Improving university chemistry students engagement with OneNote, Cloud and digital inking.


Dr Sylvia Urban, senior lecturer at Melbourne’s RMIT University School of Science has undertaken research to quantify the effect of technology on learning outcomes in a recent study titled Pen-Enabled, Real-Time Student Engagement for Teaching in STEM Subjects.  Dr. Urban has won two RMIT Learning and Teaching Awards for Excellence for her championing of pen-enabled work.

The research explored the benefits of creating collaborative, interactive lectures using cloud-based technology (Microsoft OneDrive and OneNote) and pen-enabled devices (Surface Pro) in undergraduate / postgraduate university chemistry courses with approximately 380 students.

“Microsoft OneNote and Windows 10 digital ink have been shown to improve pass rates of Chemistry students, as well as improve performance in STEM related fields.” -Dr. Sylvia Urban, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University.

Pen-enabled, Real-time Student Engagement for Teaching in STEM Subjects

The innovative research study clearly demonstrated that the student experience was improved with the introduction of the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) design, which focuses on three areas:

  1. The use of technology to enhance the way students learn;
  2. The use of technology to support development of teachers or lecturers and improve learning design processes;
  3. The innovative use of technology in diverse teaching environments.

The results of the study were measured in a number of ways, including Course Experience Surveys (CES), pass rates  and via direct feedback from students. The Good Teaching Scale (GTS) showed a 5−23% increase from 2015 to 2016.

“The Good Teaching Scale (GTS) performance together with the feedback provided via student comments in the Course Experience Survey (CES) and the increase in pass rates is a testament to the success of OneNote not only as a means to facilitate teaching but also as a means for students to engage and enhance their student learning experience via note taking.” - Dr Sylvia Urban

In addition to this, the overall pass rate for the Organic Chemistry Unit in CHEM1039, using this TEL in 2016, rose by 11% between the years 2015 to 2016, demonstrating greater student comprehension and improvement in performance.

The overall satisfaction index (OSI) is a measure of the entire teaching team for a course led by the course coordinator. As the course coordinator for three of the undergraduate courses Dr Urban was able to guide students about the new teaching innovation as well as coordinate this with the rest of the teaching team. For these three courses, the GTS and OSI increased between 2015 and 2016. As an example, in 2016 for CHEM1039, the GTS was 94%, an increase of about 10% from the previous year, and the OSI was 95%, an increase of 23% from the previous year. This represents an outstanding result in both the GTS and OSI scales and is rated "excellence in teaching" at RMIT University

Some comments from the students involved in the study include:

“This technology was really great in that the lecture content could be directly accessed from home, and annotations were visible as lectures progressed. I get a lot out of having written notes that I can refer to in study and prelectures”

“The accessibility of lecture notes done in class by the teacher allowed me to actually listen to what was said as opposed to writing everything down myself and not taking a whole lot in.”

How were lectures transformed by this new approach?

This innovative pedagogy used Microsoft OneNote as the digital information gathering and collaboration tool, as well as OneDrive as the Cloud-based hub where course notes and materials were uploaded by the lecturer for student to access anywhere, anytime. Additionally, the lecturer had access to a Microsoft Surface Pro pen-enabled device to allow for digital annotating and note-taking while lecturing.

Students accessed their course materials and annotated lecture notes via a read-only link to the OneDrive central storage hub with their Office 365 account (provided free to every student and teacher in Australia on up to 5 devices). The benefits of using a Cloud-based content hub, meant the course materials were available anywhere, anytime, from any device. Students had access to the OneDrive portal whether they were using an iPad, tablet, any laptop or even a smart phone. They could even revise the learning materials from their smart phone whilst on public transport to and from university, for example.

Using OneNote, the lecturer had the means to provide assessment feedback in a number of different formats, including spoken word recordings to ensure the delivery met the needs of the student best. Lecture content was created and delivered through Microsoft OneNote from a multitude of original files including PowerPoints, Word Documents and PDF’s. The OneNote Notebook for each class was uploaded into a Microsoft OneDrive folder in the cloud and students were granted read-only access to the lecture materials. This gave students access to the materials anywhere, anytime, and from any device.

During the lectures, Dr Urban used a Surface Pro and ScreenBeam wireless presenter to share her screen onto the data projector at the front of the lecture. She was able to then ink on the slides using her Surface pen while teaching complex chemistry content. All annotations into the OneNote Notebook then synchronised automatically to student devices allowing students to concentrate on the teaching rather than attempting to capture copious amounts of notes. The lectures were also recorded on the Surface straight into lecture capture software meaning students who could not attend the lecture would have access at a later date.

What was the impact on students?

There were many benefits to students, the lecturer and faculty involved in implementing this pedagogy. 84% of students found the ability to access lecture materials of great benefit to their studies and there was a 38% deeper engagement with lecture materials when lecture materials were provided during or prior to the lecture so students could actively listen to the session rather than trying to transcribe their notes.

Relieving the need to take detailed notes during the lectures also allowed for greater time to collaborate and problem-solve.  Using a Surface Pro, the lecturer had the freedom to move around the room and they were no longer tied to the front of the class, allowing for greater engagement with the students.

For institutions, the benefits of this approach include:

  • Cost savings on equipment such as whiteboards or document cameras;
  • Ease of implementation which does not require a high technical knowledge;
  • The mobile nature of Surface Pro device allows the same device to be used in lecturers as well as in the office;
  • A single delivery system for the lecturer, with all resources and notes in the one place.

Now is the time to engage students in STEM!

Dr Urban states that particularly in STEM subjects which are “considered to be symbolic in nature, pen interfaces are better suited for visual−spatial content and also provide a better interface to support human expression.”

As we look at figures around careers in the future, it is now move than ever imperative to engage students in the areas of STEM.

“75% of the fast-growing occupations require STEM skills but only 16% of Australian high school graduates pursue degrees in STEM disciplines” (Source: PWC 2015, A smart move: future-proofing Australia’s workforce)

In addition to this:

65% of the teachers suggested that a lack of teacher PD was the biggest barrier to embedding STEM (Source: IDG/Dell Study, Training, Policy obstructing Australian schools expansion of STEM)

This innovative pedagogical approach has demonstrated that a simple framework, using readily accessible technology and easy to set up has a significant improvement on the enjoyment and engagement of students as well as staff. The benefits of engaging students particularly in the areas of STEM will be reaped well into the future.

Congratulations to Dr. Urban for receiving the Widening Participation Award and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education's Award for Good Teaching this year at RMIT for her work in the innovative use of pen-enabled cloud-based methodologies. 

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Comments (1)

  1. Brook Kemp says:

    Ohhh, great idea)

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