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Workplace Mode Education

For some time I have been thinking about a mode of college education modeled on a workplace environment.  The elements of this model are:

1) Students have dedicated space where they do most of their work.  Instructors come to the students' space, rather than the other way around.  Advantages: rich work environment with fewer distractions, efficient use of students' time.

2) Students do most or all of their work in scheduled blocks of time, during business hours.  These time blocks are longer than conventional classes (4-8 hours).  Instructors might be available during all of that time, or more commonly, at the beginning and end.  Advantages: time to focus and sustain effective work flow.  

3) Course materials are in written or multi-media formats.  Students work with materials at their own pace.  Advantages: personalized education, less time in passive modes.

4) Most evaluation of student work is done face-to-face in conversation with instructors.  Advantages: feedback cycle is much shorter and quality of feedback is richer.

At Olin College, we offer several classes that implement at least some of these elements:
  • In the first semester, Design Nature and Modeling and Simulation are taught in studio mode.  Groups of 4 students share a dedicated workspace with a table, white/blackboards, and corkboards/walls for displaying materials.  Each student has a laptop.  Office supplies are available in each room.  These classes meet 2-3 times per week in 2-3 hours blocks.
  • In the sophomore year, User Oriented Collaborative Design is also in studio mode.  This class meets twice per week for 3 hours.
  • In the senior year, the Senior Capstone program (SCOPE) provides dedicated workspace for each project.  Students work one day a week for an 8 hour day (in addition to other time they schedule).
This semester I am experimenting with two of my classes, Software Design and Software Engineering, by approximating a workplace mode.  In both classes:

1) There are no lectures.  The course material includes books and web pages.  The course schedule gives students guidelines, but their progress is largely self-paced.

2) Students can read materials during class time or between classes.  After reading, they work on short diagnostics that test their understanding and then check their answers with an instructor before moving on.

3) Students also work on a series of labs that are more substantial.  Some students complete the labs without assistance, but many bring questions to the instructors.  Some labs involve two phases: a design review where students present their plan to an instructor for comment, and a code review where students present their implementation.

4) Software Design includes weekly quizzes that take 20-30 minutes and check whether students are on schedule.  They have little impact on final grades; they are primarily intended to measure progress.  They also allow instructors to identify points of confusion.

5) Software Engineering includes timed evaluations that simulate a software engineering work environment.  Students are given an incomplete program and an automated test suite, and asked to complete the program so that it passes all tests.

6) In both classes, students have almost no passive time; they are actively working during all class sessions.

Due to space limitations, we don't have dedicated space for these classes, but both classes are scheduled in the same room on the same day, so the instructors are available all day.  Students work during their scheduled class time, but they are encouraged to come early or stay late in order to have larger blocks of work time.

Here are some of my observations:

1) The workload for instructors is manageable as long as the diagnostics and labs are calibrated so that most students complete them without assistance.  Students who want assistance can get it promptly.

2) The short feedback cycle is good for students; it also helps us improve the course material.  If there is a bug in an assignment, we can fix it before most students see it.

3) Face-to-face evaluation lets us offer personalized education.  For students who are struggling, we review basic concepts.  For stronger students, we opportunistically present more advanced material.

4) This semester we have not enforced deadlines.  This allows students to take as long as they need to complete an assignment, but it changes the failure mode.  Instead of turning in assignments that are incorrect or incomplete, struggling students fall behind.  Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the goals of the class: is it better to know some of the material well or all of the material badly?

5) Some students indicate that they like lectures.  For next semester I am considering recording a series of 10-20 minute lectures on the topics students often have trouble with, and allowing them to view these lectures on their own schedule.  I will be curious to see if they are effective.