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Teaching Embedded Systems in a MOOC Format

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies: Best Papers

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Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Jonathan W. Valvano University of Texas - Austin

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Dr. Jon Valvano is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and holds the Engineering Foundation Centennial Teaching Fellowship in Electrical Engineering. He received his S.B. and S.M. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from MIT in 1977 and his Ph.D. in 1981 from the joint Harvard-MIT program in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics. He joined the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin in 1981 and has 34 years of experience in teaching and research. He has received numerous teaching awards and authored five widely-used textbooks on embedded microcomputer systems. He has co-founded a successful medical device company called Admittance Technologies. His research involves integrated analog/digital processing, low-power design, medical instrumentation, and real-time systems.

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Ramesh Yerraballi University of Texas - Austin

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Ramesh Yerraballi is a Distinguished Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at The University of Texas at Austin. He received his Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Engineering from Osmania University, India, in 1991 and his PhD degree in Computer Science from Old Dominion University, Virginia, in 1996.

Dr. Yerraballi's teaching interests and experience span a broad swath of the Computing curriculum from, Theory of Computing, Algorithms and Data Structures, Introductory, Object-Oriented and Systems Programming, Embedded Systems, Operating Systems, Real-Time Systems, Distributed Systems, Computer Architecture and Performance Analysis of Computer Systems. He has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and particularly enjoys teaching at the undergraduate level.

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Chad Fulton University of Texas - Austin

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Chad is a Project Manager in Learning Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. He has played key roles in several campus Request for Proposals and product implementations. His recent projects concentrate on course building efforts with substantial pedagogical and technological innovations. Prior to this, Chad led a laptop-required program for pre-service teachers in the UT Austin College of Education.

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We have designed, implemented and deployed a Massive Open Online Class (MOOC) with a substantial lab component within the edX platform. If MOOCs are truly going to transform the education, then they must be able to deliver laboratory classes. This offering goes a long way in unraveling the perceived complexities in delivering a laboratory experience to tens of thousands of students from all around the globe. We believe the techniques developed in this class will significantly transform the MOOC environment. Effective education requires students to learn by doing. In the traditional academic setting this active learning is delivered in a lab format. A number of important factors have combined that allow a lab class like this to be taught at this time. First, we have significant support from industrial partners ARM Inc and Texas Instruments. Second, the massive growth of embedded microcontrollers has made the availability of lost-cost development platforms feasible. Third, we have assembled a team with the passion, patience, and experience of delivering quality lab experiences to large classes. Fourth, on-line tools now exist that allow students to interact and support each other. We are using edX for the delivery of videos, interactive animations, text, and quizzes. An embedded system combines mechanical and electrical components along with a computer, hidden inside, to perform a single dedicated purpose. The overall educational objective of this class is to allow students to discover how the computer interacts with its environment. The course provides hands-on experiences of how an embedded system could be used to solve problems. Active learning requires a platform for the student to learn by doing. In a typical embedded system lab, the student combines mechanical and electrical components interfacing them to a microcontroller to create a system. The student writes software that is loaded onto a microcontroller which then performs a specific and dedicated task. To get a grade the student demonstrates the lab solution to the teaching assistant. There are three tasks the TA performs: first the TA must control the process by asking questions or requesting the solution perform appropriate tasks, second the TA must observe the actions and reactions, and third the TA must judge whether the solution achieved the desired outcome. We have captured these three TA-tasks by developing a suite of software plug-ins that run inside the compiler-debugger and additional software that resides in the microcontroller itself. The class was successfully delivered twice with over 72,000. Over 11,000 completed at least one lab requiring the physical kit. Even though there was a $40-$50 cost to purchase the lab kit, the course completion numbers were slightly better than a typical MOOC; 5,300 students completed enough of the class to receive a certificate (7.3%). Students completing end of the course surveys report a 95% overall satisfaction. Demographics show a world-wide reach with the US, Europe, and India the most popular. In this paper we will present best practices, successes and limitations of teaching a substantial lab across the globe.

Valvano, J. W., & Yerraballi, R., & Fulton, C. (2016, June), Teaching Embedded Systems in a MOOC Format Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26025

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