Brian Mulligan

Engineers are taking free online courses to gain new knowledge to address challenges in their work and to improve their employment prospects, writes Brian Mulligan.

You can learn almost anything on the internet. Kids are learning to play the piano without a teacher by watching YouTube videos. Technicians are using videos viewed through augmented reality glasses to maintain equipment.

So will this change the nature of engineering education? It has already started in CPD, where busy engineers take online courses in topics that are not available close by, saving them time and minimising disruption of their lives.

Virtual reality based learning experiences

Even practical work is being facilitated online with simulators, remote access to rigs and virtual reality based learning experiences.

For undergraduates lecturers are starting to use the web to improve their teaching. They are posting links to resources, accepting assignment and giving feedback online and using quizzes to encourage and monitor progress.

However, these changes are only augmenting the basic model of education that has been with us for hundreds of years. Are there more radical approaches that might change the underlying teaching or business models of engineering education?

Flipped Learning, where the student engages with the content before class, and takes part in activities during class, is gaining traction. Why give the same lecture every year when it can be recorded? Why not use the valuable time in class to apply knowledge and to get support from the lecturer (and peers in large classes)?

Why not create a full Project Based Learning (PBL) degree. Why have any lectures at all? A programme based around the execution of projects will better prepare the students for the workplace.

Fundamental part of engineering education

Students can access low-cost courses on the web to underpin their learning. Many of these will be compulsory and considered to be a fundamental part of an engineering education, but many will be chosen by the students on the basis of their own interests or the requirements of the projects.

However, college projects are artificial and a limited attempt to emulate the real world. What if undergraduates spent the full length of their degree in the workplace? Work-Based Learning (WBL) degrees already exist, often as apprenticeships in a block-release format.

Online learning allows such work-based programmes to be more convenient as the student can attend work continuously and study online. This model has already been successfully deployed by Institute of Technology Sligo in the apprenticeship degree in insurance practice.

Manufacturing employers around Ireland have indicated great interest in employing young trainees to get their engineering degree in this mode.

Both PBL and WBL are examples of how technology can enable radical changes in teaching models, but it might be suggested that changes in business models could be even more radical. Although the hype of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has passed, they continue to be popular.

IT Sligo enrolls 2,000 learners every year on a free Introduction to Lean Sigma course, an important marketing tool for our large range of CPD courses. Many universities are monetising this development by amalgamating MOOCs into micromaster's and charging for assessment.

The most notorious example of this style of low-touch, low-cost education is the master's in computer science from Georgia Tech. At $6,500 (about €5,900), the programme has 5,000 students enrolled and is partially to blame for the reduction in enrollment in computer science master's degrees around the US.

AI systems are now being deployed to reduce the workload in both supporting students and creating assessments.

Cutting cost through scale and the use of technology, strategies familiar to engineers, are now being applied in education. The value proposition for learners seems very compelling and may well be a threat to existing programmes.

'Free range learning'

To finish, consider a more radical concept called 'free range learning' where the learner chooses what, how and where they learn.

This may be difficult to develop in a traditional and highly regulated profession like engineering. However, given the need for more engineers, the increasing specialisation of work and the constant emergence of new technologies, perhaps this should be considered.

As accreditation is important, the key to the development of such a model is Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). Many shorter courses on the Internet are issuing micro-credentials, often electronic (and more recently based on blockchain).

Electronic certificates, which can hold much richer data about a learners achievement will ease verification and make RPL more feasible. However, institutions will need to also change their regulations to be more accepting of learning gained elsewhere.

Technology is now enabling many alternative models of engineering education. Many will resist change for both valid and invalid reasons. However, learners, who will now have many more choices than they have ever had before, may force the pace of change, preferring those providers that innovate.

Author: Brian Mulligan is a civil engineer, and is responsible for online learning innovation at the Institute of Technology Sligo where he has worked as a lecturer, online learning developer and online innovation manager since 1984.