Spin-offs come in a variety of guises. The automated feedback facility, embedded in Excel, was converted into a spreadsheet that allows me to record student attendance. I get a visual feel for student attendance, (green-present, red-absent) and students receive an automated personalised email. The spreadsheet decides which of three emails to send:

"good", "could do better" or "poor". Observations from students are very positive and come from regular as well as less regular attenders. They like the fact that I take time to track and chase them.

The electronic data-gathering program used for the Wats submissions is being developed as an automated peer-assessment program. This and the student-tracking emailer were spin-offs from technologies already developed and provide me with an armoury of automated assistants. Technology and my use of an MLE have not replaced my duties as a lecturer, but they give students alternative learning experiences. As demands on staff time and student numbers increase, such developments and MLE use will become even more important.

Even with such high failure rates, feedback from students on my use of StudyNet and my automated assistants has been excellent. That said, I am looking to build on these firm e-tutoring foundations to cut next year's failures to a rate I can truly celebrate.

Mark Russell is a principal lecturer in the department of aerospace, automotive and design engineering at the University of Hertfordshire.

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