PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education

Long-Distance Relationship

by Alvin P. Sanoff

Prism September 1999 - Cover Story After an extended courtship, technology and education seem ready for the next big step in learning from afar—with a big push from the Internet.

When Chip Webb decided to get a master's degree in electrical engineering three years ago, he thought pursuing an advanced degree meant he would have to take a one-year leave of absence from his job at Lucent Technologies, where he designs integrated circuits. Webb was not keen about losing a year's pay. Moreover, he knew that there was no guarantee that he would get precisely the same job back when he returned from academia to Lucent. Then Webb discovered that he could both get his degree and stay on the job by enrolling in a distance learning program offered by Columbia University's School of Engineering. Columbia puts course lectures on videotapes that are shipped to students every week, complete with homework and project assignments. This meant Webb could "attend class" by sitting in front of his VCR.

It took the 34-year-old Webb two years to get his degree in electrical engineering through Columbia's distance program, as opposed to the one year it would have taken had he gone to school full time. But he has no regrets. "It was the best of both worlds," he says. "I could continue doing my work, take courses at a very good university, learn a lot, and still not have to leave home."

Harnessing the New Medium

A growing number of engineers are following the same path taken by Webb, only, increasingly, instead of taking courses on videotape, they are turning to the World Wide Web for their education. Web-based courses offer the ultimate in convenience—students can log on from home or work at a time that suits them instead of having to go to class at a time that is convenient for the professor and the university.

While videotape comes close to matching the Web in convenience, educators view delivery of courses through videotape as less flexible than Web-based delivery. "With video, a person who travels will also need a VCR to view the lectures. With the Web, they just need a computer and an Internet service provider," says Linda Krute, associate director of the Office of Continuing Engineering Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Colleges and universities are moving rapidly to offer Web-based programs for engineers, and Stanford University may be at the head of the pack. Stanford, which began offering a distance learning program for engineers in 1969, started out delivering courses via one-way video and two-way audio, and five years ago moved to a two-way video system. Then two years ago it launched Stanford Online. Today, the majority of classes that are offered via two-way video are also available online. The difference is that the two-way video courses are held at a specific time and beamed into participating corporations' facilities, while the online courses are available anywhere, anytime. "We think of the engineer as so busy that he can't be locked into taking a course at a given time or place," says Andy DiPaolo, senior associate dean of the Stanford School of Engineering. "We want to provide engineers with choice. The online courses are designed to be available at work, at home, or while traveling."

"We think of the engineer as so busy that he can't be locked into taking a course at a given time or place."

Andy DiPaolo,
Stanford School of Engineering

Stanford currently offers one graduate degree program online—a master's in electrical engineering—with more degree programs to come. Students accepted into the online degree program must meet the same admissions criteria as those who apply to campus-based degree programs. Stanford also offers a number of online courses for credit in such fields as computer science, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, and medical information sciences.

Other universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are also ramping up Web-based master's degree programs in engineering. Illinois launched an online master's degree program in computer science in the spring. Georgia Tech started an entirely Web-based master's program in mechanical engineering this month, and has online master's programs in computer engineering and environmental engineering in the development stage.

In launching Web-based programs, some schools are taking videotapes of courses and putting the contents on the Web using video streaming technology. But that approach doesn't make for the most compelling brand of instruction. Creative instructional design is necessary to develop online courses that fully engage students, say educators. "Producing an online course is similar to making a movie," explains Dale Atkins, director of continuing engineering education at Georgia Tech. "The scenes and the text all have to be orchestrated together. You have to do a lot of planning on the front end." Part of the planning also requires training faculty members to be online facilitators, a far different role than serving as a classroom lecturer.

Continuing Education Tool

Many engineering educators see the greatest growth of Web-based programs occurring in continuing education rather than in degree programs, as more engineers feel they have to upgrade their skills to keep current in a world of ever-changing technology.

"In rapidly evolving areas like computer engineering and computer science, things change from year to year," explains John Gilligan, associate dean for research and graduate programs at North Carolina State University's College of Engineering.  Georgia Tech's Atkins says that "continuing education is growing like gangbusters" and he predicts that more corporations will be turning to universities to train employees in areas that are outside a firm's core competency. In a business world that is increasingly lean, "corporations can't afford to send their people away for a week, yet they want more folks to have training," explains Atkins. That view is seconded by Robin Kreiter, manager of worldwide satellite training for Motorola University: "We are increasingly trying to find ways to maximize people's time so that they don't have to come to the classroom during work hours. Those who can find ways to get training in their off hours will be more valued."

But Does It Work?

Studies show that there is a large potential market for Web-based education. For example, when the Office of Continuing Engineering Education of the University of Illinois sent out a survey to people on its mailing list, it discovered that 88 percent of the respondents said they would be interested in taking a course on the Internet. Still, there are skeptics. James O. Bryant, Jr., associate dean and director of Engineering Extension Services at Auburn University, says he is not sure that students are served any better by Web-based education than by videotape. He says that a survey of the program's distance students last year found that videotape "was their overwhelming choice." Bryant wonders if the shift to the Web is being driven less by students than by institutions who "feel the need to offer such programs to be current."

Such skepticism notwithstanding, preliminary research suggests that Web-based engineering education is effective. For example, a study done at the University of Illinois found that those students taking graduate courses in electrical engineering on the Internet get higher grades and seem more engaged than students taking the same course using videotape. Generally, research on the effectiveness of Web-based education remains sketchy. But those involved in Web-based programs say that students enrolled in graduate and continuing education tend to be mature and highly motivated, and the results of the study done at Illinois likely reflect the seriousness of the students.

"The Internet and the Web are upon us. That's where I see the future."

Peter Graybash,
formerly of AMP, Inc.

By contrast, those who have used distance education to teach undergraduate engineering courses to traditional-age students have had less positive experiences. James Scudder, program chair of the electrical/mechanical engineering technology degree program at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that "it is hard for 18-year-olds to have the discipline to study on their own without the reinforcement" that comes from being in a regular class. More mature undergraduates—people in their upper 20s and 30s who generally are employed full time, tend to do far better in distance education courses, says Scudder.

Although the number of Web-based programs offered by colleges and universities is increasing, many corporations have been relatively slow to make such courses available to their employees. Rohm and Haas, a specialty chemical company in Spring House, Pennsylvania, offers courses to its employees through an affiliation with Lehigh University. Ted Goldman, the firm's research training and development department manager, says they are very interested in the use of the Internet for learning, "but as a company we don't do anything in that area yet."

Laurel Townsend, university programs manager for Lucent Technologies in Holmdel, New Jersey, tells a similar story. While Lucent makes courses from 18 different colleges and universities available to its employees, only some of the courses are Web-based. "We are not extensively into the Web yet," says Townsend, "but that is where we are heading. The Web is so convenient and cost effective for everybody. It is labor-intensive at the origination site. But for industry, it is not labor-intensive at all. Administration would be very easy at our end."

Clearly, engineering education on the Internet is in its early stages. But as colleges and universities become more adept at offering courses online and as technology improves, making video easier to watch on computers, the popularity of Web-based engineering programs seems certain to grow. The daily demands on today's engineers make that virtually inevitable. Says Peter Graybash, former manager of engineering education programs at AMP, Inc., in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: "What engineers are saying is that the demands of their jobs are such that they can't get away from work. They are working 60 hours a week. So any education they get has to be at their convenience. They feel that they won't get anything in the way of advanced education unless they get it through distance. The Internet and the Web are upon us. That's where I see the future."

Alvin P. Sanoff, a former assistant managing editor of U.S. News & World Report, is senior vice president of Maguire Associates, a higher education market research and consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland.

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