Meeting the Challenges of Engineering Education Via Online Roleplay Simulations

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Engineering education is undergoing continuous change. Drivers for this change come from a number of sources, as shown in figure 1. Universities act as a pipeline between high school and the profession, and while they can impact on both, they are also influenced by them. For example, the issues with the K-12 (Kindergarten to Year 12) pipeline have been well documented (Olds, 2005; Sorby, 2005). Engineering education is also affected by the accreditation requirements of professional bodies (Bradley, 2005; Felder & Brent, 2005). In addition, the nature of the profession is changing rapidly due to the realisation that many engineering problems have to be "managed", rather than "solved", as a result of their increasing complexity and multifaceted nature (Brown & Rudolph, 2004; Hadgraft & Goricanec, 2004). This requires a different skill set, both for graduates and university teachers (Anderson, 2004; Felder & Brent, 2003; Fink et al, 2005; Shuman et al, 2005). Pressures are also brought to bear on universities by governments, including levels of funding and higher education reforms at both national (eg. Department of Education, Science and Training, 2004, 2005) and international (eg. Department of Education, Science and Training, 2006) levels.

The impact of these drivers on universities is filtered through to individual teachers, and eventually students, through a number of administrative layers, such as faculties, schools, departments and disciplinary groups (figure 1). At the same time, there are fundamental changes in the way students learn. The majority of students at university belong to the Net Generation (those born between 1982 and 1991); students who have grown up with the internet (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005). These students prefer active, experiential learning activities, to work in groups, to multitask and to work in image-rich, rather than text-rich, environments.

In order to meet the challenges posed by these changes, creative approaches to teaching that foster partnerships in engineering education are required. In this paper, online roleplay simulations are suggested as one such approach, as they are able to help prepare students for meeting the challenges of being a "modern engineer" in a realistic and motivating context, to cater for the development of interdisciplinary and cross-institutional partnerships and to assist with meeting the needs of Net-Gen learners. These aspects of online roleplay simulations are illustrated with a case study example, the Mekong e-Sim, which is centred on environmental decisionmaking surrounding proposed engineering projects (eg. large-scale hydropower) in the Mekong region of southeast Asia.

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2 ONLINE ROLEPLAY SIMULATIONS

2.1 Background

Online roleplay simulations are characterised by the interaction of multiple learners, who represent stakeholders with varying points of view, about an issue or problem that does not have a "correct" outcome and contains sufficient conflict to spark debate. They generally consist of a number of stages, as shown in figure 2. In the briefing stage, students become familiar with the requirements and setting of the roleplay simulation, as well as the online learning environment. Next, they adopt their particular role, which requires a good understanding of the responsibilities and views of their role, and how their role would act in a variety of situations. The interaction stage commences with a "trigger event" (ie. the occurrence of an issue or problem), which requires the various roles to interact with each other in order to solve the problem or explore the issue that forms the basis of the enacted scenario. Other triggers, such as the release of "news articles", can be used throughout the interaction phase.

In many instances, the expected learning outcomes of online roleplay simulations go beyond the specific issues that are a feature of the particular scenario being considered. …