Professor David Shallcross at Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne, Australia, is enthusiastic about improving the educational experience for students and teachers. Here he talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about his newly developed app Rapid Feedback and other teaching ideas.
You have developed the app Rapid Feedback. Can you please explain what the app does and what your motivation for building the app was?
The app is a way to provide individual and targeted feedback to students after they have completed an oral presentation. It consists of a set of comments that can be used to address over 170 different issues that students might require feedback on. These range from students not making eye contact with the audience when they talk, to how they might structure their presentation. The issues have been identified after more than 20 years of assessing student presentations.
The user is able to not only provide constructive feedback to students but also to score them against a range of criteria. The feedback and scores can then be e-mailed to the students before they leave the campus at the end of the day.
When students submit an essay, you have a solid artifact upon which you can base your comments and provide feedback. When anyone stands up to give a talk, however, they may remember what they said, but after an hour or two they might have no recollection of how they delivered the presentation. The app is designed to deliver feedback rapidly, while the presentation is still fresh in the student’s memory.
Why did you choose the format of an app?
I developed the app because the ability to deliver a good, coherent and well-structured presentation is an ability that engineering students must develop. The effectiveness of getting students to give presentations is enhanced by providing them with feedback if the feedback provides constructive suggestions for improving their communication skills. The modern tablet, such as the iPad, is easy to use and light enough for the sustained use of several hours.
How long did it take to develop and build the app?
It took about 18 months to get the app to a stage ready for release. We then spent some additional time testing it internally.
We worked together with a developer, who is himself an educator, and developed the basic framework for the app quickly. We then tested the app out over three consecutive semesters gaining experience as to what worked and what needed to be changed to improve the functionality. The ability to record a personalized sound recording that could be sent with the printed feedback was one of the last features to be added and tested, for example. It has proved to be a very valuable asset.
How do your students react to the feedback from the app?
Students appreciate the rapid turnaround of the feedback. I get students replying to my e-mail, thanking me for the suggestions for further improvement. Surveys conducted after the teaching semester is over indicate that students really appreciate the timely feedback that they receive using the app.
And what has changed for you?
As an assessor, the app allows me to rapidly provide accurate feedback. As I know the app well, I can quickly select the feedback I wish to provide. Before the app, I would have to take notes of the comments I wanted to make while the student was talking. That might be possible for a 30-minute presentation, but when the student only has 5 minutes it was very difficult. So, I save hours of time every semester over the paper-based system that I used to use.
What are the biggest differences between students you teach today and 20 years ago?
The quality of the students and their ability to solve open-ended and complex problems remains high, but in this digital era, students have changed when they want to learn. Twenty years ago students would attend nearly all their lectures and tutorial classes. Now students are able to download lecture recordings and watch additional lecture material online at times that suit their lifestyles. That means that the proportion of students attending traditional lectures has dropped. That means that we have to begin replacing more traditional lectures with delivery styles that are more interactive. We have to accept that we are now teaching Generation-X or Generation-Y and Generation YouTube.
Can you please give examples?
My lectures are now more interactive, trying to involve the class. I have also recorded over 40 mini-lectures in a professional studio to provide students with additional material that they can view at any time.
In addition, we are now preparing videos that provide additional material that supplements the regular lecture material. Other videos are known as “Tutor on Demand” videos in which we get tutors, who are also closer in age to the students, to provide recorded assistance on how to solve some types of problems. Other videos are designed to prepare students for their work in the laboratory by showing the equipment, and going through the operating procedures. These laboratory videos can also be used to remind students of the importance of safety in the laboratory.
Can you say a bit about your career and what got you interested in education, please?
I joined the University of Melbourne in 1990 after working at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis as a post-doc. While my research was originally centered on separation processes and enhanced oil recovery, I began to concentrate more and more on chemical engineering education. Serving as Chair of the Scientific Program Committee for the World Chemical Engineering Congress in Melbourne in 2001, I made many useful contacts around the world. Traveling extensively through Asia and visiting chemical engineering departments in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand I came to understand more about the demands and challenges that educators face in these countries. I found this incredibly interesting. I also spent time looking at new and different ways of facilitating learning and began recording additional lecture material for my students well over ten years ago. That type of material has evolved until now. Today, my team has its own professional studio allowing us to record high-quality lectures.
In addition, I have served as Head of Department and Associate Dean for my School for many years, was Executive Editor for Education for Chemical Engineers, a peer-reviewed journal I helped launch in 2005, and served as Vice President (Qualifications) of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) for three years being responsible for membership and accreditation processes worldwide. I currently serve as an accreditation assessor for both Engineers Australia and the IChemE, and in that role, I accredit programs across Australia and around the world.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
Every day is different and I have had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects. Currently, I am working closely with colleagues in China to improve the teaching styles used in some institutions in that country.
Also a very interesting topic. Thank you very much for the interview.
David Shallcross gained his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne, Australia. After postdoctoral work at Stanford University, CA, USA, and the University of California, Davis, CA, USA, he returned to the University of Melbourne. Currently, he is Professor and Associate Dean (Academic) at Melbourne School of Engineering there.
2006 Frank Morton Medal by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE)