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How to get international distance learning and campus students to collaborate

A new Masters project-management module is helping Masters students based in different locations around the world to connect with one another.

5 November 2018

Billy Dennis, Teaching Fellow in UCL Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, who developed the module, describes how it enabled has Distance Learning and London-based students to work together to invent a new medical device, and produce a full business plan to bring it to market.

Why did you create this module?

Many UCL engineering students take project management courses in their final year.

The assessment for such modules is usually a group task to develop an engineering project.

These modules present the opportunity to apply knowledge practically in workplace-type scenarios and to acquire skills which are highly sought after by employers. Students are required to work both individually in specialist areas, and collaboratively, in teams.

What was the challenge and why did you take it on?

For most project management modules at UCL, student collaboration requires regular face-to-face meetings. However, our Masters programme includes both campus and online cohorts.

In 2016/17, a new group-led Medical Device Enterprise was designed for the MSc in Physics and Engineering in Medicine.

The challenge was to provide viable and effective ways to integrate the separate groups across different time-zones. In fact, such situations are typical for engineers in industry, who often collaborate with team members working in other countries, so we were reflecting a fairly common industry scenario as well as building our students’ skills.

How did you link up the students?

Students were given a brief and told to invent a new medical device and build a business plan to take it to market.

OneDrive™ documents linked to UCL email accounts allowed students to share research remotely, helping to develop ideas together despite time differences.

Both campus and online students were encouraged to have regular meetings via Skype and Blackboard Collaborate.

The assessments for the module included:

  • a final group business report proposal
  • an individual reflective essay
  • a peer assessment.

Who has been involved?

The project structure was designed by myself and Professor Jem Hebden.

The department’s Taught Postgraduate Programme Committee collaborates each year to come up with a new and interesting project brief. We consult our department research groups to try to link the briefs with current research.

Was this in reaction to an issue or request?

The MSc in Physics and Engineering in Medicine had space for a project management module to give students teamwork experience, applying their learning from other taught modules to a specific scenario. This links into the Connected Curriculum and encourages the students to think like entrepreneurs.

Why did you take this approach?

Feedback from our online students suggested that we could do more to promote collaborations with campus-based students.

Most of our online students hold jobs in the healthcare industry and therefore have invaluable expertise to share with our campus-based students.

The reflective essay was designed both as an assessment and a way to get detailed project feedback from the students.

They were asked to give a detailed account of what worked and what did not. These essays provided a strong basis for improving the module structure and the guidance given each year. For example, the first year we suggested each student take up a single responsibility in the group (designer, finance officer etc).

Several students wrote in their essays that working individually on their own tasks meant when that when they struggled, it was hard for the group to support them.

One student suggested working in pairs to oversee two areas to ensure every group member was supported. This was added to the guidance for the module the next year and proved popular.

What was the timeline for the project?

The module was planned in summer 2016 with a student ChangeMakers group. It was designed in detail in spring 2017, assessed for the first time in summer 2017 and is now running in its third year.

What was involved in terms of logistics, time or resources?

The development of the module required a similar amount of time as any other module.

Resource wise, it’s helpful that the Distance Learning tutor (myself) runs the module, making it easier to link the online/campus students to live meetings etc. But most of the structures used by students in the module (Slack, Skype, OneDrive etc.) require little in the way of time or resources to plan.

As a project module, some time is spent on marking.

Last year we had 5 group reports (~7000 words) to mark and second mark and 30 reflective essays (~1500 words).

Logistics wise, it is a student-led project with academic tutors available to help, but group interactions are all defined by the students themselves after the initial briefing sessions. We offer tablets to students to help communicate on Skype, but most groups use their own computers.

Where did you get inspiration to develop the module?

The group project was inspired by Engineering Project Management modules run by the UCL School of Management.

The innovative aspect was the addition of structures to allow distance and campus learning students to collaborate.

It was a rare opportunity, as the MSc in Physics and Engineering in Medicine is one of the few courses with online and campus-based cohorts. However, many courses may have opportunity to link part-time students studying from different locations and the tools students use to collaborate online would be useful for any group project module.

What difference has this made to staff or students?

Many MSc students have told us that the module was the most enjoyable part of the course and were very pleased with the opportunity to apply their knowledge in creative areas and collaborate with students from diverse academic and employment backgrounds. Even our non-eligible MRes students ask if they can join.

"This project was a huge success and a great experience for me. I got the chance to implement all the knowledge gain during this degree. I have learnt that innovation requires teamwork, inspiration and practical implementation. This project became much easier through sharing the ideas, concepts and opinions with my team members who have a range of background experiences. I really enjoyed working on this project with great team members and would like to do a similar project on a wider scale in the future."

Yara, Distance learning MSc student Physics and Engineering in Medicine, studying from Saudi Arabia.

What are your plans for the future?

We continue to make small changes to the module based on student feedback. This year we are bringing the project forward from June-August to November-April to allow students more time to spend on it. The aim in future is to link the group projects strongly with the latest department research into Medical Devices. This year’s project is to invent a low-cost medical device to aid people who are hearing or visually impaired.

What are your top 5 tips for someone wanting to do something similar?

1. Push the students to be as creative as possible, even if it comes slightly at the expense of practicality. It inspires the students and pushes them outside their comfort zones, providing a real Connected Curriculum.

2. Make use of collaborative sharing documents inside UCL’s OneDrive folders. They’re linked to students’ email addresses making them easy to organise and monitor.

3. Give the students clear guidance and expectations for their projects. We emphasise that all students are responsible for the group dynamic, which pushes them to interact with our online and part-time students and make sure they are kept informed and involved throughout the project.

4. Make sure your tutors are enthusiastic about supporting students in their projects. The assessments we give are about the implementation of ideas, meaning that tutors can really get involved helping the students develop their creativity.

5. Regularly nudge the students to ensure engagement, particularly emphasise including the online and part time students who may not be present at all meetings.