‘Sage on the stage’ has left the building Thursday, 27 April 2017

Opinion piece by Em Prof Doug Hargreaves AM HonFIEAust CPEng EngExec NER.

The art of educating the student has changed, is changing and will continue to change. The ‘sage on the stage’ has now being replaced by the ‘guide on the side’.

Gone are the days when the lecturer stands in front of a university class, as a sage on the stage, espousing his or her knowledge about a particular topic. Most information, including very technical information, is now available online at the touch of a keyboard or hand-held device and students can generally find this information faster than the lecturer.

Directed self and peer learning is increasingly becoming the means of educating engineering students. The ‘lecturer’ now often prepares the session’s activities in a collaborative learning space, consisting of a large eight-table-sized space with direct access to the internet. Students work in teams of about six, while mini lectures are provided by the ‘guide on the side’ who also ‘directs’ the team activities.

An example of such an activity would be a session on the importance of oral communication, a vital professional skill for all engineers, with the help of YouTube. The activity may involve asking the teams to find an example of a good presentation, a bad presentation, and an inspiring or persuasive presentation on YouTube. A member of each team then presents to the broader class explaining why the selected presentations are good, bad, or inspiring/persuasive. Collaborative discussions with team members are required for this to be done successfully, and the ‘guide on the side’ can make suggestions to assist the students.

This process can be used for developing just about any professional skill, such as teamwork, basic project management (for example, developing a Gantt Chart) and researching why sustainable development is critical to all engineering design. In this approach, students are learning peer to peer, with the guidance of an experienced educator.   

Traditional ‘hierarchical’ tiered lecture theatres are also being phased out. New ‘lecture theatres’ look quite different to those of the past. Nowadays, two rows of seats are arranged on the same level. Seats are on wheels so that students can work together and discuss issues with a row of students either in front or behind them.

Gone, also, are the traditional laboratories. Nowadays, experiments and demonstrations of engineering principles are on wheels and are transported into the learning space as required. This is a huge saving on the amount of floor space required for engineering students to undertake authentic experimentation.

Remote access to experimentation is also becoming increasingly common. For example, a student can use the computer to run an experiment in another city and obtain results of an experiment, such as the bending of a beam subjected to a point load. Complementing all of this is the introduction of simulation. Building upon the previous example, a student can use software to determine the deflection and stresses in a beam subjected to a variety of loading conditions.

The word ‘lecture’ (and hence lecturer) derives from the medieval Latin word for ‘reading’. The ‘sage on the stage’ (the reader) is rapidly disappearing, along with traditional lecture theatre and classroom floor plans, providing a flexible framework that gives students the space to learn in a collaborative, engaging and active way.

Engineers Australia 2010 National President Em Prof Doug Hargreaves was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2014 for his significant contribution to engineering education and the community. This accolade follows 28 years as an academic at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and 11 years in industry, including an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner. He co-authored the book Values Directed Leadership.

Image: iStock image.