On the 12th of March, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, closed all schools, colleges and childcare facilities, in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus. This short article gives an account of how two engineering lecturers found inspiration to continue to interact with their students in a meaningful way during lockdown.
Assistant Professor, Dr James Carton of Dublin City University was in the middle of a materials lecture to his second-year engineering students, when the students chatter raised a level or two, following a wave of social media messages that spread across the room. He paused his class and following an update from his students on a breaking news event, he quickly understood that this would be the last normal lecture for a while.
“The students were immersed by many emotions of excitement, worry, agitation, and unease, and to be honest so was I”, says Professor Carton. However, he reassured them that he would stay in contact and continue to educate these flourishing engineers.
In the days that followed, the staff at DCU came together to put plans in place to keep teaching, with a popular option being to upload lecture videos for the students to interact with. However, as Professor Carton really enjoyed lecturing, and finds the in-class discussions very engaging, he was deflated by how cold and non-interactive the video uploading approach could be. He started wondering if there was some other way he could effectively teach and communicate with the students, develop labs, lectures, tutorials and alternative assessments or exams during the lockdown. He looked at the activities he had been developing with colleagues in the Creative Engine - EU Erasmus funded project (https://creative-engine.org/), where creativity and innovation are key, from, but also for, lecturers as much as for the students and so he realised he had to be creative with lectures, labs and the exam.
He contacted the students and over the following weeks until the end of semester, he kept the lecturing schedule as per the timetable pre-lockdown. He gave the students the option to join a live lecture & tutorial session within a 2-hour slot and made a recording of the lectures available. He also ran his tutorial slot past the end of semester and had over 60% of the class attend the live lectures. He had guest speakers, open chats, Q&A sessions, etc. The feedback from students has been overwhelming positive, with several thanking him for having a live lecture where they could talk or chat to a lecturer. He created a real-world approach for open book alternative assignments and for some questions put innovation a key part to dissuade plagiarism, and it worked.
At a different institution, Kelvin Martins, a lecturer in CCT College Dublin and a researcher working with Creative Engine at Dublin City University, found inspiration from the Creative Engine project to assist his remote activities: when he was asked to come up with an alternative form of assessment to replace his Project Management exam in CCT during this pandemic, he thought about how he could effectively evaluate the student's learning and knowledge remotely without having to worry about issues such as plagiarism and instant communication. He considered options such as an online quiz or a traditional assignment; however, neither of those methods seemed to be the ideal solution to evaluate a subject like Project Management, as Mr Martins felt the students would merely practise re-reading and memorisation, and would not be engaged in learning.
Inspired by the material he developed for Creative Engine, he decided to opt for a creative assignment, where students were encouraged to be innovative and come up with a new project idea, which they must develop using the concepts, tools and techniques that were explored in class. Marks were awarded for originality, creativity as well as for knowledge of the Project Management tools and techniques. References were not required and there was no word limit – quality would be assessed rather than quantity. Creative Engine had a huge influence on the design of Mr Martins’ alternative examination, not only by inspiring him to be innovative and changing the way he assessed his students' learning, but also by making him instigate creativity and innovation in the students themselves. He admits he would not have made these changes if the students had been taking their exams in a traditional way, but now due to having to be creative during the lockdown, he has realised how much better the alternative form of assessment was for assessing students’ learning.