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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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.