Last week, Georgia Tech professor Jonathan Rogers, a faculty member in the school of aerospace engineering, wrote a guest column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution discussing his successful effort to adapt a mechatronics course heavily based in hands-on instruction for the online environment.
Since fields like engineering require actual hands-on experience in order to adequately master the discipline, instruction consisting only of verbal interaction through the computer, such as lectures and discussions, is insufficient. Likewise, the traditional lab environment, involving shared equipment and a high concentration of students in a single classroom, posing a high risk of exposure to Covid-19, is out of the question.
Rogers, with the help of Georgia Tech Professional Education's (GTPE) learning design team, discovered a way to bring the hands-on experience of this engineering course, The Mechatronics Revolution: Fundamentals and Core Concepts, to the online setting. GTPE's Fatimah Wirth was the instructional designer on the project, and Theo McNair and Brian Wilson were the producers.
“Mechatronics is a subject in engineering that involves the design and construction of computer-controlled machines,” Rogers explains. “It is used in the design of everything from household appliances to robots and self-driving cars.”
The course, which is hosted on the online platform edX and funded by a grant from Texas Instruments, is designed as a MOOC (massive open online course) with an additional hands-on component: building a robot. Students purchase a lab kit, which costs about as much as a textbook and contains the supplies needed to fulfill the lab requirements at home. They are graded by the data produced by their robot constructions, which demonstrates whether or not their robots are functioning correctly.
In the design process, both the student and the instructor were considered. “We had to think about the logistics of offering this course from the student and instructor perspective on edX,” says Wirth. “And what would be needed to make it a success on both fronts.” Videos explaining and demonstrating the robot construction process are incorporated into every step of the course. After each video, students check their knowledge through a short series of questions created by the instructor to confirm their mastery of the content. Students then submit assignments through a third-party software in edX called Vocareum, which allows the instructor to streamline the assignment administration, submission, and grading processes. To facilitate student collaboration and instructor guidance, discussion forums are available for students to ask questions and receive advice to other students, the TA, and/or the instructor.
This pioneer course promises exciting potential for the future of online courses, Wirth and Rogers believe. Wirth imagines that this course could be the launching pad that leads to the development of courses based in augmented or mixed reality, “where students actually interact with 3D components, providing an immersive experience for the students and allowing them to view and understand different parts of a machine or robot by rotating it virtually." Since this course "has shown that hands-on lab courses can be done online," Wirth says.
Rogers emphasizes the value of developing online lab course instruction. Even though many labs are not able to be moved online, every one that can be moved online helps reduce the risk of Covid-19 exposure, and that is worth pursuing. “Yes, it may take creativity, investment, and time,” says Rogers. “But in the age of Covid-19, we have a responsibility to maintain and even improve our students’ learning environments in socially distanced settings.”
With continued collaboration between our excellent instructors and brilliant designers, Georgia Tech will continue to hurdle the challenges of the future and create the next in education and technology. As Wirth puts it, the sky is the limit.