ASEE Prism Magazine
Can Distance Education Be Unlocked?
A New Era
Blazing an Entrpreneurial Trail
Comments
Briefings
Refractions
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Professional Opportunities - Classifieds
Last Word
Back Issues

Can Distance Education Be Unlocked?

  - By Thomas K. Grose  

April 2003 Cover - photo illustration by  Matsu/PhotonicaOnly a handful of schools offer undergraduate engineering degrees online, and there are some very good reasons why more haven't taken the plunge.

Michele A. Eller began classes at the University of North Dakota for her bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in September 1994. Because she has a B.A. in business, she already had about 40 percent of the required courses for the engineering degree in hand, including the math and science. But even though she never took a break from her studies, Eller won't receive her hard-won diploma until this May, when she completes her last course. Why did it take her nearly nine years? Well, for one thing, Eller, 36, lives in St. Paul, Minn., and received her degree via North Dakota's distance-learning program. Moreover, she has from the start held down a demanding full-time job at 3M, the St. Paul-based consumer products company. So she had to complete her degree taking only one or two classes a semester. That's a long, slow slog when you have 102 credit hours to complete. And, certainly, there were times when it seemed too much for her. But now she has a "great new job" at 3M. "I'm glad I stuck with it," says Eller, who realized after joining 3M 13 years ago that chemical engineering, not business, was her true calling.

American industry is chock full of Michele Ellers, technicians and other wanna-be engineers who have the skills, brains, and desire to be engineers but don't have a degree or have the wrong kind of sheepskin. And they haven't the time or money to return to school full time. Now it would seem that for these workers their time has come. Thanks to the Internet, distance education is booming. Schools like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that once shunned anything but on-campus education are climbing aboard the virtual-classroom bandwagon. Indeed, programs for graduate engineering students are mushrooming. But for engineering hopefuls in need of undergraduate distance-learning programs, the pickings remain slim. Very slim. Despite some demand for distance undergraduate degrees, the number of engineering schools actually offering them is less than a handful.

What's the problem? Well, says Edwin C. Jones Jr., "It's hard work and it's expensive. And there is no obvious payoff." That tough assessment comes from the retired electrical engineering professor who helped launch Iowa State University's distance-degree program in 1996 and is a proponent of distance education. But engineering bachelor's degrees don't easily lend themselves to distance-learning methods. Indeed, how to give students laboratory experience is a particularly thorny problem. "Course content should drive course delivery, and engineering education (at the undergraduate level) does not lend itself to online delivery," explains Helene Demont, who oversees the engineering outreach program at the University of Wisconsin. Stanford's senior associate dean in the school of engineering, Andy DiPaolo, agrees: "An (undergraduate) engineering degree is tougher to do electronically, especially the labs." Nevertheless, Jones and other academics believe that such programs can be made to work.

Currently, only North Dakota has a publicly-available, accredited distance-degree program that could be called thriving. Iowa State has nearly 20 students enrolled in its program, but added no new ones this school year. Officials there are in the process of deciding its future. Michigan Tech has an ongoing B.S.E. program, but it's offered only to corporations, mainly GM, which funded its launch in 1989. Michigan Tech is, however, keen to open the program to the public and offer a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, and that could happen this fall. The University of South Florida in Tampa is likewise eager to offer an undergraduate engineering degree through its distance program, once it solves technical hitches. The University of Minnesota began offering a distance degree a few years ago, but dropped it after only a year of operation. And the University of Florida opted not to fund a degree program designed by its school of engineering because officials felt it would gobble precious resources at a school brimming with on-campus students. That's a line echoed at many other schools, like the University of Michigan and Stanford. "Our focus at the undergraduate level is not on nontraditional students. And that's probably true of a good number of our peer institutions," explains Ed Borbley, director of Michigan's Center for Professional Development.

There are 77 students enrolled in North Dakota's program. Since it was launched in 1989—initially as a private offering to 3M employees only—it has graduated nine students in both electrical and mechanical engineering. It also offers degrees in chemical and civil engineering, the latter added only last fall. The medium of choice at North Dakota has been videotape, but this fall it's moving the entire program online. Iowa State's program, which offers a degree in electrical engineering, is now entirely online. It has also graduated nine students so far, and each took about five years or longer to obtain their degree. Michigan Tech has awarded 20 degrees so far, and another seven will be eligible to graduate in early June. Students usually take just one course a semester, so the entire process can take 7 to 9 years. "It's a long-term commitment," says Martha Banks-Sikarskie, Michigan Tech's director of Extended University Programs. It has 30 students enrolled, and 10 graduate this spring.

 

The Lab Problem

Clearly the biggest hurdle to offering distance engineering degrees to undergraduates is the amount of lab work required. How do you get a dispersed student body into laboratories? That's the issue holding up South Florida University's distance degree program. Iowa State, North Dakota, and Michigan Tech require students to visit labs, either on campus or at community colleges. North Dakota's students must visit its Grand Forks campus for up to two weeks during summers for a round of lab work. For Michele Eller, campus visits were hard because office work piled up while she was gone, and the labs were very concentrated and intense. But the trips were worthwhile, she adds. "It was a benefit to talk to the faculty, face to face."

Fortunately, Internet technology is making it easier to replicate laboratory experiences online with either virtual labs or remote-controlled robotics. Iowa State, North Dakota, and Michigan Tech are starting to put some of their labs online. But virtual or robotic labs may not offer a total solution. Edward Alef, manager for private planning and curriculum development at General Motors' Technical Education Program, says that even with evolving technology, "It is still a challenge. You need to break through firewalls, get into people's computers." And some lab work defies online technology. "We tried to create a welding lab online," Demont recalls. "It was just laughable. It never even got off of the ground."

Some educators are suspicious of virtual labs, even when they do work. "It's not quite the whole, hands-on experience," says Jim Melsa, Iowa State's dean of engineering. Yet Melsa admits it's hard to say what "real-world" experience is these days, and virtual labs may be the best approximation. That's because many of today's engineers rarely step inside of a lab, remaining instead glued to computer keyboards. In fact, traditional civil engineering students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., never use physical labs in their classes, only virtual ones. Still, North Dakota and Michigan Tech want to retain some physical labs. Says John Watson, dean of North Dakota's school of engineering: "We still think on-campus visits are helpful and necessary. We do not want to do away with (labs) totally."

Another big hurdle to offering distance degrees to engineering undergraduates: The amount of time it takes to earn one. Even for committed, disciplined students like Michele Eller it takes many years to reach completion. That's another reason why the University of Michigan remains uninterested. "Undergraduate course are just so long and intensive," Borbley says with a sigh. In comparison, an engineering master's degree usually requires only 24 to 30 hours, and no lab work. "Graduate-level engineering is virtually ideal for distance learning," says Arthur Zirger, an assistant to the dean of engineering at the University of Florida. "There's no research and around 10 courses that can be covered in two to three years."

Not surprisingly, distance students who enroll in undergraduate programs typically are older technicians with full-time jobs. "They have to put a lot of effort into it to make it happen," Iowa State's Melsa says. Eller managed it by dedicating—on top of her work schedule—at least 20 hours a week to her classes. She admits "there were times when I wavered. It was hard, and I'm a committed person who doesn't quit easily." At one point, one of her managers at 3M stiffened her resolve by encouraging her to not give up. GM's Alef says the need to advance a career is usually the strongest motivation. "It's a competitive world out there." Eller not only loves her new job in product testing, but it puts her on a great career path, she says. "I can go in a lot of directions from here."

Most students have a range of transfer credits behind them, so they're not starting from nothing. In fact, both Iowa State and Michigan Tech require students to have either an associate's degree, or a similar number of credits, including the basic math, physics, and chemistry. So, in essence, the students are completing only the second half of the degree. Banks-Sikarskie says Michigan Tech has to uphold its national reputation for excellence and difficulty. "This is not a slacker's degree," she warns. But even half a degree can take seven to nine years to complete at Michigan Tech because students take just one class a semester. At Iowa State, Melsa says, students often take two courses a semester and can, conceivably, finish the final half of the degree in four years. To take more than two courses while holding down a full-time job is too daunting, Eller says. She knows; she tried it one semester. "That was not a good time."

Students in the North Dakota program can, in theory, start from scratch. But most come in with a fair number of credits. Lynette Krenelka, North Dakota's director of distance degrees and distance engineering estimates that 75 percent of its distance engineering students are nontraditional and have a range of educational backgrounds; many have associate's degrees or a similar amount of credits, and a fair number have bachelor's degrees in other fields. Students can also conceivably get credit for tech-school classes, industrial experience, and military training. No one involved in offering distance degrees to undergraduates thinks they're a good idea for traditional 18- to 22-year-old engineering students. Explains Wisconsin's Demont: "I'm not sure the typical 18-year-old has the discipline to do it from a distance."

Accreditation of distance-learning degrees has not been a problem. At Michigan Tech, Iowa State, and North Dakota, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited their distance degrees as part of their overall engineering programs. That suits colleges who don't want distance degrees considered second- class. "What we do is identical. The same professors, the same courses…nothing is different. The only difference is in the delivery, and ABET is happy with that," North Dakota's Watson says. Educators say that ABET's relatively new assessment procedure, Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000), which stresses outcomes, makes it easier to prove the value of distance-learning degrees: Just show the outcomes for both sets of students don't vary. And that's been easy, Melsa says. At Iowa State, test scores of distance students "by and large, were better than those of students on campus."

Still, the long-term commitment means distance degrees are costly to schools, too. They must build and maintain an infrastructure to support the program. And it requires faculty members who are willing to cooperate and sometimes put in extra hours. Distance-education students require more time and hand-holding than their traditional counterparts. That means exchanging lots of e-mails and phone calls with far-flung students who need advice, a different approach to preparing and managing courses, and more students to assess. "Unless you have a faculty that's willing to do it, it's not going to work. You need the faculty to buy in," Watson says. However, Banks-Sikarskie notes, because distance-education requires professors to teach differently and think of new ways to deliver their course material, it's an opportunity for them to improve their teaching skills, and to develop new and better methods that also benefit on-campus students. North Dakota gives teachers involved in its distance program a bit more cash, but Watson admits it's not enough to fully repay them for their time. Iowa State hasn't given extra compensation to its teaching staff because the two-way audio/visual system it was using meant teachers could handle questions from distance students as part of class time. That may change now that it's gone to an online delivery system.

 

To Be Or Not To Be

Obviously, for schools the question is whether there is enough demand to make all that effort worthwhile. Certainly, Michigan Tech and South Florida think so, otherwise they wouldn't be considering diving in. Haniph Latchman, the professor of electrical and computer engineering at Florida who assembled its ditched program, is likewise convinced there is a "major market in technicians with associate's degrees" working in corporate America. "They're out there," he says. But North Dakota's Watson warns against overestimating demand, in part because high fees add yet another barrier. For instance, North Dakota charges from $350 to $450 a credit hour; that's at least three times more than what traditional students pay. Even so, Watson says, the program is not a moneymaker: "It's pretty much of a wash at this time." Michigan Tech's industry-supported program also hovers around the break-even point. Still, Banks-Sikarskie says, risk analyses are positive enough that the school wants to go ahead with a public expansion of its program. Michigan Tech might be willing to swallow some early losses, she adds, if it's confident they'll eventually be recouped.

One note of caution comes from Alef of General Motors. He says that while GM is happily paying for about 20 to 30 employees nationally to chase B.S. degrees, it has around 400 in certificate programs. At GM, a technician can take all the accredited classes required for a B.S. in engineering, absent the liberal arts courses, and be certified for a job designated for an engineer. That person may eventually—with GM's assistance—go ahead and get the degree, but it's not required to advance his or her career. So it's possible that some demand can be met without conferring full degrees.

Educators say most of the pressure to offer distance undergraduate degrees in engineering comes from industry, and that industry cooperation is crucial. It needn't be direct financial assistance, like the relationship between GM and Michigan Tech. But it helps if working students get things like tuition assistance, flexible schedules, and other support from their employers. Students who go it alone with little or no corporate support often take hiatuses from the program, dropping in and out as work schedules and finances dictate. And that gives schools administrative headaches. But academics also say that despite industry requests for these degrees, its support waxes and wanes, usually to the beat of the economy. When a downturn hits, companies often find employee education an expendable item. Notes North Dakota's Watson: "Not all companies are willing to put their money where their mouth is." That's a big reason why Iowa State's program is on hold. Because of anticipated indirect industry support, Iowa State expected to have 30 to 50 new students a year; but 10 or 12 was more the reality.

Alef, of GM, admits that corporate enthusiasm for education can be fickle, but claims GM's never wavers. "But you need higher-ups who believe education is important to keeping your competitive edge." General Motors doesn't cut education and training during downturns because it's demonstrably a good investment. Alef's department has documented that ideas that come from employees who've received educational upgrades have saved the company $77 million. Even to a multibillion dollar company like GM, that's a cool pile of cash.

 

Bigger Arena

North Dakota and Iowa State are looking beyond their state borders to find new sources of revenue. Watson says there's much interest in distance degrees in Asia. "There is a lot of demand for engineering degrees there, but very few places available," he says. So North Dakota may attempt a trial program in Singapore. Asian students, however, will likely be of traditional age. And while that means they should complete the program more quickly, there is the aforementioned doubt that younger students have the discipline to work on their own. Watson admits it may prove too difficult. Iowa State is considering forming alliances with community colleges around the country and taking its program nationwide. "We would keep control," Melsa says, "but with video streaming and the Internet, you can be anywhere." Iowa State is America's seventh largest engineering school, and the college hopes its reputation will leverage a national launch. Florida's Zirger suggests another collaborative option: A national program that offers online under-graduate degrees in engineering but with courses provided by a network of universities. Funding, he says, could come from industry and engineering societies. That would ensure that demand is met, but the onus of cost and administration wouldn't be on just one school.

There are, of course, intangible rewards for engineering schools that offer distance degrees to undergraduates. The same technologies that allow students scattered all over the map to hear lectures remotely and work in virtual labs can also change teaching on campus. Already some schools let traditional students monitor two lectures a week online, as long as they attend a third. And virtual labs may eventually be seen as crucial to the learning experience as physical ones. Also, Alef says, schools that embrace distance learning develop closer ties to industry, and that leads to faculty contacts, research grants, and consulting work. "Some schools see the strategic value of distance learning," he says.

Then there's the altruistic God-and-country rationale, that offering degrees to working adults who want them is a service that some schools should provide to their country, state, and profession. "There are good reasons to offer it even if it's not a huge money spinner," Zirger says. And few engineering educators would deny the satisfaction that comes in helping people like Michele Eller realize a dream.

 

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at tgrose@asee.org.

 
Prism@asee.org