Sunday, July 15, 2012

E-learning insights from real-time computer control theory

Greetings from the 7th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE 2011) in Melbourne. There are about 200 delegates at the opening, mostly from Chinese university engineering departments. The conference is about how to educate engineering and computer science students. I will be presenting "A Green Computing Professional Education Course Online" (and slides), tomorrow morning. Andre Oboler, from IEEE Computer Society is here to discuss having more local IEEE-CS activities. The 8th ICCSE 2013 will be in April 2012 in Sri Lanka.

Real-time computer control as a metaphor for online education

The keynote address was from Professor Pedro Albertos,
Instituto Universitario de Automática e Informática Industrial Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (Spain) on "Interaction between computer control design and its implementation". He discussed the problems with the real-time computer control, arguing that real-time computing and control engineering need to be unified. Traditionally control engineering used analogue electronics with continuous measurements. Digital real-time control uses discrete time intervals. It is usually assumed that if there is a timing problem with a real time computer program, the solution is simply to speed up the processing so the time intervals are smaller. Professor Albertos argues that simply speeding up the process is not necessary, as where a feedback loop is used, most of the time the process is within parameters and no changes are required. Instead event based processing can be used, where processing is done when required.

It occurs to me that Professor Albertos' analysis might be a useful metaphor for online education. Face-to-face educaiton, like control engineering assumes the tutor can see the class at all times and provide feedback. "Asynchronous" online education does not have all the students in the same place at the same time. The usually proposed solution to problems with online education is to provide quicker feedback, and ideally to use "synchronous" mode, where the student and tutor are online at the same time. However, this is inconvenient for the student and tutor (just as speeding up real-time computer processes wastes resources). Instead it might be better to have the online education event based, with time limited, so the student and tutor can be confident they will get a response when needed. Control theory has concepts such as "control effort", "open loop" and "closed loop", which could be applied to education.

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