Online Engineering Education

Online Engineering Education 

For online methods to become widely accepted as a standard
part of engineering education delivery systems, a wide variety of elements need to be understood, promulgated, and accepted by the engineering professorial, administrations, and students.
Questions to be addressed by the professorial include the following: 

 How can we ensure that students will learn better in an online

 What are the teaching strategies we need to understand that are different from the traditional classroom?

 Why would we want to teach online?

 How can we make the technology work?

 How do we decide which resources make sense to use for an
online or an on-campus course? 

Are additional resources required?

Questions for engineering administrators are largely resource driven;e.g.:
 What resources are necessary to serve the needs of online

 What will be the cost of maintaining a course management system? 
What are the best ways to support faculty?

 Are teaching loads increased, decreased, or the same if more online courses are taught?

 What are the trade-offs in faculty time devoted to instruction between online and on-campus teaching? 

 Will faculty be satisfied teaching online?

 What will happen with student satisfaction, will it remain the
same, improve, or deteriorate?
 What will parents say about their children taking online courses?
Students, of coursse, will be concerned about their academic experience:

 Will this online course count the same as the one on campus?

 Do we have to have special software to access the class?

 Can we work from home (or my dorm)?

 When do we have to participate?

 Will the degree or credential be the same as for on-campus

 Will we learn as much online as we would on campus?

A. What We Need to Know

1) Blending methodologies: Blended learning is sometimes defined
as an optimal combination of face-to-face and online education
that improves learning and the satisfaction of instructors and
students at a reasonable cost . Blended education is touted as a
means to (1) conserve classroom utilization, laboratory time, and effort, (2) create convenience by time shifting student and instructor learning, (3) improve learning through practices such as bringing distant experts into the classroom, or (4) organize groups of learners located in many different places . Presently, it appears that blending is viewed as a means to bring online education into the core educational activity of college campuses.

Interesting research questions include the following: How much
face-to-face time is needed to optimize learning, cost, and satisfaction?

Does the amount of time vary by discipline and topic? Can
one, for example, more easily teach computer coding online because of the easy sharing of computer code (as compared to a course requiring hands-on access)? How does one most effectively utilize available face-to-face time? How is optimization between online and face-to-face time achieved? What are the most advantageous combinations of blending methods and time ?

2) Teaching online via different pedagogies: How should different
pedagogies be deployed online? The traditional lecture is no
problem—it can be duplicated in a synchronous broadcast model in
which lectures are viewed at the same time they are produced or
recorded for later playback . Synchronous online systems can
permit nearly the same level of interaction as in typical classrooms.
However, constructivist approaches are more difficult . What are
the best ways to construct knowledge in teams, share, investigate,
build, and present? The optimal ways to teach engineering are not
well understood by almost any standard. 

Colleges such as Olin College are experimenting with the so-called “do-learn”  paradigms in which students, from the outset, are thrust into “doing” (e.g., experimenting, designing, building) while “learning” what they need to know to be successful as they “do.”

Stanford University has pioneered courses that engage students
in the real world at a distance. For example, there has been a ten year history of engaging graduate mechanical engineering students
in work with corporate partners at a distance at Stanford .

Courses focused on team-based design have made use of the Internet and other electronic tools, not only for implementing a geographically dispersed learning environment, but also for assessing performance outcomes. It has been shown that the overall quality of the designs produced by these distributed design teams stands up well to industry standards. Stanford has also been active in work on global learning with cross-disciplinary teams.

The most ambitions of these efforts has been development of a problem-based learning course that engages architecture, structural engineering, and construction management students from universities in the United States, Europe, and Japan, including Stanford University; UC Berkeley; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Georgia Tech; Kansas University; Stanford Japan Center in Kyoto, Japan; Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan; University of Ljubljana in Slovenia; Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany; ETH Zurich and FHA in Switzerland; Strathclyde University in Glasgow, United Kingdom; KTH in Stockholm, Sweden; and TU Delft in the Netherlands. The course engages faculty, practitioners, and students from different disciplines who are geographically distributed but connected through the Internet and other electronic
media .
These types of learning activities for engineering work well and
are thought to be a useful model for more robust implementations
in online and/or blended venues. Nevertheless, many colleges subscribe to the “learn-do” paradigm, that is, learn all the things you need to know prior to applying the knowledge. The professoriate will not likely reach a decision in the near term about which of these methods (or combinations) is best.

3) Assessment: An early promise of technology was in the area of
assessment of student learning and attitudes. Implementing easy ways to secure rapid feedback from students in the classroom (instant response indicators, for example) or measuring the use of
materials (as done in course management systems) is commonplace.

Surveys for formative assessment are less well used, at least in part
because of the difficulty in creating surveys and motivating students to complete them. Some concerns have appeared about invasion of privacy (e.g., monitoring when a student does the homework) or matching work from students with other source materials in plagiarism- detection machines . Instant interaction online works well in synchronous teaching tools (e.g., products like Webex, Elluminate, or Centra ) in which students can raise hands or vote online even though they are not collocated.

What We Need to Do
1) Improve the quality of teaching and learning: Many studies
have claimed no significant difference in test scores and satisfaction surveys between fully online and fully face-to-face courses although there are clearly problems in interpreting media differences. Nevertheless, 75 percent of respondents (including faculty and administrators) to the Sloan Consortium 2003 survey indicated that they thought online learning would be better than
on-campus instruction in three years . 

Better in what way? Two possibilities are providing more convenience or producing learning outcomes that are better. Creating convenience is straightforward simply by introducing some number of online sessions in a typical engineering class. Not missing a classroom session by (a) attending remotely, (b) reviewing a recorded session, or (c) time shifting with an asynchronous session provides the simplest of conveniences. 
Introducing such convenience increases student satisfaction, as the traditional on-campus class becomes a blended mixture of face-to-face and online. More difficult is defining how online courses can provide stronger learning experiences. Learning outcomes can be improved using online techniques such as simulations , visits from remote luminaries, or providing cross-institution learning experiences that are online , as well as by improving continuous communication among students. The most significant gains will be in areas in which benefit is brought to the traditional classroom that could not have been secured without the online component.

One possible improvement with online capabilities is in teaching
the basics. Providing self-paced modules to students allows additional time for participants in instructor-led courses to engage in interactive exercises. The use of self-paced modules and modules that reduce the amount instructor time for preparation can be found on sites such as Merlot and NEEDS. Experiments are currently in progress that could provide significant benefits to technology-based learning that might become part of a more complete online education package. For example, the Connexions  project provides a means of organizing knowledge that many people can access over the Web, including many reusable materials in electrical engineering.
2) Reduce costs: Cost reduction, while holding quality level
and/or improving quality, can be achieved in various ways. Cost reductions can occur through providing excellent simulations, learning materials, and instructor guides that are used by many students.
Many simulations already exist (e.g., the capstone business simulation); a significant number of useful simulation materials are
shared among faculty at such Web sites as Merlot  or NEEDS. Reinventing ways to present materials, organize topics, build
simulations, and test takes remarkable amounts of instructor time.
Sharing and reusing materials should lower costs for course crecreation. More work on organizing methods to support teaching and learning through creating and promoting the use of excellent
teaching materials will surely save valuable instructor time. The
most valuable use of instructor time is in the organization of pedagogy and discussion with students. Other costs savings can be found in delivery and administrative areas.
3) Improve student satisfaction: Online education often improves
the satisfaction of students by providing written learning frameworks on course Web pages or course management pages. Students who need step-by-step instructions can follow an explicit guide online. Similarly, students who wish to explore outside the confines of class instruction can be provided links to an expanded set of learning materials. Other elements known to improve student satisfaction are: rapid feedback (easily provided by self-testing quizzes); time shifting; sense of community built from online discussions; assistive materials keyed to level of need; and improved peer-to-peer interaction (which will also impact quality positively).

4) Improve faculty satisfaction: Two major keys to faculty satisfaction in online education are (1) understanding and utilizing online capabilities in a way that provides additional value to their academic lives and (2) recognition. The first key may be realized in
multiple ways; for example, increasing the ability and competence
of students while using time more effectively. The second key is for
faculty to improve their teaching through online methods and receive greater recognition, both from students and from their  administration. Online materials can provide real gains in knowledge organization and reduce the amount of time needed to organize a course over repeated semesters. Taken in combination, the online teaching experience can be more satisfying for faculty.

5) Provide mathematics and design capabilities: One key to
adopting online methods in engineering education is to provide
engineering instructors the capability of using mathematics and
design tools easily at a distance. Popular course management systems provide equation editors, and many other products exist. Equations often can be displayed in slides, via text-created
documents, or embedded in text documents posted in discussion
or content areas of course support systems. However, none of the
solutions created provide the ease of physically writing or sketching on a blackboard (or white board). Tablet PCs provide one way of solving the writing and sketching problem, but still only approach the use of the physical blackboard. Online handwriting
recognition is still not in the mainstream, but could well become more widely employed in online education. 

Similarly, improvements to online design tools that permit students to easily create system diagrams, including electronic and mechanical designs, will assist in the acceptance of online education in the mainstream of engineering education. For example, current online electronic design automation (EDA) tools typically require large files, creating some level of difficulty in sharing designs .

However, shared viewers, collaboration tools, and the ability to
import and export between tools will assist in integrating online learning and engineering design. Various other tools may provide improvements as well. For example, concept maps have the ability to provide shared collaborative, graphic environments across the global network. The capability of concept maps to support shared brainstorming, discussion, and visualization provides interactivity that has not been  readily available online.

6) Create better laboratory facilities for online engineering
education: There are currently two approaches to implementing
online labs. The first is the use of Web-based simulations, sometimes referred to as virtual labs. Educational simulations have
been shown to be equivalent to physical labs for explaining and reinforcing concepts . As an interactive experience, there is little
reason why simulations cannot serve to meet several of the ABET
engineering competencies. 

Simulations provide some, but limited,
capability for experimentation. On the other hand, as limited
computational experiences, they cannot always accurately demonstrate the application of theory or concepts to the physical world. Although simple simulations are relatively inexpensive, the cost rises dramatically as the simulation more closely models the physical world. Educational simulations have typically been limited in scope and accuracy. In contrast, simulations (e.g., for electronic design) used in industrial practice for verifying designs and checking faults are orders of magnitude more expensive than educational simulations .

The second approach is use of the Internet to allow students to
manipulate and observe real equipment and instrumentation located
at a distance . This approach is often referred to as remote
labs. Remote labs deal with real phenomena and equipment
and can be used to build skill as well as knowledge .

It appears certain that virtual and remote labs will gradually replace
some traditional on-campus labs and supplement others. In
online education, these anytime, anywhere labs will become increasingly common . It remains to be seen, however, if they
will be accepted to the extent needed to make fully online undergraduate engineering degrees possible.

7) Allow students to be virtually away: Students at traditional
college campuses often operate in the “bubble” of not knowing
what goes on in the outside world. This observation is especially
true for engineering students. Many colleges provide experiences
away in which students can experience other cultures or other
campuses, for example, during a junior year abroad. Unfortunately,
most engineering students are not able to take advantage of
such experiences because of the multiple required courses or
electives that must be fulfilled.

Fortunately, online education can provide some of the desired world-connectivity experiences. 
For example:  Students can take online courses at other institutions.
Taking courses in topics not offered at an institution is one
clear way to provide an experience away to students. Another
method is to provide some blending by actually sending
students to spend a short time at a remote college offering
the online course.  Collaborative teams can be formed across institutions . Teams of students at multiple institutions conducting projects together via the Internet can provide a real-world learning experience similar to post-matriculation work.

 Virtual internships can be offered. In a blended virtual internship,
students can join global teams in industry to work on real problems.
 Remote experts can be brought to the blended classroom.
The easiest way to add value rapidly to a blended environment
is to add remote discussants to an online classroom experience.
 Students can go on study tours, for example abroad, and continue
to take courses at their home institutions.

8) Create partnerships: Partnerships represent an underutilized
capability for online engineering education that has the potential
to change the educational process. The concept is to organize
scarce resources at multiple colleges to provide much more than
can be done in a single specialty at a single college. The National
Science Foundation recognized the discipline organization strategy
by creating the VaNTH Biomedical Engineering consortium
in 1998, which links multiple universities in the biomedical engineering discipline . While not specifically focused on online
organization, this consortium points the way toward linked specialty areas in engineering education that can benefit from online methodologies.

9) Use technology for online learning: Much has been written on
the use of information technology in engineering education (see review). Using a variety of these technologies, ranging from
high-speed connectivity to course management systems, can assist
online education. A key question is what can be done with technology that will facilitate learning engineering that cannot be done without technology? Table 4 outlines examples that illustrate how technology permits the implementation of online paradigms that would be difficult without technology and how each of these examples affects quality, scale, and breadth.

Sloan Consortium
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
Babson College
Sloan Consortium
Purdue University
Sloan Consortium
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

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