College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Teaching beyond the classroom: ME course integrates web conferencing software

Michael Olsen

Michael Olsen, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is bringing web conferencing software into the classroom, creating virtual help sessions where students interact, ask questions, and get answers.

Initially, Olsen used the technology, Adobe Connect, to manage increasing class sizes. What resulted was a new space for learning that students are quick to embrace.

The mechanical engineering department has grown into the most popular major at Iowa State in recent years, and class sizes have grown to match. Olsen, who teaches fluid mechanics at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as undergraduate thermodynamics, has seen his classes more than double in size.

While the department is working to hire more faculty, the need for an intermediate solution was growing apparent.

“I’ve tried to be as accessible as I was when my class sizes were smaller so students have the same quality of education as before,” Olsen says, noting previous approaches weren’t as effective with greater numbers of students.

When his department acquired several licenses for Connect to reduce travel time and facilitate effective communication in extension and collaborative research projects across the country, Olsen tinkered with the software and then asked to try it in his classes.

“A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, this software might be a way to make myself more accessible to my students,” Olsen says.

CoE Dean Jonathan Wickert, who was the department chair at the time, offered Olsen a license to integrate the software into his class as supplemental instruction.

In addition to his regular office hours, Olsen began hosting online help sessions a few nights before homework was due and twice before tests. He says the transition was quick and painless. He introduced the software briefly in class and students fine-tuned their use of it as the semester progressed.

“It’s similar to Skype,” Olsen explains. “Students are familiar with this technology and pick it up really quickly. Actually, they pick it up faster than me.”

He says the number of students physically walking into his office has dwindled as they’ve taken advantage of the convenience of an online contact with all the benefits of one-on-one counseling.

Connect allows him to project audio and video of himself in real time, as well as a whiteboard he can write examples on via a tablet. To ask questions, students sign on via a built-in chat feature.

“It’s very anonymous,” Olsen says. “Anyone can access the help sessions, including students from other sessions. They have to type in a username, but it doesn’t have to be their NetID.”

As a result, sessions are regularly attended by Chuck Norris, and occasionally Mr. T.

Students who are uncomfortable asking questions in class may feel more comfortable asking through the chat box. Olsen finds students are more willing to ask even simple questions, which inadvertently helps their classmates.

“I used to get a line of students outside my door all asking the same question. I’m happy to see them individually, but with over 140 students, that becomes unmanageable. Through the online help sessions, one student asks the question, I answer it, everyone gets the answer,” Olsen says.

Olsen records the help sessions and posts links online for students who either missed the session or want to watch it again. By the end of the semester, the compiled recordings become an archive for students to refer to while studying for the final exam.

“I had a student tell me, ‘Dr. Olsen, take all the engineering professors, lock them in a room, and don’t let them out until they agree to have online help sessions’,” Olsen says, adding that student responses have been overwhelmingly positive in his semester evaluations.

“This is a change that’s not only good for students but also for faculty. It’s mutually beneficial. It makes my job easier, and my students are a lot happier,” Olsen says.