Online Education: Is it the New Norm for Engineering Education?

Mar 29, 2019

by Jean Thilmany ASME.org

by ASME Strategic Issues Committee

Yale University offers 42 free courses. Stanford University opens new platforms to experiment and expand in online education. Stanford also collaborates with the Khan Academy (free online tutorials for K-12, for example) to offer education at more levels.

Online education (OE) is storming into the educational system. With 10% growth in online enrollments in the US compared with 2% growth in the overall higher education student population, it’s a huge opportunity for educational entrepreneurs to operate independently of the institutional educational system. (Babson Survey and College Board data, 2011) Engineering educators pioneered in early forms of virtual and online education, so they are invested in its future.

Today’s leap forward is the MOOC, the Massive Open Online Course, which is a course offered free and worldwide on the Internet to anyone who wants to sign up for it. Harvard, MIT, and Stanford Universities are among the top-tier institutions offering MOOCs.

Much of free online learning today developed with philanthropic support. There are for-profit companies, such as Udemy, and collaborative projects like Coursera (33 universities involved, and 1.6 million students) and Udacity. Some universities make money from students enrolled in the online versions of their degree courses. Six million students in higher education took at least 1 online course in 2010. (Babson Survey and The College Board data, 2011) Arizona State University has 10,000 recorded engineering lectures. Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley are offering online courses with proctored exams. Stanford’s new internal MOOC Class2Go, is an internal platform, designed to be an open space for online learning and research, and is a “strategic move to study how Stanford can best deliver online education in the long run.”

Key Points to Remember

  • Online education is likely a large future component of all education locally and globally
  • Ensuring its quality will demand new systems, watchdogs
  • Opportunity for collaboration across systems, and among nontraditional education partners, will open up

Globally, OE promises to make top-tier information and education available to students who previously had no access. However, that access remains uneven. Only 1 in 3 people use the Web globally, less than 1 in 6 in Africa.

It also can be unpopular with students, for example, in Korea, where Korean students prefer attending a university in person. For some US undergraduates OE represents an unwelcome “inverted model” of education in which they watch lectures at home and engage in group work with faculty and other students in face to face class time. The next generation of digital native students is more likely to accept the inverted model as their “normal.” Students may see OE as less valuable because it is online. They will expect cheaper or free offerings. Both those factors could affect revenue generation.

Some educational Institutions, which have a significant amount of social and regulatory drag, not to mention sunk investment, may develop new hybrid models to be able to slow OE’s impact on their traditional models. On the other hand, the new tools could overturn almost every belief and practice of higher education. Today, universities are still in the substitution phase of the technology. Can OE do the job cheaper, faster, with lower overhead? In this stage, it is reasonable to expect fear and resistance as jobs and expectations change. In the next stage, OE stakeholders will discover new approaches to education that are not based on today’s university models. In the long term, everything about higher education will be up for digital transformation. Universities may become more purely research institutions, with education of undergraduates outsourced. If this happens, student engineers could find themselves between different learning camps.

A recent report by Bain hints that OE is an inevitable choice by mid- to lower-ranked universities that are financially overextended. (Bain report, pdf) Top-ranked universities have other motivations for OE and MOOCs, building their educational brand worldwide, for example.

Two things to think about: expect a big sorting out of quality and value in the next few years. It is important to update OE awareness and knowledge frequently—by taking an OE course, for example.

The next generation of engineering students, brought up on sites like the Khan Academy in K-12, will expect to use OE—how can engineering education be adapted now to meet their future expectations?

Implications for ASME:

  • Publishing will be affected—digital technical textbooks offered at one price that includes future updates. (Digital book future) This changes expectations for post degree publications. Should ASME develop new digital book models?
  • Drop-out rates, particularly for MOOCs, are currently high, and may limit the ability of OE to develop qualified new engineers. Could ASME develop better means of self-selection and qualification of OE for engineers and engineering students?
  • Exploring the emerging economic models for who pays for online engineering education (OEE) could reveal options for new sponsorship and revenue to ASME
  • In emerging payment models, universities may charge for testing and certification, not the course. Non-university OE providers might supply what teaching assistants do in traditional models, group work, evaluation, etc. Could this bring new opportunities for ASME?
  • Advertising, job seeking, employers seeking qualified people, etc., are all potential revenue sources in OE. Can ASME benefit from any of these sources? ASME could be part of Hastac, a network of people who study new forms of learning for the digital age.

Your Feedback…

What are your thought on this topic? Email us at earlycareerengineers@asme.org. We would like to hear from you.