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The implications of the curriculum process on the design of a modern engineering programme in the Dublin Institute of Technology

Author - Kevin Kelly

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Programme DT244 curriculum

Chickering and Gamson (1987) brought together experts in the field of third-level education. They formulated seven principles of good practice for undergraduate education:

1. Contact between students and faculty: staff interest in students helps them get through difficult times.
2. Cooperation among students.
3. Active learning (deep learning).
4. Prompt feedback: students must find out early if their learning is correctly applied and be given an opportunity to correct mistakes early.
5. Time on task: students need time to reflect on their learning.
6. High expectation: expecting students to do well can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning: encourage diversity.

I was appointed project leader for the development of a programme document in preparation for a validation event, which took place in March 2002. The programme was to be upgraded from a two-year certificate in Electrical Services Engineering (ESE) to a three-year diploma/ordinary degree. As project leader it was my role to coordinate the work of a programme team in the preparation of the document. In particular, I wanted to get subject matter experts to write their syllabi in a way which was student centred. I also wanted to incorporate the seven principles above into our programme. We had to take cognisance of the views of all stakeholders. We had to be prepared for opposition from within an engineering faculty where traditional forms of teaching were the norm. Teacher unions are very strong in DIT and change cannot be forced upon an unwilling community. Lumby (2000) warns that managing teaching and learning is a political as well as a technical process, and any innovation will only be accepted in proportion to the degree of support that exists or has been constructed.

The programme was designed in such a way as to gradually introduce a constructivist learning paradigm. We had found previously that first-year students found constructivist learning to be quite a shock initially. They had tended to bunk off when they were supposed to be doing research for their assignments and problem-based learning. After much discussion between teaching staff and students, it was decided to design much of the first-year programme around traditional teaching methods. First-year students have enough that is new to contend with on entering third level: meeting new people, finding accommodation, working part-time etc. We wanted to provide them with a broad base of information delivered in the most efficient way possible.

We did however include a number of assignments, which made up a total of 60% of the overall assessment. In this way constructivist learning was introduced. We broke the tradition in the engineering faculty of students having to pass both examinations and continual assessments. We were happy to see the students achieve the programme objectives in whatever way was most suited to their learning style. As long as they achieved a pass in each subject it did not matter how this was achieved. There was no minimum mark in either the examination or the continual assessment. In this way we were respecting diverse talents and learning styles. We also provided tutorial support to students and introduced a peer-mentoring scheme (the peer mentoring scheme has been modified and extended to other programmes by Leslie shoemaker. It is an important factor in the success of this programme). Allocating a lecturer to each class group provided some tutorial support. The lecturer chosen in each case was somebody who it was felt would be perceived by the students as a friendly face. This lecturer was allocated hours in a computer laboratory to support the students in their assignment work.

We also made a particular point of monitoring students' progress, particularly that of first years, and speaking to any student falling behind in a supportive way. Contact between students and faculty was assured. The 40% examination/60% programme work continued in second year but a major project was introduced. The project allowed students to construct their learning. Application and synthesis instead of memory and understanding evolved. This helped us develop a collaborative learning environment that encouraged deep learning.

Monitoring of students progess, particularly 1st years, is a particular feature on our programme. The Head of department Kevin O' Connell takes a particular interest in this as he sees this as a key feature
in improving attrition rates. On successful completion of the second year of the programme, the students were awarded a certificate in electrical-services engineering. To continue to the third year and thereby acquire a diploma, the students were warned that the academic level would be raised. This was necessary to satisfy the validation panel. The diploma was stated in the programme document as being equivalent to an ordinary degree in order to ensure it would comply with the Bologna agreement for harmonisation of engineering qualifications.

On the third year of the programme overall assessment is 50% examination and 50% programme work. Most of the subjects are learned through constructivist methods in a collaborative environment. The major project work in second year has developed autonomous and collaborative learning skills in the students, which now make this workable.

We have had problems providing adequate access to computer laboratories. I regularly have situations where third-year students request access to spare terminals in a computer laboratory whilst other classes are going on in the laboratory. Some lecturers object to this, and if they feel it interferes with their scheduled class then this is a legitimate objection. There are also problems allowing students unsupervised access to computer laboratories at lunchtimes and at night. This is a measure of the success of the programme inspiring student-centred learning, as well as being a problem. We are trying to get across a student-centred ethos to all staff, not just to teaching staff. We point out that because of a shortage of facilities it behoves us to provide whatever support we can in the short term. It also provides great example to first-year and second-year students in a laboratory to see third-year students hungry for every spare moment on an online PC.


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