short bio

Teaching in Higher-Education
in the information age

Olaf Maennel

The Internet has truly enabled the information age and has revolutionized many aspects of our daily lives already. Next is the reformation of the foundations of universities. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are cheaper, operate at large scale, and provide location-independent education. MOOCs also allow students to be more flexible to learn at their own optimal pace and time. Critics ask what the future of universities will look like in the face of this global online revolution, in particular with respect to the raising cost of higher education?

The Problem of the Higher-Education Industry

Today universities provide to the student: (1) detailed knowledge of a particular subject area, and (2) an accredited certificate. Online courses, on the other hand, have the potential to provide more inspiring, more career-oriented and more specialized knowledge — compared to already overworked academics. Furthermore, it will only be a matter of time until they issue accredited papers. In fact, some institutions already do so. For example, Stanford, MITx, etc., use this opportunity of MOOCs for marketing purposes and it's possible to obtain a certificate from those institutions online.

Is this going to be the end of the traditional higher education institutions? Are we sleepwalking into a crisis?

However, one important aspect has been forgotten in this argumentation: universities are supposed to be more than an accumulation of information. One of the cornerstones of academia was always the transformation of thought, the ability to dissect scientific concepts and to think in abstract forms and structures. Those are values of higher education since Socrates or Plato, but they have changed in the light of large commercialization. This commercialization is slowly leading to a decay of the quality of our graduates. In the future it will be possible to get all the knowledge required to obtain a well-paid job, without the need to pay for an expensive academic degree.

We are now at a critical time, higher education is transforming and this can either be a blessing or a curse. If universities fail to understand that we are facing disruptive technology it will lead to the bankruptcy of many higher education institutions. On the other hand we have now the chance to use this new technology to our advantages. "The question is whether current academic leaders have the vision, courage, and decisiveness to position their institutions to be academic leaders in the 21st century".

How Universities should act to become sustainable in the future

In 1984 educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom described the 2-sigma problem, which essentially states that a student subject to 1-to-1 tuition will develop from an average student into one at the top 98% quantile of all students. MOOCs can perfectly replace large-scale lectures, but they do not adjust adequately to the learning individual. Team building, communication, and interpersonal skills are vital in a globalized world and difficult to obtain via MOOCs.
I have been experimenting with some teaching ideas and for me the following values should not be missing in any course:

  • Engage students in scientific discourse. Today we have a wide choice of technology that allows us to optimize our teaching, but in needs to engage the student. Technology can not only be used to reduce repetitive tasks, but may also foster academic discourse. For example, blended learning proposes careful mix between asynchronous Internet technologies with face-to-face learning. In Loughborough University we have many students from different places in the world, mainly from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is important to appreciate the different cultural backgrounds and teach in a way that suites everyone, and this method also addresses Bloom's 2-sigma problem.

  • Integrate technology in a meaningful way. Simple role-play tools can create realistic situations, which significantly improve student's motivation. However, technology should never be used just for the shake of using technology. In my teaching I integrate it in the form of role-play scenarios. For example, to recreate the operations of an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Or in simpler forms via online discussion forums. Such simple tricks will encourage quieter students to "speak-up", as the anonymity of the forum can allow students to think first. However, it is important that the technology makes sense to the student, e.g., via replicating the processes of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

  • Teach skills beyond "detailed knowledge". We are observing an ever-increasing gap between detailed knowledge and fundamental theory. In particular in computer science our graduates need to have detailed knowledge, but my goal is also to develop metacognitive processes that transforms thought structures. This often goes beyond the communication of basic knowledge that is required by the curriculum. In my teaching this is integrated by an open-ended question/assignment at the beginning of the course and letting the students workout how to solve the detail. ?This enables also creative thinking.

I will illustrate those principles at the example of two successful classes that I have been teaching at Loughborough University:

Networks Lab (COP502)
The objective of this course is to "build the Internet". The students form groups, each group gets three Cisco 2801 routers, three Laptops (which will serve as their "data-centers"), and cables. The role-play scenario is to build and operate an ISP. The course is typically sized around 30-40 students (limited by the equipment we have). The course includes traditional lectures, in which the students are guided through essential material and ensures compliance with the curriculum. Lab sessions allow "hands-on" interactions with the technology. An open-ended task-format in the assignment forces students to think on a broader level. Students are encouraged to find solutions online and come-up with ideas that go beyond the material. This would be very similar to an upper-management real-life job in an ISP, just with a strong technological component as well. The most important feedback that I received from students was that they feel they are learning something real and relevant and use the equipment to experiment with different ideas. Every year I typically have a few students, who ask me if they could continue to work on the equipment (in their spare time after the module has finished).

The strength of this course is really in the lab-sessions, which again allows respecting Bloom's two-sigma problem: Good students or students with prior background knowledge can progress faster through the material, and will not get bored. The module can easily be organized in a way to always remain stimulating for all students. For example, advanced groups will one day start getting "attacked" and have to face cyber security challenges (in a similar way as ISPs need to consider security related issues); while weaker groups can learn at their own optimal pace. It is important not overwhelm students, but also provide sufficient challenge for intellectual growth. The fact that the students can touch the equipment is actually an essential component. Learning all this in a physical lab adds to the credibility of the course.

Internet Protocols (COP532)
Objective of this module is to design and implement a "distributed chat-system protocol over UDP". Every computer-science student understands what a chat-system is. The additional requirement in the assignment is to develop a distributed protocol and use UDP. This brings the class across many issues that exists in real distributed networks (e.g., layers, routing, reliability, flooding or multicast). One important aspect is to achieve interoperability, this means the whole class needs to reach agreement on one protocol, but still every group needs to have their own implementation.

Online discussion forums and chat rooms easily integrate in this module. It is interesting to observe the group dynamics and the way students approach this problem. Those communication patterns typically reassemble those dynamics that can be observed in the IETF (besides those politics that exists in the real IETF). Such a module teaches much more skills than just basic facts about protocols. This type of blend learning also lets students answers their peers question, this starts an unbounded educational discourse. In the past three times I have run this module, I never needed to intervene on peer-discussions that students had. It is actually very interesting to see how students slowly truly understand the problems behind Internet protocols, and it becomes noticeable what they could not learn from books or traditional lectures.

In a fast changing field, such as computer science, it is important for the students to realize how the field is changing and where/how to keep up-to-date as the technology will continue to change over time.


The field of education itself is changing fast. It can be expected that the commercialization of higher education (incl. raising cost of education, raising numbers of students) will soon lose students to online versions of MOOCs. Those courses scale better and can offer the same level of knowledge at a cheaper price. However, institutions that stick to strong academic values, will find themselves equipped with a rich learning environment for graduates of the information-age. Those institutions can discover the transformative potential of modern technology, but the high quality of the institution will always have to come from inspired teachers.

Olaf Maennel | skype: olaf_maennel | e-mail: om@maennel.net | 19 Jan 2013