Engineering Professor Evangelizes 'Higher Ed 2.0' Approach to Teaching

November 15, 2007

Nov. 15, 2007 — Ed Berger wants to change the way that college students learn.

Most professors still teach as their professors once taught them: they stand in front of a class and lecture. Bringing technology into the classroom often involves little more than projecting a PowerPoint presentation of the lecture notes — helpful, to be sure, but hardly revolutionary. After all, professors scribbled with grease pencils on overhead projectors for decades.

Ed Berger will host a free, one-day workshop on "Higher Ed 2.0" for interested faculty from all disciplines on Nov. 19, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Clemons Library, Room 407. Breakfast will be served at 8 a.m. For information and a registration form, click here.

What the engineering students in Berger's classes are doing goes well beyond that – so far beyond, in fact, that the National Science Foundation awarded Berger, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, a three-year, $500,000 grant to assess the effectiveness of what he's calling "Higher Ed 2.0."

So-called "Web 2.0" technologies — things like blogs, wikis and even YouTube —  highlight the interactive uses of the Internet. Berger seeks to bring those technologies into his course, allowing students to learn from one another as well as their professor.

ON THE FIRST DAY of fall semester classes, students enrolled in CS230 Statics file into the slope-floored lecture hall and chat amongst themselves, catching up on one another's summers. Down front, Berger focuses intently on an Apple laptop. He fiddles with a switch, and a projection screen deploys and retracts. Looking worried, Berger plugs in another cable and finally, right at the class's noon starting time, his computer desktop appears on the screen. He calls the class to order.

"We're going to do some crazy things, like record this lecture," Berger announces, and with a click a bouncing bar graph of recording sound levels appears on the screen. "I sort of doubt you are going to have any other courses that are structured this way. But stick with me."

He begins to explain the structure of the class – not just the classroom element, but its Web-based component. He surfs to the class blog, the driver of it all; across the top, the headline is "Higher Ed 2.0: The future of higher education? You."

"You really have to subscribe to this blog," he declares, urging them to visit it daily for new content — including their homework assignments. They can also subscribe to an RSS feed, which will automatically download media files onto their computer hard drives, to be accessed later, or perhaps transferred to an iPod.

The blog also hosts video of the class lectures (though the camera is turned off for the last 20 minutes, lest slackers be tempted to skip class altogether). The best online content may be Berger's "solution videos," in which he demonstrates how to solve the fiendishly difficult mathematical and geometric problems that are the backbone of the course.

"How many of you read blogs?" Berger asks. Most students raise their hands in the half-mast style of experienced college students (most are second-years), or merely nod.

"How many of you are not quite comfortable with the idea?" Surprisingly, some of the supposed "digital natives" tentatively raise their hands. He reassures them that they can use as much or as little of the online content as they feel comfortable with.

Then he gets to what makes the course really different. Because homework assignments will not be "pledged" under the honor system, students will be allowed — even encouraged — to work together. They may post questions and answers on the class blog, guiding one another through the rough patches.

"If you all were to come into my office hours, I would have the same conversation 65 times," Berger explains. "Here, it's just once."

For extra credit, some will even be invited to post their own solutions to problems that cannot be solved before the end of the regular lectures. They might create "mashups" — taking Berger's videos and interspersing their own material to demonstrate how course concepts are applied. Last year, Berger assigned groups of students to create their own video podcasts to show how some of the course concepts were applied to real life; the results were so positive that he is considering doing it again.

All together, the online postings, lecture podcasts and video solutions create a huge online library of resources that bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical, and can be invaluable to students as they prepare for their final exams.

BACK IN HIS OFFICE, Berger explains his students-helping-students philosophy. "Engineering is a collaborative enterprise, so I like it when they learn from each other. I think they can learn from each other just as well as they can learn from me," he says. "If they have a study group or an online thing where they teach each other, I think that's really positive, because that's the way modern engineering is practiced."

He usually checks the blog the night before a homework assignment is due. "By the time I wake up in the morning, there'll be another 10-comment threaded discussion about something that's been going on from 2 o'clock to 4 o'clock in the morning. It's like, 'You're nuts, but I'm glad you have access to resources.'"

Do they ever lead each other astray?

"I haven't had a case yet where people just talked themselves into a corner or down a path that's completely wrong," he says. "Usually somebody will pull them back. Every so often that's me, but usually it's somebody else."

Feedback from students has been positive, he says. "Some students really love it, so you tend to throw those responses out, and some students just hate it, and you throw those responses out. What I'm feeling is that the bulk of the students see the value of it and they like it — they like the convenience of it, the asynchronous-ness of it. And especially they like a lot of the content – these video solutions are always mentioned as really important assets for the class."

HIGHER ED 2.0 WAS BORN in traffic. It all started with Berger's half-hour commute to and from the northern Albemarle neighborhood where he lived after moving to Charlottesville from the University of Cincinnati in 2005.

To pass the time, he began downloading podcasts and listening to them in the car. "It didn't take very long for the light bulb to go off that there's something to this — it's portable, it's replayable," he says. "Now let's take our education materials and make them podcasts.

"It totally snowballed from there, because you start doing one thing and it gives you an idea about how to do something else. So it wasn't long after that realization that I started doing these videos, because that was the next obvious step. And then after that, it was, 'Why don't we encourage student interaction by having the blog and comments?' And then it was, 'Instead of them just talking in the background, why don't we have them create materials?' And then, 'Why don't we have them do peer review?' And then ... All the dominos fell after awhile."

Berger doesn't consider himself an early adopter. Though he first used PowerPoint back in 2000, he only recently purchased an iPhone, and he tells his students that he does not text-message or use instant messaging.

The software he used to create the blog and the content posted there is all off-the-shelf technology. The total cost "couldn't have been more than $150," he says.

THE BIG QUESTION is whether Berger's approach helps students learn more effectively.

Berger admits that he's having more fun teaching than he used to, but quickly adds, "Just because it's more fun, doesn't mean that we should do it."

That's where the National Science Foundation grant comes in. A large portion of the funding is tagged for an assessment of the effectiveness of the "Higher Ed 2.0" methods. The study will cover courses using similar blog-based approaches taught at four different institutions: U.Va., Purdue University, the University of Akron and Smith College.

The assessment is being led by Joseph Garafalo and Walter Heinecke of U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, serving as a class project for Heinecke's course on evaluation design. Because of the differences between the schools and the professors' instructional styles, Heinecke plans to employ several different measurements to get at the effectiveness of Higher Ed 2.0.

Heinecke, an associate professor of research statistics and evaluation, says he's excited about the potential of Berger's methods, which he calls "fairly unique for his field."

"It's not just about the box and the technology. It's about how the technology interacts with the instructional method. I think there's something about that that gets the students engaged. They're not just receiving, but creating."

Berger's aim is to spread the gospel about Higher Ed 2.0, not just to other engineering professors, but to faculty in other disciplines as well. So far, the reaction from colleagues has been "mostly pats on the back and not much else," though he says he is grateful for the support of administrators in both the Engineering School and the University as a whole. He acknowledges that his approach is time-intensive, especially as he tries to sort out what is helpful and what is overload.

In the end, though, he's willing to serve as the trailblazer. There are people out there looking to do something different, he says; Higher Ed 2.0 has the potential to set standards and make a mark for U.Va. in the future of higher education instruction.

"If we're going to establish Virginia as a hub of activity around this – that we know what we're doing, we have good creative ideas, we assess them, we find out what works – the leadership potential is really there," he says.