Learning engineering online: A primer
Online learning is on the upswing, owing to the unique opportunities it provides to many kinds of learners. At Purdue, for example, enrollment in credit-bearing and professional development engineering online programs has quadrupled over the past five years. Some programs saw an even greater increase — our master’s degree program in Electrical and Computer Engineering grew by a factor of 20x, to about 500 students, in 2023.
Why is that? Across the world and across all industries, successful businesses depend on educated, highly-skilled workers. Constant learning and growing are key attributes for success, particularly in the fast-paced engineering world. How does one gain the necessary skills to keep up with a demanding and ever-changing job market? Online education can be a particularly effective option. Unlike traditional learning models, online learning offers the much-needed flexibility in time or place, while maintaining rigor and quality.
It is important to recognize that online learning refers to a plurality of opportunities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For instance, many adult learners who don’t have the chance to join traditional on-campus programs now can earn fully-online undergraduate academic degrees or credentials from accredited universities like Purdue Global.
Alternatively, online programs in the College of Engineering on our West Lafayette, Indiana, campus focus on working professionals in the post-graduate arena. These programs include online and hybrid master’s degrees in various engineering disciplines, professional certificates, and digital badges. The programs help engineering professionals attain critical skills in emerging areas, such as artificial intelligence, data science, security, semiconductors, advanced manufacturing, autonomy, robotics, and quantum technology.
Online education opportunities also can substantially enhance on-campus undergraduate learning for both students and faculty. Online offerings can effectively supplement on-campus training by enabling learners to complete degree requirements while being off campus (e.g., on internships or co-ops or global exchanges), compressing students’ time-to-degree. In the future, more online content and courses can address class sizes, meet diverse learning needs, and allow for more enriched live classroom discussion.
Like many universities, Purdue has been developing massive open online courses (MOOCs) on a variety of online platforms. For example, Purdue-created and -operated nanoHUB.org is the largest online platform in semiconductors, with more than 1.6 million users today. Such platforms reach out to lifelong learners, as well as audiences who may not be able to access more traditional educational resources. Furthermore, MOOCs often reduce learning obstacles and encourage potential students to pursue digital badges or certificates.
Online modalities also have enabled university-to-university partnership efforts. This form of learning has proved particularly beneficial in global partnerships, because it lowers the barrier for engagement and avoids costs/risks arising from the need for a brick-and-mortar international campus. Purdue Engineering currently is engaged in several such ongoing efforts with universities globally.
Online learning and equity
Besides serving working professionals, online learning is a powerful tool for individuals whose early-life educational opportunities have been limited due to economic, cultural or other hurdles. To a large extent, online education levels the playing field by providing viable additional chances in life. For instance, providing learning paths for veterans as they transition from military to civilian life is a particularly important societal need that online models address.
Engineering faculty members typically offer the same course to both on-campus and online students simultaneously. As a result, online students can be part of the same cohort as on-campus students, creating unique engagement opportunities for both groups.
As we envision novel pedagogical approaches to elevate student experience, virtual laboratories and personalized learning are expected to provide learners with top-quality education. Online students also must be supported by a team of professionals. Faculty members need to communicate with remote students about course expectations and assignments and share feedback on student work. Graduate teaching assistants must be available to help with office hours and recitation sections, particularly for high-enrollment courses. Online programs also benefit from student success coaches who can aid students in developing a learning routine and completing classes remotely.
Successful online studying requires a learning routine that works with the student’s schedule This is essential when balancing full-time work and family responsibilities. We also advise online learners to remain engaged with the instructor and support staff — for example, by participating in office hours and regularly following the course blog/posts. Another helpful step is to create and/or join an online learning community, which can support engagement during stressful times.
Taking a page from industry on efficiency
Online education, in parallel with industry, must be effective, efficient and affordable. Rapid progress in AI-driven pedagogy makes personalized learning possible for the first time. Individualized student-focused content and assessment are critical for working professionals, as everyone starts from a different background and has unique needs. These advancements also may improve on-campus education quality and productivity.
Innovation is vital. For instance, we have been working with industry to co-develop badges to provide more state-of-the-art learning opportunities for professionals who need to refine their skills but do not need or want a full master’s degree. While our schools and faculty members design our curriculum, we actively integrate industry’s input whenever feasible. The ”Design for Security Badge” co-developed and co-branded with Intel exemplifies this approach.
Another inventive path involves stackable micro-credentials. We create programs based on a “small learning unit” pedagogy, letting students tackle smaller yet rigorous learning units (down to one credit hour) that can be used effectively for professional certificates, digital badges or future degrees. Flexibility is key, enabling students to acquire skills and earn verifiable credentials in their areas of interest without committing a priori to completing a full degree.
System-wide instructional designers and educators are crucial to ensure that faculty members and teaching assistants follow, discover and share best practices in online course development and delivery. We empower faculty to consider several models — including synchronous versus asynchronous, and blended online/face-to-face paradigms — to respect individual teaching styles, preferences and pedagogical approaches without sacrificing quality.
In online learning, as everywhere, data analytics have become critical. Online educational programs must explore data-based learning recommendations and adaptation, while protecting data privacy and accommodating user preference. This focus on data analytics is expected to lead to individualized learning and assessment (i.e., AI-driven personalization) for heightened productivity and efficacy.
Virtual labs are another vital innovation. We are providing, and developing more, virtual labs to provide experiential learning opportunities, even online. Virtual labs offer flexible access, instant feedback, and use of creative equipment and software, all at a reasonable cost.
Quality online education still presents unique challenges for universities, teachers and students. Although each institution faces its own distinctive dilemmas, there are many common ones. While we do not have the answers to address all of them yet, spelling out and thinking through the questions is a collective first step.
Here is our top 9+1 list:
- Can discipline-specific knowledge be effectively decomposed into stackable micro-credentials?
- How do we balance long-term learning objectives with near-term industry needs?
- How do we balance residential education with online learning?
- Will online badges or certificates prove useful for working professionals in the long run?
- How do we effectively blend online education technology with traditional on-campus instruction?
- How do we form and train teams of professors, teaching assistants, instructional designers, and technical personnel to deliver consistently-high-quality online courses?
- How do we update and seamlessly integrate online software tools?
- How do we build and operate virtual labs in engineering?
- How do operational and financial models adapt to incorporate significant numbers of online students in different tracks?
- And, probably most important: How do we measure precisely how well students learn online?
Senior Vice President for Purdue University Online
Reilly Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and former Academic Lead for Online Learning, College of Engineering
Note: The first Purdue Engineering graduate distance-learning program was approved in the late 1950s. Since then, multiple efforts have led to an outstanding and affordable post-baccalaureate workforce development program that includes a variety of online degrees and certificates. Our ranking for best online master’s in engineering programs advanced from #5 (2018) to #2 (2023) with several programs achieving a #1 position. Specifically, electrical, mechanical and industrial engineering, as well as engineering management, are ranked #1 in the United States (U.S. News & World Report, 2023).