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Training that creates communities of excited professionals

The best training creates communities of excited professionals who want to communicate with each other about what they’re learning.

Training is becoming both more social and more virtual as technologies enable this. It’s also becoming much more collaborative – not only amongst learners, but between learners and trainers, as trainees take responsibility for their own learning and ask correspondingly more of their trainers.

Engineering ethics may not at first blush appear to be a topic that would inspire such excitement and collaboration – yet as long ago as 2009, this is just what it was doing. I attended a workshop on engineering ethics at a conference in Canada in November 2009, facilitated by the lecturer of a US-based university course on the topic.

He realised after some time that his course was a success when he discovered that his students had spontaneously started creating little skits about real ethical issues they had encountered, filming them and uploading them to YouTube.

What might this mean for your training program? Well, your students need to be able to inform each other and the trainer about their upload – this could be via a simple email list, or a listserv, or a Facebook page specific to the training course. You could then set up a wiki or online discussion board in which your students can initiate and take part in discussions and exchange ideas arising from the training and the associated activities. Where to from there? The possibilities are limited only by our imagination!

But that’s the easy part.

How could we incorporate this invaluable informal activity into the more formal structure of our training workshops? How can we maximise the value of the contact we have with our trainees by making the best possible use of student-generated material? How can we generate other material that students can engage with before and after our training?

High-school science teacher Chris Clay started giving his teaching sessions on YouTube, which the students would watch before class. This meant they could then use the class time to discuss what they’d seen, clarify misunderstandings and practise the work together. The improvement in learning outcomes was spectacular.

By contrast, MIT professor Anant Agarwal found that at first, students of his circuits and electronics course would watch the videos, but by later on in the course they tackled their assignments first, watching the videos later on when they needed support or confirmation. Again, combining what he called “in-person with online” learning gave the best of both worlds.

It’s mouth-watering to see the potential for making our training both more enjoyable and more effective.

You can see the engineering students’ skits if you go to YouTube and search for “engineering ethics”. They are great – and I recognised many of the dilemmas they’d already encountered in their still short professional careers.

Click here to find out about Chris Clay’s approach to teaching high school science.

Professor Anant Agarwal was interviewed in the 13 July 2013 New Scientist Issue 2925.