Online Education: Learn While You Earn

By John Varrasi, ASME Public Information


 

Online coursework is growing as an attractive education option for mechanical engineers, particularly MEs currently in the workforce who seek graduate degrees.

With an expanding array of online programs now offered at universities across the country, engineers can shop around for a course of study that fits personal and business schedules and that is tailored for specific career interests and pathways. While in-person interaction between student and professor is lacking in the online setting, an increasing number of engineers are drawn to the convenience of receiving an education anytime, anywhere.

Growing Trend

Online education, or distance learning, is bucking the traditional model in university training, in which students report to classrooms and lecture halls to receive instruction, turn in assignments, and take tests and examinations.  In fact, distance learning is transforming education for engineers and other professionals, removing the campus from the educational experience and replacing it with the home computer.  Many young engineers, far more steeped in email communication and web navigation than their older counterparts, actually prefer computer-based remote learning and perform better in a self-study regime compared to the classroom environment.

“I am not an auditory learner,” said Richard L. Scott, a structural analyst at Raytheon Co., who is currently enrolled in an online program for his Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Arlington.  “I prefer to study a textbook rather than listen to a professor speak, and corresponding via email and text messages keeps communication concise, while reducing wasted time.”

Scott earned his M.S. degree in mechanical engineering online, also at UT Arlington.  The course material Scott received was the very material presented in lectures and classroom lessons, which his professors recorded and delivered via the web within only hours of the live instruction.  Some of Scott’s engineering professors employed web-based tools such as Blackboard, while others sent notes, homework, and exams by email.  The exams were either proctored off campus or taken on campus with the class.

The experience has enabled Scott to further his education while remaining in a salaried job.  Furthermore, Raytheon covered the cost of Scott’s continuing education at UT Arlington, providing financial assistance for tuition and books.

“Among the benefits of an online program is the opportunity for working engineers to continue their education while earning a salary providing the needed financial resources for education,” said Karen A. Thole, professor and head of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.  “In addition, the opportunity to stay in a job allows a richness in combining coursework with valuable work experience, akin to an undergraduate gaining work experience through an internship.”

Penn State, which for decades has maintained one of the most respected traditional engineering education programs in the world, nonetheless actively promotes remote learning and markets the university’s broad range of online offerings to the engineering community.  To Penn State and many other universities around the country, distance learning is not the ugly duckling in their educational portfolios; but rather, a viable education option with many benefits and pluses.  In fact, according to a recent study by the Online Learning Consortium, 67 percent of academic professionals rate online education courses equal or superior to face-to-face instruction.

“ASU is seeing rapid growth in both the types of online programs and the number of students enrolled in these programs,” explained Scott Danielson, associate professor of engineering at Arizona State University, which offers six different start dates per academic year for online applicants.  “The growth in online degrees for students in ASU’s electrical engineering, software engineering, and information technology disciplines has been explosive.”

ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) audits distance learning programs with the same rigor as the hundreds of traditional engineering education programs that come under ABET review each year, further proof of the escalating popularity of the online format.  “ABET is one hundred percent supportive of new deliveries of educational services,” said Joe Sussman, chief accreditation officer at the Board, “provided that the internal quality management system is in place and our standards of accreditation are met.”

Drawbacks

While Scott of Raytheon enjoys the self-study aspect of an online curriculum, he considers the lack of face time with professors and classmates to be drawbacks to distance learning, particularly for students who require those interactions for effective learning and retention.  Academics agree.

“From our point of view, it is easier to gage a student’s understanding of course material based on that student’s interaction with other classmates in a traditional classroom setting,” explained Thole.

Completing laboratory assignments could be a significant obstacle for students enrolled in an online program, particularly in the case of schools that require lab experiments to be integrated in the class.  “Probably the most commonly cited drawback of remote learning in the engineering fields pertains to the difficulty involved in accomplishing the laboratory experience in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” said Danielson.

Still, the benefits of online education seem to outweigh the drawbacks, as more and more engineers are embracing the convenience of completing educational requirements in a manner that fits work and personal life situations.