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Moving a part-time engineering course to a student-centred paradigm

Author - Kevin Kelly

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The socio-economic context

The context of the development of the part-time ordinary degree is the exponential growth in the Irish economy since the early 1990s and the deliberate moves towards a knowledge economy (ESRI 2005). It is also the context of increasing immigration to Ireland from the EU accession countries to fill the skills gaps in the financial, construction, medical and services sectors (Forfas 2005). Additionally, the decade prior to the development of the degree saw participation in higher education increase form elite to mass, to universal levels, and unemployment fall from over 18 per cent to under 4 per cent, despite the increase in the labour force numbers.

The context also includes the recognition that adults in the labour force have had differential opportunities to participate in higher education and to benefit from it. The idea of ‘second chance’ or even ‘first chance’ higher education was well promoted by the White Paper on Education (Department of Education and Science 2000) which set targets of participation by adults at 15 per cent by 2005. A series of National Development Programmes also regarded educational opportunities as key to a more just and prosperous society. Additionally, in 2001 the newly launched national qualifications authority promised mechanisms for access, transfer and progression for learners and for recognition of learning regardless of where or how it was achieved. In this regard, the recognition of prior experiential learning would be key to progression, and this concept was a key component in the design of the part-time ordinary degree in question here.

The Ordinary Degree and its pedagogical challenges

The part-time Electrical Services Engineering Ordinary Degree now takes 60 students in the first year instead of the original 50 envisaged. Retention rates are relatively high, resulting in larger numbers on the entire programme than had been originally anticipated. There is provision for participants to move between the part-time and full-time ordinary degree programmes to enable quicker completion.

The delivery of the degree involved a number of pedagogical adjustments, the most significant of which were as follows:

  • Increased use of information technology
  • Active engagement of participants rather than the traditional transmission--acquisition model generally associated with the trades area
  • Constructivist underpinning of teaching approaches
  • Facilitating the development of learning-to-learning skills
  • A focus on meta-cognitive skills
  • Peer support and collaborative learning
  • Building on the experiential learning of participants
  • Relating content to the real-world work place.

Underpinning theory was drawn from adult education generally and from Knowles’ ideas of self-directed learning specifically. In this regard the identity of the lecturer became one of collaborator and facilitator as well as subject-matter expert, and the lecturer’s attitude became one of mutual regard and acknowledgement of the adult status of the learners and their need for independence and self-direction.

The curriculum theory was generally one informed by constructivist theories – that it should be BIG (beyond the information given) and not WIG (within the information given). Collaborative project work was encouraged with presentations and group discussions being seen as central.

This new paradigmatic approach, however, could not entirely displace the traditional and sometimes expected delivery styles of engineering programmes. It was generally agreed among academic staff that certain kinds of knowledges should be taught and learned in the traditional way especially the mathematical and scientific subjects. In this way both the expectations of students and the perceived responsibilities of academic staff regarding the acquisition of a solid corpus of knowledge were satisfied. This was particularly so in the early stages of the degree. Student evaluations supported the gradual move to independent and more facilitated environments. Participants were also in favour of fewer formal assessments and more collaborative projects.

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