How can teachers assess the benefits of a combined physical and virtual learning environment? As a course responsible and supervisor of both undergraduate and graduate students, I am particularly interested in the evaluation and comparison of different teaching strategies.
My interest in teaching of both theoretical and practical engineering subjects started when I was a bachelor student in Mechanical Engineering. Several years after receiving my PhD in Solid Mechanics in 2016, my teaching responsibilities now include being lecturer and course responsible. The teaching has predominantly been in physical form with no or little instances of digital learning. However, due to the Pandemic in 2020, courses at KTH were instead given either fully or partially in virtual form. This resulted in both opportunities and difficulties which I intend to briefly summarize based on analysis and evaluation of the course FEM for Engineering Applications.
The course FEM for Engineering Applications both covers theoretical moments introducing the mathematical basis of the Finite-Element Method (FEM) and practical moments where students apply their knowledge in the form of computer laboratory workshops. It therefore forms a good basis for the evaluation of virtual learning. In Fall 2020, the course included 18 virtual lectures, 5 physical and 3 virtual tutorial sessions, 1 physical and 1 virtual computer workshop, 3 graded home assignment and 9 virtual help sessions. Examination in the form of written exam was physical while re-exam for students who received the grade FX in the ECTS-scale was virtual.
The lectures were held in Zoom platform using a Microsoft Surface Pro 12.3'' 2-in-1 Laptop/Tablet. Three types of lectures were applied followed by direct feedback from students: 1) Microsoft PowerPoint slides 2) Handwriting in the Zoom Whiteboard using Pen in Tablet mode and 3) PowerPoint slides with “handwriting text effect” in which text and drawings are animated in a slow speed similar to handwriting, allowing students to take notes while resulting in clearer figure drawing compared to handwriting using Pen. Based on the student feedback in a live polling made directly in the Zoom chat session, the handwriting using Pen in Tablet mode was clearly the preferred lecture method and was therefore applied for the majority of the course.
Student attendance and virtual learning
The student attendance in the virtual lectures was roughly 75 % based on the student evaluation for first-time registered students, which is comparable to previous physical course rounds. The attendance in tutorial sessions held by the teaching assistant was about 55 %. It is noted that tutorial sessions were recorded and uploaded in Canvas LMS as opposed to lectures. The availability of the recorded tutorial sessions explains the lower attendance as confirmed by the student evaluation. It is also noted that no difference in attendance was observed between the 5 physical and 3 virtual tutorial sessions. This suggests that student attendance in virtual and physical learning environment is similar and that availability of recorded sessions lowers the attendance. This need to be investigated further since low attendance limits the possibility for students to directly interact with teachers, which may adversely affect the student learning and overall grade.
Student and teacher satisfaction of the virtual learning environment
Student satisfaction with the course has been high as was confirmed by the course evaluation. Similarly, both lecturer and teaching assistants have been satisfied with the course even though a higher workload was necessary due to the transition to virtual learning. Furthermore, student grades on exam and home assignments have been equivalent to previous physical course rounds. Three difficulties have however been identified: 1) The computer laboratory workshop performed remotely has been inefficient, especially from a teaching perspective. 2) The digital examination has been cumbersome. 3) Although students were satisfied with their interaction with the teachers, many lacked the interaction between students in the course. These issues have been regularly discussed in seminars involving teachers at the Department of Engineering Mechanics. These seminars, where teachers present and discuss their virtual learning approach, have been extremely beneficial and are necessary to truly assess the merits and difficulties associated with virtual learning.
Finally, my experience is that a virtual learning environment has a similar success in terms of student and teacher satisfaction as physical learning. However, a physical environment is preferred for computer laboratory workshops as well as examinations. Furthermore, methods to increase the interaction between students need to be applied.