This blog is prompted by an e-mail from Rich Zuc, who wanted to know why there were no undergraduate degrees in engineering offered at a distance. With his permission, his letter is reproduced below, with my answers.
I am a resident of Hamilton Ontario and I am interested in online and distance learning (DL) as I am seeking to pursue an undergraduate program in engineering/science.
I left university in my early 20s, in the mid 1990s, due to family commitments and never had the opportunity to complete an undergraduate engineering degree. Back then I started looking for an engineering/science degree offered via distance learning by a Canadian university; I did carry out extensive internet searches but to no avail. I have kept on searching ever since. Now, with 2010 just around the corner the online/DL situation in Canada, with respect to providing science and engineering degrees, has not changed at all!! There are very very few traditional brick and mortar Canadian universities that offer online/DL 4 year honours undergraduate degrees in the Arts and Social Sciences and practically no traditional brick and mortar institution offers an online/DL honours degree in engineering/science!!!
Do you expect that opportunities in engineering and science, via online/DL programs offered by traditional brick and mortar Canadian schools, are likely to remain as they are…that is non-existent!! Or based on your experience do you foresee some change in the not too distant future? Do you feel that this has to do mainly with: resistance by universities’ committees, boards, governing bodies or faculty members?
You raise an important issue here. As far as I know (and I’m not an engineer) you are correct – there are no undergraduate engineering degrees that are offered entirely online or at a distance in Canada, and very few at undergraduate level in the USA. Some organisations, such as Stanford University, offer graduate engineering programs online. You can do several certificate programs in ‘hard’ engineering from the British Columbia Institute of Technology by distance. I’m not sure whether you can transfer these courses into a regular undergraduate degree, thus shortening the time on campus, but generally you can in British Columbia. (Whether Ontario institutions will accept them is much more problematic). Have a look at the BCIT Civil Engineering site which has good questions and answers on the distance programs they offer. There are computer science programs available online from a limited number of Canadian institutions, but I know of no whole undergraduate programs in the ‘hard’ engineering areas, civil, mechanical or electrical.
This is not because it would be impossible to design a high quality engineering distance education program, using a combination of online teaching, simulations and limited laboratory time at an accredited local institution. There are successful design models for this in other professions, such as medicine.
There are several reasons for why there are no undergraduate engineering programs offered by distance delivery. The main obstacle is the professional accreditation agencies, who require students to have a very high level of laboratory classroom time in a program before accepting a degree for professional accreditation. There is a belief that engineering is very much a hands-on profession and needs personal supervision within a laboratory context.
A second obstacle is the very high cost of designing laboratory simulations in engineering that might replace physical labs for online students. Some progress is being made in this area, but the whole area lacks sustainable business models – it’s a chicken and egg situation: lack of recognition for online learning limits large scale applications.
Interestingly, there is growing evidence that engineering can be taught successfully online in apprenticeship programs – or at least mainly online. Vancouver Community College runs a very successful program for apprentices in car body work repairs (E-pprentice), reducing a 13 week semester course to three weeks on campus at the end of the course, with the rest being done online. BCCampus is now managing a program funded by BC’s Industrial Training Agency for flexible delivery of trades training across the province that combines online learning with local supervision of hands-on skills development.
However, I cannot see the universities moving in this direction unless there is a real crisis in getting engineering students. There are no incentives for them to offer alternative delivery. The focus of most engineering professors is on research and they would prefer to have fewer rather than more students, as teaching interferes with research. There are in North America still plenty of well qualified applicants for undergraduate campus-based engineering programs.
Having said this, engineering does compare badly to another professional area, medicine. The medics have been much more innovative in using distance education. For instance in BC, a partnership between the main hospitals, UBC, UNBC, and University of Victoria has resulted in a distributed education model for the M.D. program in the province, so people don’t have to move to Vancouver where the only medical school is located. What drove this was the need to retain doctors in the regions, rather than have them all move to Vancouver. Note again though that this is a graduate, distributed learning program, and is not fully online.
Now over to you, readers. Can you answer the following questions:
1. Name one North American university that offers an entire undergraduate civil, mechanical or electrical engineering by distance that is accepted for accreditation by a professional engineering organization.
2. Do you agree that it would be possible to design and deliver a high quality undergraduate engineering degree for entirely distance delivery (allowing for perhaps local hands-on supervision by employers or summer school at a regular university)?
2. If so, why are there no or so few undergraduate programs at a distance in engineering?
It would be really good to hear from some engineering faculty on this topic.