Teaching-only Academics in a Research Intensive University: From an undesirable to a desirable academic identity

Abstract of my Doctor of Education (EdD) dissertation – available at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/34169

Teaching-only academics now constitute a significant proportion of the academic staff in UK higher education. This thesis is a three-part study in which I sought to contribute to a more indepth understanding of the teaching-only academic role. I did this through an investigation of the career trajectories, perceptions, work-related experiences and academic identity constructions of teaching-only academics working in a research-intensive institution in the UK.

In the first part of the study I carried out a systematic review of the literature on teaching-only academics in the UK, Australia and Canada. In the second part of the study I investigated the virtual identity of teaching-only academics at the UK research-intensive institution. I did this by undertaking an analysis of how these teaching-only academics self-represented and projected themselves on their institutional webpages. In the third part of the study I carried out a life-history analysis of senior teaching-only academics in the engineering faculty of the case study institution.

A principal finding from this thesis, which is collaborated across all the three parts of the study, is that the teaching-only academic role is a non-homogeneous role comprising individuals who come from different backgrounds, have followed different career trajectories into the role, and have different academic identities. Findings from this thesis also suggest that whilst teaching-only academics were introduced as an institutional response to the demands of the RAE/REF, the very act of creating the role has further exacerbated the separation between research and teaching, and between undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. Specifically, undergraduate teaching within the case study engineering department now tends to be the responsibility of teaching-only academics, with research-and-teaching academics increasingly focussing on research and postgraduate teaching. This separation has implications for research-led teaching, particularly in research-intensive institutions.

The thesis also reveals that despite the pre-eminence of research, teaching remains important within the university, and individuals on the teaching-only academic role are able to accumulate substantial, and valued, teaching-related academic capital. This capital, in turn, is enabling them to secure and advance their positions within the same institution, and to pursue career advancement through seeking employment in other higher education institutions.

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The new A Level Mathematics Qualifications and their implications on Engineering Education

In every day conversations, the UK weather is by far the safest bet for non-controversial small-talk. This is because the variability and relative unpredictability of UK weather easily ensures that you can find loads of points of agreement with your fellow conversationalist. Within engineering education we also have another favourite topic for small talk – this is the A Level mathematics qualifications. This is because, until recently, it was relatively easy to find something within the A Level mathematics qualifications that any two members of the engineering academic community could agree to mourn about. This is all about to change, however. A Level mathematics has recently undergone a complete transformation, and the refurbished qualifications are already being delivered in schools, with the first batch of A level graduates expected to start their university studies in September 2019.

Why the A Level mathematics qualifications had to be redesigned

Over the past thirty years or so, there have been wide ranging complaints about the quality and perceived shortcomings of A level mathematics. Michael Gove, the then Secretary for Education, adequately summarised these shortcomings in a letter that he wrote to the Chief Executive Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation [DfE, 2013]:

  • A level mathematics fails to provide the solid foundation that students need to prepare them for degree-level study and for vocational education
  • A level mathematics students lack the deep understanding and/or the necessary skills to make connections between mathematics topics, and between mathematics and other subjects
  • Assessment practice in A level mathematics is overly structured and encourages a formulaic approach to mathematical thinking instead of using more open-ended questions that require advanced problem-solving.
  • Universities have had to adapt their teaching approaches to include remedial mathematics tuition for underprepared first year undergraduates.

A survey of mathematics departments within universities also revealed the following shortcomings [ALCAB, 2014]:

  • The mathematical thinking of the most able students is not developed.
  • The distinction between A and A* grades, i.e. the top most grades, seems to be based on the avoidance of careless slips rather than genuine mathematical ability.
  • It is not clear what applied mathematics students have learnt.
  • Current statistics provision tends to focus on routine calculations at the expense of interpretation and understanding.

Purpose of the new A Level Mathematics

According to the Department for Education, the primary purpose of the new A level mathematics qualifications is to [DfE, 2016]:

  • Build from GCSE level mathematics and introduce calculus and its applications
  • Emphasise how mathematical ideas are interconnected and how mathematics can be applied to model situations mathematically using algebra and other representations
  • Helping students to make sense of data
  • Helping students to understand the physical world and to solve problems in a variety of contexts, including social sciences and business
  • Preparing students for further study and employment in a wide range of disciplines involving the use of mathematics.

Structure of the new A Level Mathematics qualifications

With the exception of further mathematics, all students studying A level mathematics now have to cover statistics and mechanics in addition to pure mathematics [Ofqual, 2016a]. This now provides universities with certainty as to the exact nature and level of mathematics covered by A level mathematics graduates.

In addition, students are now also expected to demonstrate the following overarching knowledge and skills across the entire content detailed in the A Level mathematics specification [DfE, 2016]:

  • Mathematical argument, language and proof
  • Mathematical problem solving
  • Mathematical modelling.

Ofqual has also provided guidance on mathematical problem solving, modelling and the use of large data sets in statistics. This guidance also includes advice on assessing these key aspects, together with example questions [Ofqual, 2016c].

The new A Level Mathematics objectives and assessment format

The new A level mathematics qualifications have been specifically designed to deliver the following objectives [Ofqual, 2015]:

  • Using and applying standard techniques: The new qualifications seek to ensure that learners are able to select and correctly carry out routine procedures, and to accurately recall facts, terminology and definitions.
  • Reasoning, interpreting and communicating mathematically: Learners should be able to construct rigorous mathematical arguments (including proofs), make deductions and inferences, assess the validity of mathematical arguments, explain their reasoning and use mathematical language correctly.
  • Solving problems within mathematics and in other contexts: Learners should be able to translate problems in mathematical and non-mathematical contexts into mathematical processes, interpret solutions in the context of a problem, and, where appropriate, evaluate their accuracy and limitations. Learners should also be able to translate situations in context into mathematical models. They should also be able to use mathematical models, evaluate the outcomes of modelling in context, recognise the limitations of models and, where appropriate, explain how to refine them.

Ofqual recommends that these three objectives should be assessed in accordance with the weightings outlined in Table 1 below [Ofqual, 2016b]:

Table 1: Assessment weighting for A and AS level mathematics

Objective Weighting (A Levels) Weighting (AS Levels)
Using and applying standard techniques 50% 60%
Reasoning, interpreting and communicating mathematically 25% 20%
Solving problems within mathematics and in other contexts 25% 20%

The new A Level Mathematics qualifications compared to First Year Engineering Mathematics

The new A Level mathematics qualifications are closely aligned to engineering mathematics as taught in the first and second year of university. For example, the objectives of the new qualifications closely agree with the intended learning outcomes of our first year mathematical modelling and analysis course module for engineering at University College London, whereby we state that by the end of the course module, students will be able to:

  • Recognise the connections between mathematics and engineering, and how mathematical ideas are embedded in engineering contexts;
  • Represent real-world systems from engineering in a mathematical framework;
  • Identify and draw upon a range of mathematical concepts, including Calculus, Linear Algebra and Differential Equations to analyse specific problems and identify the appropriate mathematics to realise a solution;
  • Employ appropriate computer programming and modelling techniques and statistical analysis to efficiently solve and evaluate the performance of engineering systems;
  • Use estimation, approximation and dimensional analysis to reduce complexity;
  • Relate the behaviour of the output of mathematical models to the underlying physical or conceptual models of interest;
  • Carry our engineering problem solving both collaboratively in a team and independently;
  • Present and interpret mathematical results in effective and appropriate ways to varied audiences, including non-mathematical engineering audiences.

Given such close alignment, we expect that from September 2019 onwards it will be much easier for first year students to adapt to university-level teaching. This is likely to reduce the time and effort spent by academic staff in remedial mathematics teaching. Instead, we hope that academics responsible for first and second year engineering mathematics teaching will use that time to focus on bringing engineering mathematics into closer alignment with other course modules in engineering.

References:

DfE (2013). Reform of GCE A Levels – Letter from Secretary of State to Glenys Stacey. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/278146/SoS_January_2013_ofqual_letter_alevels_v2.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

ALCAB (2014). Report of the ALCAB panel on mathematics and further mathematics. The A Level Content Advisory Board. https://alevelcontent.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/alcab-report-on-mathematics-and-further-mathematics-july-2014.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

DfE (2016). Content for mathematics AS and A level for teaching from 2017. Department for Education. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/516949/GCE_AS_and_A_level_subject_content_for_mathematics_with_appendices.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2015]. AS and A Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics: Consultation on Conditions and Guidance. Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/481981/as-and-a-level-mathematics-and-further-mathematics-consultation-on-conditions-and-guidance.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2016a]. GCE Subject Level Conditions and Requirements for Mathematics. Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/517726/gce-subject-level-conditions-and-requirements-for-mathematics.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2016b]. GCE Subject Level Guidance for Mathematics. Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/514465/gce-subject-level-guidance-for-mathematics.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2016c]. Report on Mathematical Problem Solving, Modelling and the Use of Large Data Sets in Statistics in AS/A Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics. A Level Mathematics Working Group, Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/481857/a-level-mathematics-working-group-report.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Making the transition to university: Of lectures and empty timetables

The Fallacy of the Empty Timetable

Students progressing from high school to university are often shocked at how empty their timetables are when they first look at them.  A first year engineering timetable typically shows only 20 to 25 hours of lectures, workshops, tutorials, design classes and labs. And even more scary, non-engineering timetables are, by and large, even emptier. These timetabled hours are referred to as contact hours. They are the scheduled hours where a lecturer or tutor actually leads or interacts with you in a study session. Of course, you get to meet with lecturers and tutors significantly more than these timetabled hours suggest, but given the rather hefty fees that students are now paying at university, you may be left wondering: “Am I going to get my money’s worth of education?”

Attending Lectures the Wrong Way

Again, you may never have attended a lecture whilst in high school, and when you first show up at university you may be wondering what it really is, and why it is so much disliked, or feared, by so many students. Hopefully, your personal tutor, or programme director, may have attempted to explain to you during Freshers’ Week what a lecture is? However, whether or not they have done so, your first experience of a lecture is more likely to be one of shock.

The typical first lecture usually goes as follows: You show up to the lecture room, or more correctly, lecture hall, on the first day of teaching. You see a sea of students, may be fifty, one hundred, two hundred,  or even more,  seated in neat rows, all facing towards the front where someone is standing, fiddling with some PowerPoint slides. This is distinctly very different from your high school days when classes used to be no more than twenty or thirty students. The lecture usually starts with some introductory remarks about the material to be covered and why it is important to your studies. Pretty soon, you are flying through chunks of new material as the lecturer races against the clock. You soon realise that at the rate the lecture is going, in just one hour you will have gone through the equivalent of an entire week of high school teaching. The material flies at you fast, and as you are trying to grasp the last sentence, you look up and the lecturer has moved on to the next section. You switch on to the new section, and before you even settle down, the lecturer is off on to another topic. By this time your mind is spinning, and a cloud of self-doubt has enveloped you: “Is this the right course for me?”

Every now and then the lecturer pauses to ask a question, and to your surprise, you see a few hands raised, and someone provides the lecturer with the answer s/he is looking for. An answer? Where the hell did they learn that material, you wonder.  Someone even has the audacity to ask the lecturer a detailed question regarding the flurry of material on the lecturer’s slides. At this point you go into shock-mode – were the A level results a true reflection of your capabilities, you begin to wonder.  Helpfully, you look around you, and you see a sea of bewildered faces, and from the corner of your eyes, you begin to see the rows behind you emptying quietly, and fast. You realise you are not alone.  So this is the lecture, but is it value for money, particularly the hefty fees you are paying for this year, you wonder.

Taking charge of your own Study Timetable

Back in your room, after your first ever lecture, you begin to piece together your first day at university – empty timetable slots and breakneck lectures: this is university. Only then, do you realise, one: that the timetable is not so empty after all – it is a template that you must fill with your own study plans, and two: that the lecture is not meant for the lecturer to teach you, high-school style, whilst you recline in your seat – it is a tried-and-tested signposting method to enable you to direct your own studies of the topic. This is where university differs from high school. In high school, the teacher pretty much goes through all the material that you need to master if you are to pass your exams. All you need to do is to take in the material, and remember to reproduce it in the required form during the exams. At university it is a completely different ball-game – it is you, the student, who has to study the material, it is you, the student, who has to decide whether the lecture material suffices or you need to augment it, it is you the student who has to decide what sort of additional material you need to read in order to fully master the topic, and it is your responsibility to decide how much time and how much effort you ought to put into your studies. How then can you master lectures? Simple, like any established human activity, the lecture consists of three connected phases, namely the Before-, During- and After-Lecture phases.

The Before-Lecture phase

Before you even set foot in the lecture hall, you ought to prepare for it. As a general rule, lecture materials are posted on the virtual learning environment (VLE) well before the lectures. In addition, most lecturers even provide quizzes and guides to help you in your preparation. I would suggest that you put in 1 ½ hours of preparation for each hour of the lecture. First, scheme through the lecture material for the first half hour, then try to read and understand the concepts in the next hour, noting down areas that appear to be confusing, and identifying any background material that you need to be conversant with if you are to understand the question. Engineering lecture materials almost always have worked examples that illustrate key concepts:  go through these examples, and, again, note areas of concern. Work through any of the pre-lecture supplementary material supplied by the lecturer, and then at the end of the Before-Lecture phase, prepare a tentative list of questions that you wish the lecturer to clarify during the actual lecture.

The During-Lecture phase

During the lecture, pay attention to what the lecturer is saying. Usually the slides are just pointers to additional material, and the lecturer usually adds in more detail to explain and clarify issues. Importantly, the lecturer usually attempts to link the lecture material to the pre-lecture supplementary material. Usually you may be given opportunities to try out further examples in class, or to go over the examples in the pre-lecture material. Attempt these using the lecture material, and compare your answers with the suggested solution. If you have fully prepared during the Before-Lecture phase, working through the given examples should be relatively easy. As in all learning processes, there may be concepts that remain difficult to understand. Do not be afraid to raise your hands and ask questions, and make note of all the answers. During this time those students who are yet to grasp the wisdom of pre-lecture preparation may be looking at you incredulously. Just ignore them. It’s not about them, it’s about you and your learning.

The After-Lecture phase

After the lecture, allocate a further two to three hours to go over the lecture material. This is the After-Lecture phase, and, in general, you may not complete this phase in one block. Go carefully through the lecture, and through the notes that you made before and during the lecture, creating a fresh set of notes as you go along. Nowadays, universities routinely record lectures. Go through the lecture recording to review any areas that were unclear in the lecture. It can be very tempting to skip lectures and rely on the lecture recordings alone. However, if you have ever attempted to go through a two-hour lecture recording in its entirety, you will immediately see the futility of trying to do so. As a guideline, always remember that lecture recording should only be used as a supporting resource to the actual lecture.

It’s impossible to master all the material in one go, unless you are an exceptional genius. Typically you need to go over the material several times, and to work through a lot of examples to ensure that you fully master the topic. Set aside time to go over the material in the coming days and weeks, and meet up with other students to discuss the material. Often you may find that one of your colleagues is able to explain some of the concepts that you are struggling with in a much clearer way than the lecturer.  Learning is a collaborative process, and you learn better by inter-working with other students. Learning at university is not for the one-man or one-woman hero. It is a collective effort that takes place within a community of learners.

Integrating Lectures, Worksheets and Workshops

Most of the material covered in engineering lectures often needs to be applied to practical engineering problem-solving. Gone are the days of learning theory for the sake of theory. Usually each lecture is accompanied by a worksheet which starts off with introductory questions aimed at assessing and helping you to reinforce your understanding of the key lecture concepts. These are then usually followed by progressively more challenging and more authentic engineering-oriented problems.

Usually each lecture is accompanied by a workshop session a few days after the lecture. The aim of this workshop is to assist you in applying the lecture material to problem-solving. Usually the workshop is based around the lecture worksheet.  You typically work consecutively through the worksheet problems, with the lecturer and/or workshop tutors moving around to see how well you are doing. As with the lecture, it helps to prepare for the workshop by going through some of the problems. If you have done so, bring these solutions to the workshop sessions. Discuss problem areas with the workshop tutors as they move around the class room. Usually you are expected to work collaboratively with other students to solve the problems. Make an effort to contribute and share your learning with others. As so often said, the best way to learn a new topic is to teach others. By so doing, you will be able to reinforce your understanding.

At the end of the workshop, go back and update your notes, paying particular attention to the various approaches that you have learnt to solve the worksheet problems. As before, in your timetable, in the following weeks set aside some time to go over the material as well as to attempt any of the problems that you did not find time to do during the workshop session. Additionally, look up the coursework accompanying the material and start thinking about it.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, if the university timetable still looks so empty, and the lectures still appear to be such a waste of time, then you must be doing something wrong, or you are too good for the course. Either way, you need to speak to your personal tutor or programme director urgently. After all, university does not come cheap.

New approaches to engineering education: Five memorable quotes

  1. It might be helpful to clarify what engineering education is not. It is not about the acquisition of specific practical skills, however useful or interesting they might be to any individual. It is not about training people to run CFD codes or send CAD designs to a CNC machine or to grow crystals or to sign off structural steelwork. It is about the conceptual, planning and design skills which should precede all these activities. It is about imagining and understanding and predicting, as quantitatively as possible, why and how an engineering objective can be realised and delivered. (Goodhew 2014)

Professor Peter J Goodhew CBE FREng, Emeritus Professor of Engineering, formerly Dean of Engineering and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Liverpool

  1. Engineering education is no longer solely about specific content anymore or, indeed, traditional knowledge. It’s much more about processes and the students’ application of the knowledge. (AECOM 2018)

Emanuela Tilley, Director of the Integrated Engineering Programme, University College London

  1. We need to train a new generation of engineers in skills that are genuinely relevant to the new industrial values of flexibility, technical advancement and on-going innovation. Single discipline specialism and theory will no longer cut it in the modern world.  (The Institution of Engineering and Technology and The Engineering Professors’ Council 2017)

Professor Jeremy Watson CBE FREng, past President of the Institution of Engineering Technology

  1. The stars are aligned for an Engineering Renaissance here in the UK and throughout the world. We as educators need to seize this moment to work collaboratively with students and employers to co-create a whole new set of models to reflect their needs. In doing so, we can turn a fear of change and flux created by technology and disruption, into a new era of enlightenment for engineering education. (Koziński and Evans 2017)

Professor Janusz Kozinski, Founding President & Vice-Chancellor of the Hereford University of Technology and Engineering, formerly Founding Dean of York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering

  1. Successful engineering education change is characterised by (1) a leadership style that articulates a clear educational vision and demonstrates a personal commitment to establishing a new paradigm for engineering education at the institution; (2) a distinctive ‘spirit’ or culture of collegiality and common purpose that pervades the faculty, (3) student engagement in and understanding of new educational approaches, (4) in-house development of new tools and resources to support and advance the educational approach. (Graham 2018)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

References

AECOM. (2018). The future of infrastructure: Expert opinions from around the world on the challenges and opportunities ahead. AECOM.

Goodhew, P. J. (2014). Teaching Engineering: All you need to know about engineering education but were afraid to ask, London: Royal Academy of Engineering.

Graham, R. (2018). The global state of the art in engineering education. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.

Koziński, J. A., and Evans, E. F. (2017). “An Engineering Renaissance”, New Approaches to Engineering in Higher Education. London: The Institution of Engineering and Technology, The Engineering Professors’ Council.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology, and The Engineering Professors’ Council. “New Approaches to Engineering in Higher Education.” Presented at New Approaches to Engineering in Higher Education, London.

 

Now that you got the academic position – What next?

We are now approaching the end of the year, and attention has shifted to the next year. Barring unexpected departures, most departments have probably now concluded their hires for the next year. And as for you, congratulations if you are one of those who have secured your first academic position. You should give yourself a pat on the back. After all, you have made it ahead of at least seventy other competitors who applied for the same role.

By now your new department will have been in touch with you to discuss your teaching for the next year. You would have demonstrated in the interviews both your passion and your growing expertise in engineering education practice. Naturally, you will be eager to demonstrate and cement your position as an innovative teacher who aspires to excellence. A word of advice, however: teaching quality can be highly subjective, and excellence in education is context-dependent. So before you rush ahead to implementing all the whistles and bells that you can think of in your education practice, you need to first consider the following three questions:

  • What exactly is it that you will be teaching?
  • Who exactly will you be teaching?
  • Who else will be teaching with you?

What exactly is  it that you will be teaching?

Your new Head of Department may have contacted you to tell you of the good news. They will also have discussed with you the course modules that you will be teaching. However, it’s not just that you will be teaching some specific course module, like Maths101, Fundamentals of Engineering 103 or some other course unit. Even if you may already have some experience delivering these course modules, and you are confident that you will do a good job, you really need to delve deeper into the exact course content that you need to deliver.

Engineering departments are not all the same. They have different missions, and different teaching philosophies, beliefs and values. You may have heard that there is a visible curriculum, and there is a hidden curriculum.  The two are not necessarily the same, and what matters most is the hidden curriculum. It is this hidden curriculum that is in tune with the goals and aspirations of the department, and  the one that determines the specific topics that you should cover, the depth that you are expected to go in each topic, as well as how exactly you are to assess the students.

Degree programmes normally comprise course modules that feed into each other, or that provide knowledge and skill sets that are designed to complement each other. In this way,  module units help to achieve a coherent set of learning outcomes at each level of the degree programme. In practice, the written down syllabus does not provide the whole story. A lot of assumptions, implied and non-implied go into the development of a degree programme. It is your duty to find out all this, and then work out what you need to deliver in your assigned course module. Start talking to people within the department, and go through the historical records of your assigned course modules.

Who exactly will you be teaching?

Again, students are not all the same. Different universities tend to attract different types of students. As a result, students attending a particular university may have expectations that are quite different from those attending some other university. For instance, students at a highly selective, traditional university may have been primed for highly mathematical and theoretical content. They may even be expecting “the sage on the stage” approach to teaching, together with the traditional exam-oriented assessment format. They may even be more focussed on the mark they are going to get, and not necessarily on what they actually learn in your class. In such a situation, rushing to implement fancy stuff like team-based, collaborative learning may serve only to alienate them from your teaching.

On the other hand, more innovative, forward-looking universities usually attract students who are keen to experience “real” engineering practice. Such students usually expect a hands-on, design-based approach that integrates theory and practice. In such an environment, adopting a hands-off “sage on the stage” approach is likely to hasten your departure from the university.

Who else will be teaching with you?

You need to find out quickly the nature of your soon-to-be colleagues. Are they conservative and suspicious of any innovations in education practice? Or are they open to new ideas in education, and enthusiastic enough to experiment with the new? Or are they somewhere in between? You need to style your teaching accordingly. If you must innovate, only do so when you have gained your colleagues’ respect. You may be eager to get good student feedback, but if this ends up exposing your colleagues’ not-so-good teaching, you will have no-one to thank you. Instead, your excellent teaching may be cruelly re-cast as some form of dumbing down, or worse. On the other hand, there may be colleagues in your new department who are passionate about their education practice. If this is the case, get to know them, learn from them and partner with them in the noble goal of ensuring good departmental education practice.

Concluding remarks

How then should you conduct yourself in the first few months and weeks of your new academic career? Simple, if the department is conservative, then tread carefully, gain the respect of your colleagues and students, engage them in discussions on education practice. Think carefully through any changes that you wish to make, and establish a consensus amongst both students and academics alike. If you must make changes to the curriculum, or to your own education practice, then consider going first for those changes guaranteed to generate positive outcomes with high visibility. Then, as you win support, you can go on to implementing bolder changes. If, on the other hand, your department has a culture of innovation and excellence in education, then tuck in, and learn as much as you can, and studiously incorporate this learning into your own practice.

Either way, let the pursuit of excellence in education practice be your primary goal. Expand your networks with other like-minded engineering educators, both within your institution and elsewhere. Take every opportunity to learn about engineering education, and don’t shy away from teaching others as well. Be an engaged member of your department when it comes to matters relating to education and the student experience. Do this consistently, and over time, you will  become an integral member of both your  department and the world-wide community of engineering educators.  Then you will become established in higher education.

 

A CDIO Primer for the Busy Engineering Academic and Administrator

Introduction

In engineering education, as in all other aspects of higher education, we are constantly bombarded by a stream of new acronyms and concepts. CDIO is one such concept that has been around for a number of years, but one which most people are only just becoming aware of. My intention in this blog is to present a quick overview of the CDIO approach to engineering education reform. This should be adequate for anyone who needs a quick introduction, and is particularly ideal for busy senior academics and administrators.

What is CDIO?

The acronym CDIO stands for Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate. It is an approach to designing, running and coordinating undergraduate engineering education programmes with the objective of producing work-ready graduates equipped with the necessary professional and technical skills they need to hit the ground running when they move into employment.

The CDIO Approach

The CDIO approach is based on the premise that the conceive – design – implement – operate product/systems lifecycle approach is the basis for engineering practice, and as a result, every engineering graduate should be able to

conceive-design-implement-operate complex value-added engineering systems in a modern team-based environment (Crawley 2002).

The CDIO approach to engineering education is delivered in the context of the product/system conceive-design-implement-operate lifecycle, and it is designed to ensure that students are adequately grounded in the fundamentals of their engineering discipline. This approach is characterised by the following features (Crawley et al. 2014):

  • It involves stakeholders in developing learning outcomes.
  • It constructs a sequence of integrated learning experiences that offer authentic learning opportunities for students to encounter and experience situations that engineers encounter in their profession.
  • It ensures that learning activities simultaneously facilitate student learning of critical personal and interpersonal skills, and product, process, and system building skills, as well as enhancing the learning of engineering fundamentals.

CDIO driving factors

The main driver for the CDIO approach is the recognition that engineering education is characterised by an ever-increasing amount of technical knowledge. In addition, engineering graduates now need to be equipped with the necessary personal, interpersonal and professional skills they need to become effective from the very first working day (Crawley 2015). To address these two contradictory issues within the existing timescales for completing an undergraduate engineering programme, CDIO has opted for an approach to education that is based on the engineering problem solving paradigm.

CDIO historical Context

The historical context behind the CDIO approach is that following the end of the second world war, engineering education has evolved to a point where it has become too focussed on engineering science at the expense of engineering practice. This has led to a situation whereby engineering graduates lacked the skills that industry was seeking (Crawley et al. 2014). This state of affairs is a consequence of the long-term changes in the composition of engineering academics. Before the 1950’s, most engineering academics came from a practitioner background, and as a result, engineering education was primarily practitioner-oriented.

From the 50’s onward, incoming academics increasingly came through the graduate school route, and they were more well-versed in engineering science than engineering practice. Consequently, their teaching tended to draw mainly from engineering science. The resulting balance between practice and science in the 1960’s led to engineering graduates who had the appropriate mix of science and practice skills and insights that industry required.

However, from the 70’s onwards, as engineering scientists became the majority, engineering education became more and more focussed on engineering science, and increasingly dissociated from engineering practice. This has led to a situation where graduating students lack the skills required by industry.

Balance between practice and science

Implementing a CDIO curriculum

The CDIO approach envisions a curriculum that is organised around mutually supporting disciplines, with CDIO activities highly interwoven between them (Crawley et al. 2014). Learning should be rich with student design-build experiences, and delivered in classrooms and student workplaces that are sufficiently equipped and specifically designed to support active and experiential learning. This should be accompanied by assessment and evaluation processes designed to ensure constant improvement.

The first step in developing a CDIO curriculum is to identify the skills and attributes that students need to attain by the time they graduate. This should be done in consultation with stakeholders, who include current and former students, employers, academics and the society at large. These attributes and skills will constitute the programme syllabus.

Once the syllabus has been designed and agreed, the necessary learning activities needed to achieve the identified learning outcomes are then developed, alongside with appropriate assessment methods (Crawley et al. 2014). In practice, this may require modification of the existing curriculum and course modules, redesign of learning environments, and adopting student-centred, active and experiential learning approaches to teaching. Assessment methods also need to be evaluated and redesigned to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

The design and development of all these learning activities should be developed with reference to the 12 guiding principles that the CDIO Initiative has developed to describe CDIO programs. These principles are termed the CDIO Standards, and together they define the key features of a CDIO programme. These standards serve three primary objectives, namely:

  • providing guidelines for educational programme reform and evaluation
  • specifying programme benchmarks and goals
  • providing a framework for continuous programme improvement.

Table 1: Guide to the 12 CDIO Standards

CDIO Aspect Addressed by
Program philosophy Standard 1
Curriculum development Standards 2, 3 and 4
Design-build experiences and workspaces Standards 5 and 6
New methods of teaching and learning Standards 7 and 8
Academic staff development Standards 9 and 10
Assessment and evaluation Standards 11 and 12

Where to get additional Information

The best way to start off on your journey towards a deeper understanding of CDIO is by visiting the CDIO website: http://www.cdio.org/. There you will find relevant publications, notices for CDIO-related meetings, and you can also view a list of institutions that have adopted the CDIO paradigm.

References

Crawley, E. (2015). “The CDIO Syllabus: A Statement of Goals for Undergraduate Engineering Education, 2001”. City: Worldwide CDIO Initiative. http://www.cdio.org: CDIO Knowledge Library. Cambridge, MA; .

Crawley, E. F. “Creating the CDIO syllabus, a universal template for engineering education ” Presented at 32nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference; 6–9 November, Boston, MA.

Crawley, E. F., Malmqvist, J., Östlund, S., Brodeur, D. R., and Edström, K. (2014). “The CDIO Approach”, Rethinking engineering education. Springer, Cham, pp. 11-45.

The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: A review

It is no longer in dispute that engineering education has to change if it is to produce graduates who can face up to the challenges of the 21st century. Moreover, it’s no longer a case of “Are there any curriculum transformation strategies that I can look at?” Instead, it’s now a case of “Which transformational strategy should I adopt for my engineering school.”

Ten year ago, conferences and journals focussing on engineering education were scarce and infrequent. This is no longer the case. In fact, we are now spoilt for choice. Multiple engineering education conference proceedings and journals are now crammed full with ideas and examples of curriculum change by a multitude of authors from engineering schools all over the world. This now leaves the Director of Education wishing to transform their engineering curriculum with the following questions:

  1. Whose voice should I listen to if I am considering curriculum change in my own school?
  2. Which successful institutions, worldwide, should I turn to for guidance?
  3. Of these successful institutions, which ones closely match my own, in terms of size, operational environment and institutional education mission?
  4. Of the plethora of engineering education models out there, which ones are likely to stand the test of time, and which one are just passing fads?

At the best of times these are very challenging questions. However, the publication of an MIT-sponsored report by Ruth Graham entitled “The global state-of-the-art in engineering education: Outcomes of Phase 1 benchmarking study” will make it much easier to address these questions. The report came out of MIT’s desire to have a clear insight of the current state of cutting edge engineering education globally and how this was likely to pan out in the future.

Individuals currently at the forefront of engineering education reform

In order to come up with the report, Ruth first needed to identify and interview some of the leading figures in engineering education. To do so she selected 50 individuals from 18 countries from across the world. The selected individuals were either pioneers in engineering education research, policymakers in the field and/or university leaders with direct experience of delivering the world’s most highly regarded engineering education programmes. This list has been placed in one of the report appendices, and it is a good starting point if you need to talk to someone with current experience in engineering education transformation.

Ten institutions at the forefront of engineering education reform

One of the key objectives of the report was to identify institutions that are leading in engineering education innovation. The report identifies ten institutions that are currently acknowledged as world leaders. These institutions include MIT, Stanford, Olin College of Engineering, University College London, and, with the exception of the National University of Singapore, all of them are based either in the USA or Europe. With the exception of Olin, these institutions are typically well-established public universities that are renowned for research excellence, and that cater for relatively large cohorts of undergraduate engineering students. Also, without exception, all the ten institutions  actively engage in disseminating their ideas and practices across the international higher education community.

The report also identifies key pedagogical features that are common to these leading institutions. Typically, these institutions offer student-centred, hands-on, experiential learning, with opportunities for engaging with the university’s research activities. Design-based learning is also a feature of their curricula, and all the institutions have well established partnerships with industry that inform the engineering curriculum as well as the engineering research agenda. In addition, these institutions also offer their students opportunities to engage in student-led, extra-curricular activities and experiences.

Ten institutions emerging as leaders in engineering education reform

The report also identifies ten institutions that are viewed as emerging leaders in engineering education, with the most cited being Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Olin College of Engineering. Other institutions that make it into the list include the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Tsinghua University in China. Compared to the earlier list, this one is more globally distributed, with only four institutions coming from the USA and Europe, which are the traditional strongholds.

The report also identified a “watch list” of some of those institutions that did not make it into the emerging world leaders list. This includes New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMiTE), UK, Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Canada, B.V. Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology, India, and Insper, in Brazil.  Apart from B.V. Bhoomaraddi, all these other institutions have been established within the last five or so years.

The engineering curricula in the emerging world leaders share a number of common traits. First, all the ten institutions have opened up entry to students with non-conventional entry requirements, and they have all put in place selection processes that take into consideration the aptitudes of prospective students towards engineering. In addition, programmes at these emerging institutions place significant emphasis on integrating work-based learning into their curricula, as well as blending off-campus online learning with on-campus intensive experiential learning. Another common characteristic is that programmes offered at these institutions place dual emphasis on both engineering design and student self-reflection, and both these are integrated across the entire curriculum. Finaly, in addition to the formal curriculum, student-led, extra-curricular activities are a key feature of these institutions.

Additional remarks

The report also highlights contextual features that have driven curriculum reform in these institutions that have been identified in this report. This includes government initiatives, and local labour market requirements.  The report also highlights the likely future trajectory of engineering education, as well as identifying the likely key ingredients necessary for effective, sustainable engineering education reform within individual institutions. It is definitely a report worth reading, even if you are not contemplating making changes to your own curriculum in the near future.