Jan-Mikael Rybicki works as an English lecturer at Aalto’s Language Centre. Rybicki and other Language Centre employees want to give students and Aalto staff language and communication skills that provide a strong foundation for success in studies and work. Rybicki teaches engineering students as well as professors, doctoral students, lecturers and service staff. The students are usually in at least their second year of studies.
‘Teaching for engineering students is systematic, which means that the content is the same for all students, but in other cases I also tailor my course contents according to the target group. I also do a lot of workshop-style teaching,’ explains Rybicki.
Technology has to provide added value for learning
I have always been interested in technology and using it to support teaching. However, the use of technology shouldn’t be an end in itself – it must provide real added value. Blended learning, in which learning takes place face-to-face and online, has proven to be a good method for language teaching and academic writing.
It’s easy to do mechanical exercises online, like practicing comma rules. For example, with the help of computer scientists, I’ve developed a program for teaching comma and other punctuation rules where the assignment involves placing commas in the right places. If the student puts the comma in the right place, the background turns green and a message at the bottom of the screen explains why a comma is needed in that spot. When the student puts a comma in the wrong place, the background turns red and a message at the bottom of the screen explains why a comma should not be used there. These exercises also can help students making better use of phrases like shortened clauses in their own texts, so these ‘hairsplitting assignments’ also teach good academic writing at the same time. Although making online exercises takes a lot of time, it’s worth the effort in the long term.
It’s a good idea to share lecture materials, multiple choice assignments, videos and links in MyCourses. Student feedback about online learning has been positive, and the students consider online learning a time-effective method because they can choose when they do the work. I’ve also noticed that students are more willing to do many kinds of assignments if they get points for them. That’s why I’ve decided to give points for completing the exercises in the final course grading. Along with grading, weekly deadlines for completing the exercises motivate students to do the assignments regularly, which ensures better learning than when they try to do everything quickly at the end of the course. I always ask if someone has not completed assignments and give students extra time if necessary.
We use face-to-face time to practice things like presentation skills. I record the presentations that students give in small groups. Then I upload the videos online, where the students can download their own presentations and think about what works well and what they should do differently. When making presentations, I encourage students to always consider their target audience and the purpose of the presentation. Generally speaking, I would say that language skills and presentation confidence have improved in recent years, but organising information is a challenge for many people.
Another learning tool is the exam, and now all of my exams are in electronic format in MyCourses. An electronic exam environment is good because the teacher doesn’t have to interpret handwriting, and the answers often have a better structure because it’s easy to change the order of paragraphs.
Getting software to work in the university infrastructure can take time
The Language Centre has been offering online courses since the 2006–2007 academic year, but at that time, we couldn’t get our software to work in the old HUT systems. For example, it was impossible to obtain information about whether students were actually doing their assignments, and the grade had to be based only on the exam. Finally, ten years later, we now have new online exercises that are about to be integrated into MyCourses. Sometimes you just have to wait. However, I’m so interested in engineering sciences and my work that I’ve been willing to wait. Fortunately, the A!OLE project has meant that the Department of Computer Science is helping with development work, and we’ve made a lot of progress.
I have developed my own expertise by attending online learning conferences in Finland and other countries. I’m a regular participant in the Blended learning seminar held at the University of Helsinki. I also read teaching-related research articles. Furthermore, I have to mention Google and YouTube because they provide a lot of valuable tips. I really appreciate people who take the time to make videos about, for example, the best ways to implement an exercise or how to use software and then share it with the public.
We’ve occasionally commissioned students to do software development work when we want software that doesn’t exist or is too expensive to acquire. When acquiring or developing new software, it’s essential to consider how the software supports learning, whether it solves a certain problem in teaching, and if it helps people learn. Based on my experience, I recommend testing new software first on a small scale. This means that there will be fewer unpleasant surprises once they become more widely available.
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