August 23, 2014

Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?

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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.

Rich wrote:

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?

I replied:

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.

Comments

  1. Greetings

    I to am another engineering enthusiast, and similarly, I don’t have the luxury of being able to attend school full-time nor have the time and finances to travel vast distances to attend school part-time. .

    I am confident that engineering can be taught through online means. Within the engineering field, it is work experience that matters most, and if the student can work in the field while being taught, that alone should substitute for any missing engineering lab components that are required to complete the engineering program. Traditional students that graduate don’t even have the experience that non-traditional students have.

    Online engineering programs can simply require the student to work under the supervision of a P.Eng and can easily co-ordinate their lab component with the students ongoing work experience in a linear order. In fact, I heard of someone completing an online civil engineering degree through the UK system by doing the exact same thing.

    Now, as a Canadian and a architectural appreciate, I would now like to use the RAIC Syllabus as an example. Please look it up if you wish. Completing the RAIC Syllabus is an alternative method of becoming an architect through distance learning rather then attending traditional school. The student is required to work, and login, a fixed number of hours, under the supervision of a registered architect to complete the program, while completing their online courses. Although the program is a lot longer then traditional school, the methodology of completing the program can be transferred to engineering programs.

    I honestly believe that Canadians are being given raw deal in terms of the integration of technology to access education. Yes, there are some programs online, but not enough, if any, of the more professional programs. I believe a lot of it has to do with the business behind and interlinking these institutions, politicians and accreditation councils.

    There needs to be more public pressure on the politicians to address this issue with academic institutions and accreditation councils. If need be, have them threaten to remove their government funding and subsidies if they fail to comply.

    I mean, you can get a fully accredited online law degrees from the UK that will allow the student to sit the bar and practice any where in the commonwealth. Where is this in Canada? Are we not a developed nation, just as advanced? We have the methodology and technology, so why are we being treated like this?

    I am sure that anyone with a deep pocket and a half fast lawyer can sue the respective organizations that are stagnating and preventing the accessibility of these programs in Canada with discriminating the under-privileged, working class, remote living from obtaining a higher education.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dennis. I agree that the professional accreditation bodies, especially in engineering and law in Canada, have been very reactionary about approving online and distance courses in principle. (Medicine/health and accountants on the other hand have been much more receptive). However, professional accreditation bodies are independent bodies, not funded by government, but by dues from members and employers. The pressure to accept online learning therefore must come from within these professions if things are to change. So don’t blame educational institutions or government (although they too could do more to lean on professional bodies about this.)

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  1. [...] areas for e-learning, because of the need for hands-on experience with equipment and materials (see ‘Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?’). Simulations and animations are obvious uses, but often expensive and difficult to [...]

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