There’s no shortage of providers offering free massive open online engineering courses as well as other online educational resources. But those have problems. Because they must appeal to a global audience, many cover topics too broadly and most are given only in English.
In addition, nearly all lack live instructors to supplement the lectures. A survey by Harvard and MIT of various aspects of 17 MOOCs offered in 2012 and 2013 through edX, the online learning platform established by the two schools, found that 95 percent of students never completed their online courses. The most common reason: no engagement with a live teacher.
“MOOCs and other online initiatives follow a one-size-fits-all model whereby they create a video targeted to serve students all over the world in the exact same way,” says IEEE Member Rui Costa. “But that model has many barriers to learning.” Costa is a senior systems engineer with Veniam, a U.S.-based company with an office in Porto, Portugal, which builds and operates wireless networks for vehicles.
Back in 2011, when he was a member of the IEEE student branch at the Instituto Superior Técnico (IEEE-IST), in Lisbon, Costa took notice of these flaws and founded IEEE Academic, a pilot project involving the branch and the school’s instructors. The group produced free 7- to 10-minute online videos in Portuguese explaining a single engineering topic. Today, IEEE Academic has more than 380 videos in 12 languages, including Arabic, Greek, Polish, Spanish, and Turkish as well as Portuguese. They cover such topics as computer architecture and organization, developing Android apps, differential equations, and 2-D animation. By July, Costa estimates he’ll have more than 500.
ENGLISH AS OBSTACLE
Engineering students outside the United States face particular challenges when they don’t know enough English.
“If you’re not a native English speaker, it is difficult to reconcile what is being said in the video with what your professors teach in the local language,” Costa explains. “The technical jargon in English in the videos is very different from the local technical jargon. What’s more, in engineering and in mathematics, many technical terms describe the same thing, and the students may not understand all the connections.”
He also points out that establishing a friendly bond with a professor leads to more engaged students, something that MOOCs can’t do but the videos made locally can.
“Watching a video with a professor on the other side of the world makes it harder to establish a bond,” he says. “But if you watch a video done by a professor you know, you can reach out for help.” Such meetings are part of the course. But with no follow-up, professors have no assurance that the students understand the material.
For his project, Costa enlisted the help of student branch members and professors from his university. Money for video equipment was provided by the IEEE Portugal Section.
A crucial aspect of the project is the IEEE Academic team. It consists of members from IEEE student branches around the world who work with instructors to make sure the videos are tailored for their audience. “We believe education is local, so content should be created locally, based on what is needed,” says Costa.
The project picked up steam after it received funding from the IEEE New Initiatives fund in 2012. That helped Costa expand the project beyond Portugal. Dozens of teams in several universities in more than 15 countries are now at work producing videos.
FLIPPING THE CLASSROOM
Part of the approach introduced by the IEEE Academic team is the “flipped classroom” model. In this, students watch online lectures and then discuss the concepts in their classroom with the guidance of an instructor.
“Instead of the professors explaining the same topic and guessing where students are having problems with the material, they can begin by answering questions students have from watching the video,” Costa explains. And students can direct the instructors to where in the video they need clarification. “This personal approach to answering questions is what flipping the classroom leads to,” he says.
Costa adds that the videos aren’t just for students. Those who need to brush up on a topic or learn a new skill can watch them, too.
“IEEE Academic is targeted for people who want to learn,” he says. “It doesn’t matter their age, whether they are studying or working, or even just preparing to attend university: The programs are freely available for anyone to download.”
IEEE Academic is also working with the organizers of the 2015 IEEE Xtreme Programming Competition to help participants better prepare for the contest. The annual competition, to be held on 24 October, involves student teams solving an array of software design problems—most of which won’t be in textbooks—within 24 hours. IEEE Academic will produce videos on various programming languages, as well as the solutions to problems from past competitions.
“We are working with past winners, past participants, and instructors want to get on board to help with the contest,” Costa says.