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A Case Study In The Use Of Animated Visual Models In Communications Engineering Education

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

New Trends in ECE Education

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.11.1 - 15.11.9

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Paper Authors


David Pearce

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Dave Pearce is a Lecturer in the Department of Electronics at the University of York. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1985, and worked in industry for 11 years designing optical fiber systems and local area networking equipment before commencing a PhD in wireless access methods in 1996. He is now responsible for the teaching of communications engineering at undergraduate and postgraduate level at York.

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Phil Barker Heriot Watt University

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Phil Barker is a Learning Technology Adviser at the Institute for Computer-Based Learning in the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. He studied physics at Bristol, before doing a PhD and three years of research on polymer crystallization, followed by one year of research at the CSIC in Madrid. He has worked in education research since 1996, specialising in the use of computers to aid learning in the sciences and engineering.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

A Case Study in the Use of Animated Visual Models in Communications Engineering Education Abstract

The presentation of communication protocols in a traditional lecture format is problematic. Many of the systems and algorithms in common use are dynamic in operation and difficult to understand from static diagrams or verbal descriptions; and engineering students often have a visual learning style and would be expected to gain a more intuitive understanding of systems from seeing them working. This paper reports a study into the use of a series of animated simulation tools in lectures for a sophomore course in communications protocols. The approach has won widespread praise from students, as well as winning a national award for engineering education, and the models have been adopted by several universities worldwide.


Despite the ready availability of on-line libraries, text-books and tutorials, the scheduled lecture remains the primary means of presenting information to students. This paper reports a study into a taught module in communications engineering, in which the lectures were used to demonstrate and discuss the operation of algorithms and systems using bespoke animated demonstrations and simulation programs, with the majority of the course content described in printed notes distributed in advance of the lectures.

The operation of protocols is not something that can easily be demonstrated using real physical examples of the protocols: for any attempt to use the visual teaching style preferred by many engineering students1, there is an immediate challenge in presenting visually what are essentially hidden processes2.

The technique used previously involved drawing diagrams by hand during the lecture, and then modifying these diagrams to illustrate the dynamic operation of the protocol. There are several problems with this technique: students cannot replay the lectures in their own time for revision; students find it difficult to copy down a changing diagram; there is the possibility of mistakes by the tutor confusing the students; and the resulting diagrams can become complex, hindering their use in revision. A sequence of prepared diagrams showing different stages in the operation of the algorithms is the technique used in many textbooks and similar diagrams could have been used in lectures, however it was felt that this would not achieve the same level of engagement by either the students or tutor, and it does not allow students to experiment.

Rather than using bespoke animations, other existing programs could have been used, for example the use of protocol simulators (such as ns23). However, these protocol simulation programs are complex, require a great deal of time to learn, and lack the simple user interfaces most appropriate for use in lectures. It was a key finding from this study that students prefer simple programs, which are quick to understand and intuitive to use; and when more complex programs are presented, it is important that they are introduced in stages, with features not visible until they are required.

Pearce, D., & Barker, P. (2010, June), A Case Study In The Use Of Animated Visual Models In Communications Engineering Education Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky.

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