June 20, 2010
June 20, 2010
June 23, 2010
Electrical and Computer
15.11.1 - 15.11.9
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.
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