Distance Learning at BCRRE: The Digital Platform

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Zena Green
Zena Zena Green

Zena Green,  a Teaching Fellow (International Programmes) talks about the shift to the digital platform when it comes to teaching and what this entails.

When I raised the possibility of creating a digital version of BCRRE’s MSc courses in the autumn of 2019, nobody could have guessed that six months later we would be discussing how to move the whole of the University of Birmingham online. For everyone in the field of education these are interesting and challenging times. However, at BCRRE we are looking forward to the new term and presenting our modules in new and novel ways.

BCRRE already have experience of blended learning through our Railway Landscapes module, or the Portfolio Module as we call it, which we introduced to our Singapore based students last year. Although the module includes some traditional lectures and assignments, over fifty percent of tasks are self-study activities. The students compile a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate their growing knowledge of the rail industry, by uploading reports, videos or documents. The tasks have varied from identifying and photographing examples of good and bad station design to analysing work schedules and writing maintenance plans. As engineers new to the rail industry, the focus throughout has been on the application of their knowledge and to encourage engineers to question current norms and look for improvements in working practice. We have been so pleased by how the Singapore students have adapted to this new form of study and by the number of original ideas it has inspired.

The first education innovation of the new term will be the fully online primer course ‘Terminology and Communication for Railways’. Previously this course has only been available to overseas students new to studying in English or those with very little rail experience. However, many of our current students have told us how much they would appreciate support with study skills and assignment writing, plus the benefits of aligning their knowledge before they start the assessed modules. So this year all of our new students will be invited to attend. The online primer will also give students the chance to familiarise themselves with our digital learning tools such as Canvas, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. There will also be opportunities to learn about the exciting research taking place at BCRRE and to get to know the team.

Our role in sustainable travel is being increasingly highlighted and, due to Covid-19, travel between countries or even cities may be disrupted for some time to come. The chance to work in an online environment with students who could be based around the globe will be valuable experience for all our students. In a global economy, where technology means team members can be based on several different continents, the world of work is changing. Digital skills are more important than ever before and our Primer course will be the first step in developing these.

The move online also gives BCRRE an opportunity to innovate our teaching. Due to the move from 10 to 20 credit modules the plans for this were already well advanced before shutdown. Indeed the writing and recording of pre-reading material for all of the modules is in development. Our aim with the increase of online material is to continue to transform sessions to suit the new environment. In addition to the normal range of materials, there will be a pre-recorded video mini-lectures, online discussion sessions, group and individual exercises and problem based learning, all developed to allow students to make rapid progress. For those who may be concerned that online learning would be six hours a day of watching someone talk, be assured that is not our plan.

Although, whenever possible, and when safe to do so, our intention is to hold labs and seminars in person. Nonetheless, for those who may be unable to attend for health reasons or the need to self-isolate, alternatives will always be available.

One area we know is important to our students is the opportunity to network with each other and with rail industry professionals. We want to keep the sense of community and support, which we know our students expect. There will still be the chance to hear from a full range of outside speakers and there will always be opportunities to ask questions or get clarification on those more difficult ideas. Social interaction is an important part of learning and we are working hard to ensure this is a key part of our courses.

We know the new term may create a few challenges, but it also gives us an opportunity to look at new and exciting ways to move beyond the lecture theatre. Digital technology has been shown to create new and better ways of working in engineering and there is no reason to believe engineering education cannot benefit in the same way. I’m excited by the possibilities the new term presents and online, in-person or a little of both, I look forward to seeing all of you there.

The ‘High Speed Rail: Education Interchange’ in December 2020 will consider digital learning and other challenges affecting research, education and training for High Speed Rail. For more information, please visit the website

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