Engineers seek more efficient ways of achieving goals, so it should come as no surprise that Professor Spiros Pagiatakis, associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Lassonde School of Engineering, has introduced the virtual classroom to the Geomatics Engineering Program.
“I’m uneasy with the status quo,” Pagiatakis says. “I like to explore different options.”
Impetus for innovation
In 2012, Pagiatakis and his Geomatics Engineering colleagues, in partnership with the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS) were successful in obtaining significant funding from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration of Ontario (Bridge Funding) to create a training program that could be delivered across Ontario to all internationally educated professionals (IEP) who wished to obtain professional licensure from the AOLS. These professionals, immigrants to Canada holding a university degree in geomatics or in related field from their country of origin, would be given a unique opportunity to bridge any knowledge/skills gap and become eligible for professional licensure as Ontario Land Surveyors (OLS).
The main challenge in bridging the gap was that the IEPs were usually place/time bound, often having survival jobs across Ontario; thus, they were unable to attend their university classes in Toronto. As the geomatics engineering professors explored the available technology and established the bridging program in 2015, they realized this approach could also be used in undergraduate engineering courses to reach students who need more flexibility in accessing post-secondary education.
With further assistance from a York University Academic Innovation Fund grant in 2016, Pagiatakis and his colleagues have turned a Lassonde classroom in the Petrie Science and Engineering building into a virtual classroom, outfitted with a video wall display and a built-in video-conferencing system that allows faculty to broadcast lectures live so that students can interactively participate from anywhere there is an internet connection.
“We were able to kill two birds with one stone,” he says. “We were able to satisfy the needs of the IEP to receive their OLS licences and began to connect with our students in a new way. In fact, students and instructors alike from anywhere in the world can tune in to the lectures, enabling a virtual classroom environment with unparalleled flexibility.”
The classroom’s video wall display provides Pagiatakis and his geomatics engineering colleagues with the flexibility to vary their presentations in real time and broadcast live the class activities to all remote participants across Ontario and beyond. They can have Power Point presentations, import video clips, turn a section of the wall display into a touch board for writing equations, edit text in real time, highlighting, annotating, and bringing in guest speakers from around the world. Students can also participate remotely asking and answering questions, participating in group projects via audio and video links. The entire class session is recorded and made available to the students for further study and review.
“Students today almost exclusively use electronic means to communicate,” Pagiatakis says. “But, at the beginning, it was a big cultural change in learning. The students were shy about using the audio and video and would type in their questions in the chat room, which is also integral to the system.
“Last year, we advanced to the use of audio communication. They always walk around with cellphones and earbuds, so they couldn’t tell me that they didn’t have or understand the technology. Then, we moved on to encouraging them to use video; they use Skype to talk to their families and friends, so it shouldn’t be a real stretch.”
He has seen improvement in student comfort levels, although he still teases the youth by noting that the older instructors have adapted to the new technology faster than the students.
Aaron Boda, a 2017 geomatics engineering graduate, is now pursuing his master’s degree in the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering. Six of his undergraduate courses took place in the virtual classroom setting and he had no problem acclimating himself to the technology.
“It is a very simple system to use,” Boda says. “There is not much of a learning curve. It is as simple as using any chat service like Skype.”
Initially, Pagiatakis and his colleagues introduced the virtual classroom into three or four courses; today, 10 courses take advantage of the technology with five instructors involved. Its use is limited only by scheduling and the fact that only one physical classroom has a video wall display and the relevant peripherals. At present, courses geared toward third- and fourth-year students are the ones that use the classroom, but Pagiatakis would like to offer the option to first- and second-year students too, as they become accustomed to the new technology.
Student feedback about the virtual classroom has been very positive. “I was surprised,” Pagiatakis says, “but they mostly come to class. However, having the flexibility makes them less stressed.”
Boda found the model very useful.
“It provides an opportunity to attend the lecture from home in case you are ill and cannot make it to campus, or if you have only the one class to attend for the day and it is pointless to waste time commuting,” he says. “The fact that you are able to interrupt the class and ask a question (when viewing live) makes it as if you are attending the lecture in person.
“The other thing is that you are able to review the lectures at your own time. It could be a case that you are not able to clearly understand some part of the lecture and it helps in listening to that part again. Also, it can be very useful while studying for the exam.”
Gulad Sheikh, a fellow geomatics engineering graduate and master’s candidate, also enjoyed his virtual classroom experiences.
“It is very convenient and useful learning tool,” he says. “You could attend it from anywhere if you were not at school, and even if you missed the class, you could watch it at a later time convenient to you. It is very helpful in studying for the exams, since you can reply the videos any time you want.”
In his own teaching, Pagiatakis also uses the video wall display for flipped classroom experiences. He videotapes a short lecture about a key concept and makes it available to the students a couple of weeks in advance. At class time, he answers questions about the concept before dividing students into groups to solve a real problem involving that concept. Remote groups are also possible to participate fully, thanks to built-in video conferencing system.
After giving the groups time to solve the problem, he asks them to come to the board and show their solutions. The class discusses what works and what doesn’t and why in a fully interactive mode.
“Not all lectures can be done in flip mode,” says Pagiatakis, “but you can select four or five key theories to study this way.”
“We are in the midst of a cultural change, a different learning experience” he adds. “The teaching methods of the past must change to interactive and participative learning. In this approach, instructors and students learn together by doing. They learn with each other and from each other and thus, they are all responsible for being prepared for the class. Technology is the enabler for this change, but we must be cognizant of the additional student time required.”
Pagiatakis and his colleagues are eager to share their live broadcast experiences with other faculty, although he notes that technology-enabled learning in a virtual classroom environment requires significant investment from the university; however, Pagiatakis believes it is the wave we must ride.
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus