The Perfect Match: Technical Degrees and Online Learning
While the shelf life of technical skills gets shorter, the availability of distance education for engineering and computer science students grows.

by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's

Professionals in engineering and scientific fields have always had to keep their skills current. But it's becoming even more imperative as the shelf life of an engineer's skills gets increasingly shorter. According to Dr. Andy DiPaolo, Director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development at Stanford University, "A mechanical engineer's education is generally good for seven years. An electrical engineer's lasts about four years. For computer scientists, it's as little as just two years."

Because of such rapid knowledge turnaround, it's essential for engineers to reeducate themselves continually. If they're not constantly improving their skill set and knowledge base, they can be in deep trouble, DiPaolo states. Fortunately, it's getting easier and easier as distance learning for those in technical positions grows exponentially. Sitting in a campus classroom is not always practical or possible for people involved in busy careers. Distance learning is the solution that many find works for them.

Innovations from the innovators for the innovators

Institutions that specialize in engineering and computer science degrees hold a unique position in the development of distance education. Because of technical breakthroughs coming out of campus labs, they're leading the way in making it easier to learn from a distance. "If we're doing what we should be doing, it's utilizing technology," observes Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for Distance Learning at Georgia Institute of Technology.

As engineering and computer students learn about technology, they're also developing the very technology that will enable greater accessibility to distance education. According to Boland, the whole bandwidth scenario will change to allow higher quality video, text, and graphics. Technology is bringing on-site and online education closer together. There will be less of a distinction between the two, says DiPaolo of the growing network of learning communities.

Georgia Tech and a number of other institutions, such as Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Stanford University, and Drexel University, have not only been in the field of distance education for twenty or more years, they are offering more courses via the Internet. Many have one or more master's degree programs completely on line, with more due in the near future.

Pumping fuel for the economy into the education pipeline

The urgent demand for technically trained employees is one of the main propellants of distance learning. "There's a growing need in the United States to increase the technical competency of the workforce," says Boland. As we move from an industrial to an information-based society, the shortage of qualified workers will become even more critical than it already is. Instead of the flood that's needed, the pipeline of students into those fields continues to be a slow trickle. However, it is hoped that distance education, particularly in the form of asynchronous learning networks, will alleviate some of the shortage by making technical education much more accessible.

Continuing education is the carrot

Not only is the workplace in critical need of technically trained employees, it also faces serious retention problems, says Dr. David Fenske, Dean of the College of Information Science and Technology at Drexel University. "A lot of companies suffer something in the range of a 17 percent to 30 percent turnover rate per year," he notes. As competition heats up, especially in the technical arena, a highly educated workforce is key. "Companies must learn faster than their competition, since that is the only true competitive advantage," says DiPaolo. Distance education, which offers students access to education where and when it's needed, seems to be the ideal solution.

Such is the necessity of upgrading technical skills, employers are building continuing education into their hiring strategies. They're not only willing to pay for it, they're using continuing education as a recruiting tool. "They realize that for a company to be competitive, it needs to constantly retrain its employees. They're turning to universities and non-university organizations to make that happen and look on education as a solid investment," says DiPaolo.

Building on this trend, Fenske reports the emergence of cohorts of distance learners from the same company taking the same courses simultaneously. Not only do they benefit from being able to take courses off site, they also get some of the advantages of face-to-face interaction with classmates that on-campus education affords. Fenske sees opportunities emerging for union employees as well as for white collar workers with this approach to education.

Are you at work now or in class?

The blend of work experience and education is one of the top advantages for technical professionals taking distance courses, says Chris Geith, Director of Distance Learning at Rochester Institute of Technology. Professionals or co-op students usually have their hands on the latest technical equipment in the workplace and thus can learn and use the theory behind it simultaneously. "Work and learning are becoming the same thing," says DiPaolo.

Face-to-face gets a complete makeover

On the surface, it appears that the lack of face-to-face interaction is one of the remaining obstacles that distance learning still has to overcome. But that, too, is changing as fast as the technology to facilitate closer communication between distance students becomes available and cheaper.

Geith points out that learning does not just occur in the classroom. "The content of a class just doesn't happen in lectures," she says. "It's in the projects on which students collaborate. The discussions they have and the activities they participate in." DiPaolo adds that the future of distance learning depends in large part on how successfully universities can create learning communities around a class. "Distance education should not be an elegant correspondence course that people do in isolation," he points out. Distance education providers must create interaction between students and faculty members and with each other. The better programs facilitate that."

Online learning is preparation for online working

In many ways, online education mirrors what already exists in the workplace. Increasingly, technical professionals work in teams whose members often are scattered throughout the world. Since virtual teamwork is the way engineers in the workplace work together, online courses prepare students to work in that environment, says Geith.

Even students attending classes on campus are realizing the benefits of online technology to communicate. Geith notes that campus-based students at RIT collaborate on line in the context of groupwear and threaded discussions almost as much as the distance students. "It removes the logistics of having to arrange busy schedules for students to meet," she says. "What's more, a professor can check into what the group is doing and, if necessary, provide guidance without waiting for the next class meeting."

Incorporating industry experience

Other benefits of online communication are surfacing as well. At Stanford, the distance learning environment allows teams of professional and inexperienced engineers to work together in courses targeted to both. A project-based class puts teams together that log in from around the world and from different experience levels. "This manufacturing design course allows on-campus students to work with professional engineers in the workplace," says DiPaolo. "It's a strong benefit of online interaction."

At Georgia Tech, the same kind of communication between real-world engineers and students is facilitated by the use of industry experts who teach graduate classes from the workplace. Without an online learning environment, this kind of partnership between industry and academia would be difficult and not always practical.

You'll get it your way

Although asynchronous learning networks are fairly new to distance education and are making the big splash, other modes of distance education are still very much in use. Most distance providers use combinations of asynchronous delivery, such as textbooks, audio, CDs, and videos, with synchronous methods such as video conferencing. According to Geith, as bandwidth increases, so will the quality.

Hands on the future

DiPaolo compares what's happening in distance education to wing walkers, the daring barnstormers who cautiously stepped from one airplane wing to another while in flight. Many traditional educators today are holding on to the old delivery technologies and have their hands on the new, but they're not ready to give up the old, he says, alluding to traditional TV delivery. Over time, the older technologies will be replaced by asynchronous and nonmechanical transfer of courses and course materials. He states that newer universities and education providers, with no ties to past modes of delivery, have caught on to the new "wing" and are already flying with it. It's just a matter of time before traditional education providers let go.

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