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Homepage / Turning obstacles into opportunities – moving our teaching online in aerospace, transport systems and manufacturing

Turning obstacles into opportunities – moving our teaching online in aerospace, transport systems and manufacturing


The lockdown measures introduced in the middle of March presented a number of challenges across our University, as we moved swiftly to make sure we could deliver the unique Cranfield experience to our students and delegates in a ‘virtual’ world. 

Professor Howard Smith and his team Centre for Aeronautics faced a dual challenge. Although the October 2019 intake of Aerospace Vehicle Design students had finished their taught lectures, entered the ‘write-up’ phase of their group design projects, and were on the cusp of starting their individual research projects, the March 2020 intake were only in the third week of their course when lockdown interrupted the schedule. 

Contingency plans to continue delivering the course online were enacted and the team very quickly met with the students to discuss future strategies. The team set about uploading all teaching material so that it would be available online and the scheduling of the group design project and the individual research project were switched. Following further discussions with the students, a collaborative decision was made to switch from pre-recorded lectures with online tutorials to almost entirely live broadcast lectures that followed the original scheduled timetable.  This approach has, so far, been met with hugely positive feedback from the students and means the cohort is running to schedule, as previously planned. 

Group projects are a flagship feature of Cranfield courses and, in Manufacturing, the presentations were imminent, due to take place at the end of April. The students had started these projects in February, expecting to present in person to an audience of industry professionals, as well as the exam panel. The original plan ‘B’ was for the students to pre-record their presentations, but the way in which online teaching and learning was adopted by both staff and students gave Dr David Ayre and the rest of the team confidence to go ahead with live presentations, via Microsoft Teams. 

With over two thirds of the students involved in these group projects having returned to their home countries to complete their courses, the logistics of arranging suitable presentation slots for multiple time zones was an inevitable challenge – but one that the team were able to rise to admirably. Students from across the globe – Korea, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Europe and the UK – all joined online successfully, and presented their group projects to the examiners. They were also later able to repeat the presentation for industry sponsors. The process worked so well that the team are confident in having a live online audience next time around. 

A similar journey has taken place within the Safety and Accident Investigation Centre. Understandably, given the uniquely practical nature of the courses, the team had some initial reservations about the viability of delivering online. For Craig Cattell, who has only just joined Cranfield as a lecturer, it was a baptism of fire – but one that has shown him what a fantastic team he has joined. Dr Leigh Dunn, the module lead, undertook an ingenious redesign of the course to enable it to be delivered effectively remotely.  Leigh and Cengiz Turkoglu had taken fast and positive action as the coronavirus situation escalated at the beginning of March, and filmed and photographed the accident scenes and vehicle wreckages normally used for teaching on campus. This meant that Craig was able to plan the weeks delivery using Teams for students from a number of different MSc courses. Having tested the set-up on his family, he had confidence that it would be a smooth experience for our students – but it turned out to be a hugely positive one too. The students were able to act as ‘remote investigators’ – a skill that may well be in demand in their future careers. Armed with photographic, video evidence, logs, procedures, documentary evidence and initial reports, they investigated the ‘accident’ and conducted online interviews with ‘witnesses’.

Leigh and Craig were delighted with the overwhelmingly positive feedback the team received. Students congratulated the staff on the design and delivery of the module and were particularly appreciative of the way in which staff made themselves available online to answer questions over a wide window of time. Based on the students’ comments, this ‘instant engagement’ was a crucial part of the success of the experience.   

Anyone who has spent any time at Cranfield knows that our courses are distinctive in the way that they prepare students for action and give them the kind of practical ability they need to be confident in the workplace. Of course, some of that is down to our facilities – but more of it is because of the creative and innovative teaching styles of our staff. 

I am hugely proud in the way we have realised together that we’re not just able to provide that online, but that we can excel at it too. 

Professor Helen Atkinson

Written By: Cranfield University

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