Engineers Turn to e-Learning

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”It’s like teaching through a straw,” winced an engineering professor who had just spent 13 weeks interacting through the Web with a dozen graduate students. The members of his class, like more than a million others worldwide who now take courses entirely on-line, downloaded his lecture notes from the Web, communicated with each other and their instructor through e-mail, and took exams by responding to questions on computer screens at home or at work. Even in the absence of face-to-face interactions in the classroom, these students found that the convenience of Web education made learning through a straw very sweet.

Since before the days of Socrates, teaching has largely involved flesh-and-blood instructors lecturing to their students—beneath a tree, in a colonnaded stoa, or in a brick-and-mortar schoolroom. Today, though, thanks to widespread access to the Internet, on-line education is enabling professionals to learn from afar, keeping pace with technological and managerial changes despite their heavy schedules.

E-learning, especially for engineers and executives in technology industries, has emerged as one of the fastest-moving trends in higher education. Thousands of technical and management courses, including degree and certificate programs, are now being offered by universities, for-profit professional development centers, and industry training facilities worldwide. Among the biggest of these is the University of Maryland’s University College in Adelphi, which boasts an on-line student body of more than 30 000.

To be sure, the ability to instruct from afar is hardly new. As early as the mid-1800s, correspondence schools in Europe were teaching shorthand and foreign languages by mail. In the last century, radio, television, and satellite broadcasting equipped distance learning with new methods of delivery. The global connectivity of the Internet and a new generation of hardware and software applications underpin the teaching of courses over the Web [Fig. 1].

By almost any measure, e-learning is booming. According to a recent U.S. government report, the demand for e-learning is likely to leap from just 5 percent of all students in higher education in 1998 to 15 percent by 2002. In the corporate sector, spending on employee training last year totaled $2.5 billion, about 40 percent of which went to on-line education. What’s more, industry e-training is projected to double annually over the next several years. The academic on-line market is also expected to move ahead rapidly, reaching nearly $1.6 billion by 2002. What many educators are realizing is that e-learning is a trend they can no longer ignore.

The engineer as e-learner

As any working engineer knows, there is tremendous pressure to keep pace with the latest technology and the newest ways of doing business. “Engineers tell me that they need a thorough refresher course in their specialties at least every other year,” IEEE Spectrum was told by Peter F. Drucker, the best-selling author and management guru. “And a ‘re-immersion’—their word—in the basics at least every four years.”

Yet few engineers have the luxury of attending classes on well-groomed college campuses. Even those who do enroll in graduate school often attend part-time in the evenings, rushing off to class after work, grabbing a bite to eat along the way. When the bell rings at the end of class, they are soon back in the parking lot, speeding off for home. For these part-time learners—the lion’s share of today’s graduate population—the actual classroom can be far more alienating than the virtual one.

“Traffic and parking are two of my biggest hassles,” said Dean C. Reonieri Jr., a software developer at Lucent Technologies Inc. who has been taking graduate courses through the Web from Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. “The best thing about taking an on-line course for me is convenience.”

Gautham Natarajan, who works in network planning at AT&T Corp. in New Jersey, agrees. He enrolled in two on-line telecommunications courses offered by Stevens Institute last spring, and found it “very flexible. I could access the courses whenever I wanted—at home, at work, wherever there was a computer nearby.” Natarajan estimates that he saved 45 minutes in commuting each way.

The business world is also finding on-line learning to be a boon for employee training, especially as more corporations become global enterprises. One corporate training executive recalled that, not long ago, his mission was to provide classes for engineers in two or three sites in New Jersey. These days he is responsible for training employees in several countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America.

Some firms now operate “corporate universities” on-line—two examples are Dell Learning, for workers at Dell Computer Corp., Round Rock, Texas, and SunU, run by Sun Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif. Many of these corporate sites collaborate with academic institutions to either deliver courses straight out of the school catalog or produce customized courses. For-profit Web sites are also popping up to fill the technical training niche, offering product-specific courses in such topics as Linux, Microsoft Windows NT and 2000, and Novell Netware.

The virtual classroom

Just as in conventional classrooms, the day-to-day activities of on-line education vary widely. College and university e-courses tend to follow the standard academic calendar, lasting from 12 to 15 weeks. The instructor indicates at the start of the term what is required—whether and when students will take midterm or final exams and submit problem sets or final projects—and how the course will be conducted.

Typically, each course has its own homepage on the Web, where the instructor posts class materials, such as lecture notes, homework problems, reading assignments, and video clips of lectures or demonstrations. Pedagogically, the Web’s archival ability is one of its great advantages over the classroom. In particular, it enables “asynchronous” learning: students can access the course Web site whenever and wherever convenient—at home before work, during lunch breaks at the office, or in the middle of the night. In some cases, though, students may need to log in at designated times for live Webcasts of lectures or for chat sessions with classmates. Some courses also stipulate that students show up on campus for an initial meeting with the instructor and other students.

With many e-learning courses, though, the class never meets in person. Instead, they communicate on-line—not just to hand in homework, but also to ask questions, comment on class topics, and respond to comments and questions from others. The instructor may even break the class up into groups, to work on team projects or reports. That fosters what educators call “collaborative learning,” an interactive style of problem-solving that in many cases improves students’ understanding.

“Without some kind of discussion, distance learning is pretty worthless,” observed Howard R. Budin, head of the Center for Technology and School Change at Teachers College in New York City. Like many e-teachers, Budin weights students’ grades by their degree of participation in on-line discussions. For the most part, though, e-learners’ grades are still determined largely by how they do on exams and homework.

E-learning technology

From the student’s perspective, the mechanics of on-line learning are as simple as logging on to the Internet. To run most e-learning software, the student will need a Pentium-class PC with the latest version of Windows, or else a recent-issue Macintosh. The machine should have sufficient random access memory (32MB or more) and a modem that operates at 56 kb/s or higher. Also essential is an account with an Internet service provider (ISP) that includes e-mail and access to the World Wide Web.

Students typically submit homework and sometimes exams as e-mail attachments, so they need e-mail software that handles attachments and a current version of a word-processing program like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. As for Web browsers, the latest version of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer is usually recommended. Other programs that may be required include Adobe Acrobat Reader, Windows Media Player, and RealPlayer.

The market in on-line learning has matured to the point where there is now decent software for designing, teaching, and administering a Web-based…

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