Chemical Engineering Education in the Age of Disruption

Article by Esther Ventura-Medina CEng MIChemE

Esther Ventura-Medina wonders what will the future look like after Covid-19?

IN recent years, the education sector has been considering, discussing, adopting and trying to manage the impact that technology has had and will continue to have on the educational business. The technological developments we have experienced of late have been both rapid and expanding. Universities have been embracing the use of digital technologies, not only to derive benefits in the context of learning but also in the training of future professionals. Industry 4.0 has been a significant driver for these changes. Chemical engineering has been at the heart of these disruptive evolutionary processes, as many of them relate to production and manufacturing. Consequently, our educational establishments and frameworks have needed to engage with and adapt to this constantly-changing landscape.

In this context, the chemical engineering education community has engaged with the digital transformation agenda. This has been reflected in how chemical engineering programmes are delivered and in particular the inclusion of elements of digital learning in course delivery. However, it has been only now in the face of the Covid-19 global pandemic that I realised how much we still have to do and perhaps how unprepared we still are for the virtual future.

One of the key questions I have been pondering is why has Covid-19 been such a disruptive event in our educational programmes in which the use of online learning is already so prevalent? Moreover, where will this disruption take us? How do we reconcile our current reality with our plans for the future? I share some reflections here on recent events and their potential impact for our future in the chemical engineering education community.

The Covid-19 forward jump

In many ways Covid-19 has been a long jump forward into the future. Many of us, myself included, might have imagined a digital future as it is sometimes portrayed in the movies, with ubiquitous automation, robots and most of our interactions through a screen or at a distance. However, the  Covid-19 jump has landed us in a different reality, one in which demands and constraints perhaps might not fit our earlier mental schemes.

As engineers, our ability to respond to any event is closely related to our capacity to anticipate and plan. Knowledge of risk assessment and risk management places chemical engineers in an advantageous position to consider scenarios with uncommon events. Yet the scenario of a global pandemic is perhaps one that I certainly never anticipated nor, prior to  Covid-19, had I ever heard discussed in the chemical engineering education community.

As the  Covid-19 propagation wave moved from east to west it was possible for many university departments to start planning, albeit within short timeframes, the best response to mitigate it. For instance, many universities in Australia and New Zealand delayed the start of their academic year beyond February and then, when they started, moved to remote online teaching. By the time the pandemic arrived in continental Europe and finally in the UK, most chemical engineering programmes had already activated or had planned contingency for online remote teaching. Eventually we all found ourselves in the midst of global campus closures and online working.

Moving to online teaching was not perhaps the main issue. Universities are well equipped with technologies and platforms to deliver online teaching, as virtual learning environments (VLEs) are commonplace. Universities also have communication platforms that allow for video conferencing with large numbers of attendees. The response to the  Covid-19 situation to move all teaching to online platforms (ie VLEs and video conferencing) was expected. However, this quick response (now called in some circles “emergency online teaching”) was still disruptive.

What has emergency online teaching meant for the educational experience?

Educational endeavour is underpinned by what we know about learning (ie learning theories) and the approaches we adopt in order for learning to occur (ie pedagogies). There are three key elements that serve to guide educational design:

  • what is it that we want the students to be able to do (ie intended learning outcomes, or ILOs);
  • how we provide meaningful learning opportunities (ie learning activities); and
  • how do students demonstrate the level of achievement of their learning in terms of knowledge and skills (ie assessment of the ILOs).

The ILOs are mostly guided by both accreditation requirements and other desired graduate attributes. Traditionally, a significant amount of assessment for standard courses (non-laboratory or group-work based) takes place at the end of the semester in the form of sit-down examinations. In terms of learning delivery we typically see a combination of lectures, tutorials, projects or group work and practical activities (eg laboratories). Similarly, we find a combination of face-to-face and online activities. This combination is what we call “blended learning”.

With the closure of campuses around the world in response to  Covid-19, chemical engineering departments relied heavily on video lectures as a substitute for the face-to-face experience. This was done mostly by offering pre-recorded videos, a series of shorter video clips and by live streaming. It is worth mentioning that lecture recording has, over the years, become a common practice in many universities where the infrastructure is in place for the recording to take place during normal timetabled lecture slots. This has been beneficial for students as they can access the videos at a later date but it has also resulted in a reduction of attendance at the face-to-face lectures.

Delivering lectures is perhaps the form of teaching delivery easiest to transfer to online environments. Having said this, there are many aspects of a regular lecture that one could not replicate in a video lecture. I compare attending a video lecture to watching your favourite band on television. You can enjoy the music and the special effects in a comfortable environment but you miss out on the atmosphere and the buzz that comes with being at the concert venue. Likewise, for the band itself, recording in a studio and/or for television will also be a different experience from performing on a large stage. A performer cannot gauge the crowd and respond to their enthusiasm in the same way while recording at a studio. Similarly, for a lecturer being in the lecture theatre and seeing the faces of all the students is very different from delivering a video lecture where on a small screen it is only possible to see up to 40 faces out of all the attendees.

Traditional tutorial sessions, where students work either in teams or individually, practising problem-solving through exercises with the support of tutors have also been transformed under Covid-19

Article by Esther Ventura-Medina CEng MIChemE

Senior Lecturer at the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Strathclyde and Chair of IChemE’s EdSIG

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