Online Engineering Education: Learning Anywhere, Anytime

By Bourne, John; Harris, Dale et al. | Journal of Engineering Education, January 2005 | Go to article overview
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Online Engineering Education: Learning Anywhere, Anytime

Bourne, John, Harris, Dale, Mayadas, Frank, Journal of Engineering Education


The emergence of worldwide communications networks and powerful computer technologies has redefined the concept of distance learning and the delivery of engineering education content. This article discusses the Sloan Consortium's quest for quality, scale, and breadth in online learning, the impact on both continuing education of graduate engineers as well as degree-seeking engineering students, and the future of engineering colleges and schools as worldwide providers of engineering education.

Keywords: online education, virtual laboratories, online degrees


A. Defining the Landscape

Education at a distance, as provided through correspondence courses and video media, has been largely supplanted by online education as the world's networking capabilities have become ubiquitous. Studying engineering online from anywhere and at anytime has become possible in recent years but is not yet widespread throughout all engineering education disciplines. For online engineering education to be broadly accepted and utilized, (1) the quality of online courses must be comparable to or better than the traditional classroom, (2) courses should be available when needed and accessible from anywhere by any number of learners, and (3) topics across the broad spectrum of engineering disciplines should be available. These three attributes-quality, scale, and breadth- form the basis of work of the Sloan Consortium, a group of more than 900 primarily United States based academic and corporate institutions [1] dedicated to making online education a part of everyday life.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) is an organization supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation committed to making learning available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Organizing and disseminating knowledge about online education, Sloan-C is a major supplier of information about online education. Focusing on quality, scale and breadth in online education, Sloan-C is constantly engaged in advancing knowledge about online learning. Membership includes universities and colleges in higher education, corporations, organizations, and individuals.

The landscape considered in this paper is largely confined to considerations about how engineering education can be offered online with quality, scale, and breadth. In this paper, the current state-of-the art from Sloan-C's viewpoint is discussed, along with a prospectus for the future of online engineering education.

B. History

Funding for online education commenced at the Sloan Foundation as a vision of Ralph Gomory [2] and Frank Mayadas [3] with the establishment in 1993 of the "Learning outside the classroom" program, now known as the "Sloan program in asynchronous learning, Anytime, Anywhere, Online" [4]. The Sloan Foundation has been a major force in online learning in the United States. Since the inception of the "Learning outside the classroom" program, the Sloan Foundation has pushed the field of online education forward through a program of directed philanthropy designed to jump-start online education, promote awareness of online education, spur improvements in the field and investigate knotty issues. Funding an online journal in the field and expending more than S50 million for research and development, the Foundation's commitment to the field has made a real difference in what online education has become today. This difference can be readily measured in the increase in online learners, from nearly none ten years ago to well over 2 million learners online today.

More than a decade later, the vision of bringing education to anyone, anywhere has been partially realized as higher education begins to understand how online methodologies integrate with and extend traditional on-campus education. During the next decades, it is likely that traditional collegiate on-campus and online education will become more integrated (or blended) so that anyone, anywhere can secure the education of their choice from any institution or consortia of institutions.

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