The Technical University of Denmark (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet / DTU) offers an admissions program for adults wishing to qualify to apply for an engineering degree program. Many of the students in the admission program have backgrounds in vocational education – either through an apprenticeship program or work experience in skilled areas. With two years of relevant vocational background and ten years of Danish education, they can apply for the admissions program.
The average age of the students in the program is 24 to 26 years, and many have family responsibilities as well as full-time employment. To make the admissions program more accessible to a greater number of students and more responsive to their needs, DTU decided to offer the program in an online format.
As described by Jesper Stensbo Knudsen, Manager of the Admissions Program, the development of the online program offered three challenges – all of them related to time:
- The face-to-face program, offered over a year, was already intense and demanding. According to research done with a target group of possible applicants for the online program, many of them were interested in the program but lacked the opportunity to participate due to the face-to-face requirement. The online program could address the access issue but also had to maintain its academic standards. The online program takes 1 ½ years to complete.
- Many of the students have been away from school for a considerable time, often many years, and so “are not trained in being students, especially online students. They have to be disciplined, dedicated and focused on achieving goals”.
- Many of the students do not have much time to study and so require both themselves and the university to adhere to posted time frames while delivering quality education.
The online program was first offered in 2014, with five required subjects - mathematics, physics, chemistry, Danish and English - offering a credential equivalent to high school diploma. The students take courses in the order suitable for them, according to course availability.
A blended learning approach encompasses multiple components:
- Face-to-Face: Three times each semester, students come together for a weekend or a day dedicated to lab work. This face-to-face interaction has other benefits as students make personal connections, faculty meet students and convey key messages, and students have a chance to use English and Danish in conversations about engineering topics.
- Synchronous Delivery: Synchronous online delivery through Adobe Connect is used for classes – with short presentations, videos, group work in breakout rooms, demonstration exercises, student completion of equations on a shared board, and other activities. The 3-hour sessions (7:00 -10:00 p.m.) are carefully calibrated as teachers are to spend no more than 15 minutes on any one activity. Active student involvement and engagement are essential.
- Asynchronous Access: Asynchronous teaching materials are available to students, including videos that take students through assignments and presentations. These resources are uploaded on a weekly basis.
- Homework: Students complete assignments to prepare for classes, with some projects set up as group work. The goal is to encourage students to benefit from each other by working together on other assignments using Adobe Connect or whatever app they prefer. Final exams, both written and oral, are face-to-face.
To facilitate practice and learning DTU uses Maple T.A., an online assessment system for STEM courses from Maplesoft a software company based in Ontario, Canada. Jesper Stensbo Knudsen characterizes the software as a tool that supports more than assessment; it functions as a ‘teaching assistant’ in mathematics, physics and chemistry courses allowing students to practice on their own. DTU is testing its application in Danish for assessing grammar.
Outcomes and Benefits
The development of the online program resulted in new thinking about pedagogy and didactics, as features of online delivery, such as flexibility, influenced classroom practices.
One-third of the students in the Admissions Program are now enrolled online, including students in Kuwait, Netherlands and other countries. DTU is reaching a wider group of students, who bring a more diversified set of work experiences into the program. This extended access benefits the program and university, as well as responding to the need for more engineers in Denmark.
DTU offers 20 different engineering programs – with specialties in biochemistry, health, space, information technology, Arctic technology and many other fields. This admissions program qualifies graduates to apply for any one of these programs at DTU and to engineering programs in any Danish university.
This program offers valuable experience on meeting demand in creative ways within the educational culture. There are not enough places to study engineering to meet industry demand, providing an opportunity for more engineering education to be moved to an online format.
Challenges and Enhancements
By far the greatest challenge highlighted by Jesper Stensbo Knudsen is student workload as it is estimated that students must spend 20 to 30 hours a week to complete the program successfully. Most drop-outs cite time as the crucial factor, rather than academic competency or expectations.
DTU worked with students to determine how time compressed or extended a course should be; for example, the course in Danish was offered over three semesters and the one in physics over two. It was found that stretching a course over multiple semesters made it harder for students to maintain focus and motivation. Courses are now compressed into one semester, so students take fewer subjects at the same time, but complete them more quickly.
The ongoing dilemma is reconciling the need to maintain academic standards and the best set-up for students. The bottom line is: “learning depth relates to time spent so student have to spend the time and apply themselves”.
Some faculty were reluctant to implement the course design feature that required a change of mode and activity every 15 minutes. Their initial response was: “what is the fuss about, just turn on the microphone”. It is an ongoing process to encourage faculty and provide them with the skills to sequence and vary activities in order to engage and motivate students.
Online learning opens the door for the provision of on-demand learning, responding quickly and effectively to learning needs regardless of the location of learners. It is effective at providing specific groups of students with what they need to learn. Students in online learning often receive more support in learning how to learn and how to apply the learning to real-world situations.
Face-to-face teaching can be a significant beneficiary of online learning as different approaches to learning and new groups of students can be integrated into the classroom-based offerings of institutions.
For Further Information
Jesper Stensbo Knudsen
Technical University of Denmark