Can Distance Education Be Unlocked?

By Grose, Thomas K. | ASEE Prism, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Can Distance Education Be Unlocked?


Grose, Thomas K., ASEE Prism


Only a handful of schools offer undergraduate engineering online, and there are some very good why more haven't taken the plunge.

Michele A. Eller began classes at the University of North Dakota for her bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering in September 1994. Because she has a B.A. in business, she already had about 40 percent of the required courses for the engineering degree in hand, including the math and science. But even though she never took a break from her studies, Eller won't receive her hard-won diploma until this May, when she completes her last course. Why did it take her nearly nine years? Well, for one thing, Eller, 36, lives in St. Paul, Minn., and received her degree via North Dakota's distance-learning program. Moreover, she has from the start held down a demanding full-time job at 3M, the St. Paul-based consumer products company. So she had to complete her degree taking only one or two classes a semester. That's a long, slow slog when you have 102 credit hours to complete. And, certainly, there were times when it seemed too much for her. But now she has a "great new job" at 3M. "I'm glad I stuck with it," says Eller, who realized after joining 3M 13 years ago that chemical engineering, not business, was her true calling.

American industry is chock full of Michele Ellers, technicians and other wanna-be engineers who have the skills, brains, and desire to be engineers but don't have a degree or have the wrong kind of sheepskin. And they haven't the time or money to return to school full time. Now it would seem that for these workers their time has come. Thanks to the Internet, distance education is booming. Schools like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that once shunned anything but on-campus education are climbing aboard the virtual-classroom bandwagon. Indeed, programs for graduate engineering students are mushrooming. But for engineering hopefuls in need of undergraduate distance-learning programs, the pickings remain slim. Very slim. Despite some demand for distance undergraduate degrees, the number of engineering schools actually offering them is less than a handful.

What's the problem? Well, says Edwin C. Jones Jr., "It's hard work and it's expensive. And there is no obvious payoff." That tough assessment comes from the retired electrical engineering professor who helped launch Iowa State University's distance-degree program in 1996 and is a proponent of distance education. But engineering bachelor's degrees don't easily lend themselves to distance-learning methods. Indeed, how to give students laboratory experience is a particularly thorny problem. "Course content should drive course delivery, and engineering education (at the undergraduate level) does not lend itself to online delivery," explains Helene Demont, who oversees the engineering outreach program at the University of Wisconsin. Stanford's senior associate dean in the school of engineering, Andy DiPaolo, agrees: "An (undergraduate) engineering degree is tougher to do electronically, especially the labs." Nevertheless, Jones and other academics believe that such programs can be made to work.

Currently, only North Dakota has a publicly-available, accredited distance-degree program that could be called thriving. Iowa State has nearly 20 students enrolled in its program, but added no new ones this school year. Officials there are in the process of deciding its future. Michigan Tech has an ongoing B.S.E. program, but it's offered only to corporations, mainly GM, which funded its launch in 1989. Michigan Tech is, however, keen to open the program to the public and offer a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, and that could happen this fall. The University of South Florida in Tampa is likewise eager to offer an undergraduate engineering degree through its distance program, once it solves technical hitches. The University of Minnesota began offering a distance degree a few years ago, but dropped it after only a year of operation.

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