Illustration, mobile phone with arrows pointing up to the skyHow might today’s educators respond to their students’ changing relationship with technology? Imperial magazine investigates the College’s new approaches to learning.

A decade ago, turning up to a lecture with a handful of “good quality transparencies” was usually enough to keep students engaged, says Omar Matar (Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology 1993), Professor of Fluid Mechanics and chair of Imperial’s e-Learning Strategy Committee. But advances in mobile technology, particularly in smartphones and tablets, mean today’s learners have higher expectations of how staff will use these technologies. Most regularly access information from a variety of media sources, particularly social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which can make traditional teaching methods look uninspiring and outdated in comparison.

Competitive advantage

At the same time, the recent hike in UK undergraduate tuition fees – now around £9,000 a year in many institutions – means universities feel under increasing pressure to improve learner experience. As David Lefevre (MSc Computing Science 2002), Director of the Educational Technology Unit at Imperial’s Business School puts it: “If students don’t get what they want, they’ll become critical”.

When it comes to technology, many higher education institutions are lagging far behind the business world. As a part-time journalism lecturer myself, I’m reminded of this every time I find myself handing out wads of paper-based course materials or queuing for the photocopier. While colleagues are happy to share resources, there are few mechanisms in place to make this happen quickly and efficiently. I feel I am constantly duplicating work, writing lesson plans and resources that probably already exist – and delivering the kind of teaching I experienced as a student, almost 20 years ago.

If universities want to keep pace with business in an increasingly competitive marketplace, they need to up their game, says Matar. “The range of technology that people come across in their everyday lives means that attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter. If we don’t try to work with that, we are not going to be able to capture students’ interest, and quite frankly, we are going to fall behind.”

Business needs

At the Business School, this year staff are giving an iPad to the majority of students and uploading course materials to a central social media hub. In the past, students could access lecture notes and PowerPoint via the College’s virtual learning environment, but many complained it was “slow, cumbersome and difficult to navigate”, says Colin Love (MBA Management School 1995), Programme Director of the School’s MSc in Strategic Marketing. Now when students arrive at a lecture, slides and other materials are available on their tablet immediately. “Last year, we didn’t give out a single piece of paper,” says Love.

At around £300 each, the initial outlay for iPads might sound steep, but balanced against savings on printing and paper, it has turned out to be surprisingly cost-effective. Love has calculated that posting content to the hub as well as Facebook and Twitter saves the 10kg of paper that an average marketing postgraduate student is likely to use on a year-long course. It has also proved to be a big time saver. As Love explains: “Before we went paperless, if I saw something interesting in print that was relevant to the course, I’d come in, get a pair of scissors, cut it out, put it on the photocopier, run off 100 copies and take it to a lecture with me. Now I can capture the page on the iPad while I’m on the train and send it through to the communications hub…and the quality is perfect.”


Lefevre goes on to explain that the Business School’s adoption of learning technology is about not only improving the students’ experience while at Imperial but also helping them acquire the skills and expertise they will need for the workplace: “Technology, including online or e-learning, has swept through the corporate world. If you go to work in the city or for a large corporate company, as many of our students do, you will be expected to be tech-savvy, so there’s competitive pressure on business schools to embrace new technologies.”

Professor Dot Griffiths, Principal of the Business School, adds, as an example, that many graduates of the School’s MSc in Strategic Marketing go on to jobs where they are required to commission websites or use customer relationship management systems. “They can’t do this unless they have an understanding of how websites are built and hosted. They certainly won’t be able to have intelligent conversations with technical people unless they have some understanding of how technology works.”

Personal touch

Griffiths also points out that technology can help create a more personalised approach to teaching and learning. This is particularly relevant for her faculty, as unlike subjects such as computing or physics, which tend to attract students with a first degree in that subject, business studies can appeal to learners from a variety of disciplines. As a result, it is not uncommon for students to need to brush up on specific areas, like maths, that they feel rusty on in preparation for starting the course.

For these students, short e-learning courses can be very effective, says Griffiths. “It’s very difficult to learn subjects like that [maths] very intensively and quickly. They’re usually best taught bit by bit and we find that students do much better at these pre-study courses if they do them online, at their own pace.”

E-learning can also be a great way to give learners individual feedback, which as Lefevre points out is “a burning issue” in higher education at the moment, as well as a priority for the College. “Business school students want more feedback than universities are providing, and those studying at Imperial are no exception. We encourage our lecturers to use simulations, quizzes and interactive exercises in their teaching as much as they can, giving students greater opportunity to get feedback on how they are doing.”

Standardising medical training

Over at the School of Medicine, staff have been exploring the potential of e-learning as a way of standardising the quality of learning experience, for example in respiratory medicine. The programme for this topic used to involve two lectures – one on breathlessness and one on pulmonary embolism – followed by practical experience in a hospital environment. The problem was that students were sent to different hospitals, which meant their hands-on experience and exposure to specialists could vary dramatically.

In an attempt to give students a more ‘uniform’ experience, Martyn Partridge, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at Imperial, developed e-learning modules on diagnosing respiratory disorders, emergencies and each of the common lung diseases, timetabled for students to review at regular intervals during their training. Evaluation showed that transfer of knowledge to the students was the same whether they were taught in the traditional manner or used e-learning, but that those using e-modules were better at interpreting data.

The School has also explored the potential of virtual world technology, building a respiratory ward in Second Life and populating it with patients. Visually appealing and engaging, the virtual environment allows students to listen to ‘real’ breath sounds, order investigations and even diagnose patients. As Ashish Hemani, e-learning project manager in Medicine points out, this was not intended to replace face-to-face teaching, but to complement it as “a kind of preparatory study, so that when students go to see patients, they are more confident”.

Research-led teaching

In the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE), Reader in Personal Robotics Dr Yiannis Demiris has developed a research-led teaching approach to give undergraduates the chance to learn from participating in his cutting-edge robotics research, and from having their work evaluated by real end users. As Dr Demiris explains: “This helps the students get more excited about the end result, as they’re not just jumping through hoops for me as the lecturer. They are also producing real technologies.”

“Before we went paperless, if I saw something interesting in print that was relevant to the course, I’d come in, get a pair of scissors, cut it out, put it on the photocopier, run off 100 copies and take it to a lecture with me. Now I can capture the page on the iPad while I’m on the train and send it through to the communications hub…and the quality is perfect.”

Fourth year students on the Electronic and Information Engineering undergraduate course are required to design and build their own interactive robots and put them to the test with members of the general public. Recent projects have included robotic recycling bins, receptionists, buskers and even a robot guide for blind people. The course, now entering its third year, has proved so popular with students that it received Imperial’s highest student online evaluation score in 2012, and also earned Demiris Excellence in Teaching Awards from the President & Rector, as well as from the Faculty of Engineering. He adds: “Many students continue working on their projects just for their own interest long after the course has finished and grades have been awarded.”

New challenges

illustration, three clouds, newspaper, mobile, lightbulb in each cloud.Working with new technologies rarely comes without challenge. Getting the robots to a stage where they can be evaluated by end-users within the time frame of university teaching requires a significant engineering effort, which in turn means group work. The biggest challenge with large group projects, says Demiris, is “separating those that worked hard from those who took more of a back seat.” Staff have addressed this by giving each student individual components of the robot design that they are solely responsible for and asking them to submit an individual design report for their work. Students are also required to attend both individual and group interviews, where they are questioned about their work.

In the Business School, staff have found that going paperless can also bring its own, new problems. “If you post a course message across multiple social media channels, you soon receive a whole raft of messages from the students in return,” points out Lefevre. “One challenge for universities moving in this direction is how to deal with this. How do you respond to everyone if you’re getting so many messages each week?”

In the School of Medicine, evaluation of projects based on new technologies has highlighted some teething problems. While a randomised control trial showed a slight increase in understanding from those who had taken up the respiratory e-learning option, evaluation of the Second Life respiratory ward showed that although it was highly interactive, the learning process was less well suited to the skills of year three medical students for whom it was originally designed, and the College has therefore decided not to roll it out any further.

“This isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Partridge. The evaluation of the Second Life project has also highlighted some important lessons about usage, with students being far more likely to use resources that are easy to access when they are on the move, via smartphone or tablet.

“We need to embrace the value of technology in enhancing the student experience,” says Partridge. “At the same time, no single learning experience is right for all subjects or students and it is important to review the role of technology, so we can compare it to more traditional methods. That process is in itself valuable.”

Partridge now also works as Senior Vice Dean at the new Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore, the joint medical school between Imperial and Nanyang Technological University, due to take its first cohort of students in August 2013. The School has a major interest in technology-enhanced learning: all students will be issued with iPads pre-loaded with learning resources for each half-day of teaching, along with software that will enable them to evaluate each session as soon as it has finished, and to record any work-based assessments. Students will also have access to an e-portfolio similar to the one already used by Imperial students.

With each student visiting the communications hub up to 10 times a day, there is little doubt that the iPads and paperless approach are proving a big hit with learners at the Business School. Love, who recently received a President & Rector’s Award for Excellence, awarded annually to staff who have made outstanding contributions in teaching, pastoral care, research supervision and supporting the student experience, says other departments are considering a similar approach.

Initially piloted last year with 70 students, the new approach to teaching and learning has now been rolled out to 750 students in the 2012 intake to the Business School’s postgraduate programmes. Love says: “This time last year, we were pretty much the first UK business school to issue iPads to our students. Now I think we have the largest and most ambitious such project in the country – it’s pretty revolutionary.”

Words by Jan Murray

Illustrations by Beth Elzer