“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

– Mark Twain

Chapter Contents

1.2    The Foundations of Growth of the Online Model

1.3    Distance and Online Learning Terminology

1.4    Change is in the Air

1.5    Massive Growth in Online Education

1.6    Corporate Training Trends

1.7    The Impact on Engineering and Science

1.10  The Different Forms of Online Learning

1.11  Remote and Virtual Laboratories

1.12  Why Students Prefer Online Learning


1.1 Introduction

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Had Charles Dickens not written these words 150 years ago, he could have been reflecting, somewhat candidly, upon the state of online distance learning in engineering and science education today.1 Over the past decade, there has been massive growth of remote or distance learning using the internet, often referred to as online learning or online education. One commentator remarked that the development of distance (and online) learning was one of the ten most outstanding achievements in engineering education of the past century, and with the current dramatic growth and excellent learning outcomes with online education and training it's difficult to argue against this assertion.2

Examples of the strong growth of online learning in the engineering arena will initially be discussed, followed by a clarification on the terminology used in distance and online technology. Statistics will then be examined demonstrating the strong growth in online education and corporate training with specific references to engineering and industry. An exhaustive summary will be provided of the varied benefits of online education, followed by some of the key disadvantages with suggestions where it should be avoided. The differences between asynchronous and synchronous online learning will then be assessed. Finally, the tools to successful online engineering learning–namely remote and virtual laboratories will be introduced, and suggestions given as to why students prefer online learning.


1.2 The foundations of growth of the online model

Corporations are swiftly applying online technologies. Cisco reported savings of $100m per annum through the use of online learning to educate their workforce.3 Cisco has over 3,000 video-based learning initiatives for training both employees and partners, and these videos are managed carefully to ensure that materials are updated and redundant content is discarded. The well-respected American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) reported that the use of technology as a delivery method of training increased from 8% in 1999 to between 28% and 38% in 2005. This is significant growth by any measure.4One of the most useful tools for live online training, web conferencing, had an estimated revenue of over $11bn in 2011.5

Mark Weiser, Chief Technology Officer at Xero Palo Alto Research Center, noted that the most powerful technologies are those that disappear into the fabric of everyday life so that they become invisible.6 Online learning is rapidly becoming a key part of education and training and has become almost indistinguishable from face-to-face education. The technologies being employed are increasingly easily accessible, with options ranging from YouTube videos and web conferencing to internet-based Learning Management Systems.

The penetration of online courses has been high across most discipline areas including business, the sciences, liberal arts and education, but the progression has been slower in engineering.7 The growth of online courses in the engineering world can be gauged by the number used at Caterpillar. This large earthmoving equipment manufacturer had 30,000 courses in 2001, but by 2004 there were 200,000. This growth was, in part, fueled by the lower costs–online courses cost about a third of the price of an instructor-led course. Much of the course material was easily located as providers such as Tooling University provide courses in computerized machine tools, welding, stamping, die handling and metal cutting, all of which can be utilized by Caterpillar employees.8 The approach is designed for plant workers to log onto a course and work on it when their shifts allow. It was felt that for shop-floor workers, the programs were most effective when they combined online, classroom and on-the-job training to create a blended learning environment (as indicated in figure 1.1).

Figure. 1.1: Blended Learning


Despite the positive picture painted above there have been some less than satisfactory practices in online learning thus far. The increasing presence of poor quality online learning materials has given online education a bad name and raised serious questions about the sustainability of this form of learning. Furthermore, the attrition rate of online courses has been particularly high, with the online learning completion rate often as low as 30%. One factor responsible is that the training is often undertaken in isolation.9 It is generally accepted that success in online learning can only be achieved with considerably higher levels of motivation and self-discipline than are required in an equivalent classroom-based environment.10

Five megatrends in education

It has recently been suggested that five megatrends (is indicated in figure 1.2) are currently impacting on education on a global basis:11

• Democratization of knowledge and access. The education market is growing quickly, with easy and lower cost access to knowledge through the internet.

• Contestability of markets and funding. Governments are increasingly constrained in their provision of funding for universities, which is resulting in increased competition and the imperative to source funding from both industry and students.

• Digital technologies. Not only will digital technologies and the internet transform education, but they will also enable partnerships with other players in the value chain (content, mass distribution and certification).

• Global Mobility. Not only are students, workers and academic resources mobile on an international basis, but elite university brands and activities are rapidly expanding too.

• Integration with industry. Relationships with industry will expand to commercialize research and target learning activities but there will be competition in certification of students (such as with Cisco, Microsoft and CPA postgraduate programs).

Figure 1.2: Five Megatrends in Education


1.3 Distance and online learning terminology

Distance learning is traditionally for learners located remotely using a paper-based correspondence system. It is defined as “a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction occurs when the learner and the instructor are not in the same place at the same time”.12

The necessary elements of distance learning include:13

• Remoteness of the student from the teacher–some physical distance separating the two.

• An institution that provides instruction and content (as opposed to self-directed learning).

• A learning curriculum with learning outcomes and a structure.

• Assessment processes to measure the learning that has occurred.

Another common definition of distance education is, “A process to design, build and provide learning when the source of the knowledge and the learners are separated by time or distance or both”.14 The United States Distance Learning Association refers to distance learning as, “The acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction”.15 An even simpler definition (used by the US Department of Defense and Federal Government Distance Learning Association) is that distance learning is, “Structured learning that takes place without the physical presence of the instructor”.

However, some definitions of distance learning are broad enough to include online learning, such as the definition that states that distance learning is “the process of extending learning, or delivering instructional resource sharing opportunities, to locations away from a classroom, building or site, to another classroom, building or site by using video, audio, computer, multimedia communications, or some combination of these with other traditional delivery methods.16 This is quite a mouthful, but it’s also a good definition as it is inclusive of online learning–the feature that is driving the growth of distance education. It also takes into consideration the need for improving the quality of the traditional correspondence based course with a live, interactive experience.

Online learning, also referred to as e-learning, is a subset of distance learning and has different methodologies such as synchronous and asynchronous. A combination of both of these methods with face-to-face classroom based learning is often referred to as blended or hybrid learning as indicated in figure 1.1.17 A more detailed discussion of online learning will be undertaken later; but for our purposes here it can be simply described as learning accessed electronically from a computer-based device (generally connected to the internet).

This instruction can be a course or a discussion and can be transmitted in a variety of forms including; a live instructor interacting with you directly, a video, a web page, a game or indeed an online interactive book.18


1.4 Change is in the air

Commencing in the 60s, governments used distance education to widen access to higher education, improve people’s lives and to expand the economy through this inexpensive way of scaling up education.19 The growth has been rapid and the demand for online higher education by contemporary students, bolstered by the availability of broadband, has resulted in traditional universities scrambling to convert their courses to an online format. As with many other industries, such as telecommunications and airlines, it is likely that higher education will be transformed by online technology.

Figure 1.3: Where is Online Education Heading To?


There are many compelling reasons to move to a technology-based learning approach: the move of current students to a strong digital framework in their gathering and processing of information, the tremendous gains in productivity the business world has achieved in applying digital technology and, sadly, the rapidly growing cost of education today which is well beyond that of inflation and this needs to be made more affordable.20

What is becoming more obvious on the residential college campus is that the traditional forms of operation are steadily being pushed to the point of extinction.21 Packed lecture theaters are becoming obsolete, with students perceiving little difference between attending the lecture physically or online. The vast amount of information available online is also undermining the lecture model used in traditional universities. Increasingly, they are compelled to add more value to the courses to retain their validity. Laboratory research and campus living–where students live and study together–are examples that have had some degree of success.

For the first time in centuries, standard approaches to educating students are being reconsidered, with online learning a significant modification to the traditional educational model.22 There is some movement away from lectures (“sage on the stage”) to technology-driven innovations (with a common theme of “guide on the side”). Almost every college or university in the world today is incorporating online options to some degree. Some offer recorded lectures whereas others are delivering more comprehensive online offerings.

Traditional universities and non-profit institutions should be wary of the nimble and aggressive competition for enrolments from the for-profit sector.23 The question today is not so much whether any college should pursue online education, but how it should strategically respond to this challenge.

Initial online offerings have tended to involve simplistic and straightforward question/answer formats. Laboratory-based engineering and science subjects, however, have proved to be tougher to implement successfully. Much activity, therefore, has centered on professional (and postgraduate) courses rather than undergraduate courses where labs are required.

John Katzman, a founder of a recent startup firm 2U (formerly 2tor), believed the traditional model used at universities needed overhauling with the inclusion of various online approaches. His suggestions included videoed lectures and interactive courses available at the time and place of the student’s choosing.24 He felt that these options could be followed up once the student had absorbed the key learning elements, with live online interaction between instructor and students (for instance, a web conferencing event). Although students would be scattered geographically, laptops and iPads would facilitate the interaction. 2U also remarked, however, that university faculties are not always suited to providing online programs; they lack the training in the new technologies and have their hands full doing their research and lecturing in the traditional manner.

The elite are getting on board and online

Whilst many are aware that online education is growing and are supportive of it, some elite universities are not quite sure of the way forward for their particular institutions.25 These universities face the potential to derail their prestige and selectivity if students from afar can access and indeed graduate from their courses. A possible solution is to ensure that the academic leaders at these universities prepare the online course materials, and perhaps integrate these with the offerings of other universities.

Despite this issue, two ventures (initiated by work at Stanford University) were launched in 2012. One is called Udacity, led by Sebastian Thrun. This has almost a half a million users. The second is named Coursera, led by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. It is claimed that they have two million users. Coursera has been offering courses in mathematics, engineering, the humanities and social sciences with prestigious partners such as Stanford, Michigan, Penn and Princeton. Both are based on the free Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs).

Figure 1.4: Massive Open Online Courses


Furthermore, in May 2012, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) outlaid $60m for a joint venture in offering free, not-for-credit, online courses through edX. The University of California (UC) Berkeley joined them shortly thereafter.26 The courses offered range from software engineering and artificial intelligence to chemistry and computer science. Success in these offered students some exemptions when enrolled in regular courses.

This audacious move towards online tuition allows the world’s finest teachers to reach millions of enthusiastic students.

The question, however, is whether MOOCs can break into the so-called “iron triangle” of cost, access and quality, previously assumed to be the domain of higher education.27 It is claimed that an improvement in one of these can only be achieved at the expense of the others.


1.5 Massive growth in online education

A recent survey showed that there has been rapid growth in online enrolments.28 In 2007, over 3.9 million (20%) of US higher education students–largely undergraduates–were undertaking at least one online course.29 The proportion of graduate-level students, however, was slightly higher, giving some credence to the suggestion that online students are generally older and have other personal and career commitments. One of the notable examples of the success of online learning in education is Phoenix University in the US, with over 100,000 students in 2004 and with an annual growth of 50% to 60%.30 Due to recent problems with US government loans, however, growth has reversed in recent years for many online colleges and universities.

The Babson Survey Research Group conducts an annual survey of online education in the USA.31 This is based on the responses from over 2500 colleges and universities in the USA. Although statistics are almost immediately outdated, they do give a useful indication of trends.

Over 30% of students now take at least one course online. It has also been found that almost 70% of academic leaders believe that learning outcomes in online education were equivalent (or superior) to traditional classroom-based offerings. However, a significant group also felt that the learning outcomes for online education were inferior to that of their face-to-face equivalent.

A 3-year study, based on the responses from over 1,000 colleges and universities in the USA, has also examined blended learning, as opposed to solely online learning.32 Currently, fewer blended courses exist compared with their online equivalents. 38% of respondents of the survey, however, felt that blended learning had more potential than courses that are purely online.

Figure 1.5: Online Education Growth in the US Trends33


Adapted from Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States 2011

Over a third of USA university faculties have taught an online course while more than 50% have recommended students take an online course.34

According to IDP Education Australia, the student demand for higher education in Asia (which is the source of half the world’s demand) will rise from 17 million, the rate it was in 1995, to over 87 million by 2020, with strong growth particularly in India and China.

In countries such as Malaysia, approximately 85,000 students per year (from data from 2012) are taking online courses; whilst in South Korea, there were 112,000 students from 19 institutions.35

Adult learners comprise 60% of the post-secondary student population–perhaps the initial stimulus for distance learning.36There is, nonetheless, strong growth in the traditional student population who are increasingly taking online courses as part of their on-campus programs.37 Apparently fewer than 25% of students, on US campuses, between the age of 18 and 22 attend as full-time undergraduate students.38

It is likely, based on current trends, that even traditional residential institutions will have to accommodate students’ demands for online education. One prediction indicates that by 2014, over half of higher education delivery will be online.39

Balanced against this overwhelming slew of statistics, there are signs of a slowdown in the take up of online higher education.40 The for-profit online education sector in particular in the USA has had a drop off in enrolments due to concerns about quality and overcharging. From this it is clear that the online market is becoming more discerning, which makes it increasingly vital for institutions to provide unique, high quality programs that genuinely add value for a student.

University and college rationale for going online

There are many unassailable advantages for quality online learning today.41 It is of enormous positive benefit to the world, provides a platform for continuing education, offers students access to the finest universities in the world and the penetration of this type of education is global.

The most common rationale for an institute to embrace online education has been to achieve greater revenue–a pertinent concern when faced with cutbacks in government funding, as costs per student can be decreased, based on increased numbers per course, with a reduction in the delivery costs of a course.42 This does remain an unproven premise, however. Another driver has been to serve mature professionals who are working and students located some distance from their desired campuses. Improvement to student retention is another more surprising reason cited for employing online learning. Space constraints on existing residential campuses is an obvious motivator and enables capital costs for buildings to be kept to a minimum. The more complex reason for adopting online training is that of its efficacy. To measure this, however, many variables need to be considered–from both the learners’ and teachers’ perspectives.

There is strong growth in non-traditional students with a large proportion of bachelor degree students either sourced from community colleges or mature, part-time students. Online education is far more relevant to these groups than traditional styles of education.43

Many colleges indicate that distance learning is the only viable way in which many learners can meet their educational needs. Interestingly, it has been found that distance learning students achieve slightly better grades than those on campus. A possible reason for this is that more mature students are more committed to their studies than their younger, on-campus counterparts.44

Rochester Institute of Technology has noted that their distance learning courses have taken up the slack when their traditional full-time student enrolments have diminished.45

At the Malaysian Asia e University, students maintain contact using email, online chats and phone.46 Assignments are submitted using computers, smartphones and iPads in a variety of formats ranging from YouTube videos to traditional documents. Challenges do remain, however, with a lack of personal contact, low interactivity and poor bandwidth in parts of the world (as low as 10% penetration rate in India). This can lead to feelings of isolation for the student. A positive element of online learning has emerged, however, with students who are shy–they tend to become more engaged and involved with the learning process.

It has been suggested that, in the near future, students will not be content to attend only one university, but will pick and choose different institutions to construct their own programs. The merits of this suggestion are yet to be fully assessed, but the idea is, at the very least, an interesting one.

There have also been suggestions of blending of education, training and business. A term that is increasingly being coined is that of the Virtual University which is based around the internet.

Increasingly the online option is being favored by students even when they are not geographically distant from their chosen institution. For instance, students may choose to listen to recorded lectures rather than attend in person. Research remains inconclusive on lecturer and student perceptions of digitally recorded lectures (referred to here as web-based lecture technologies or WBLT), but there is strong evidence to suggest that student attendance at lectures has been reducing over recent years.47

Students claim that WBLT assists them in learning or indicates that they could learn just as well using these technologies. Lecturing staff, on the other hand, appear to feel that WBLT resulted in fewer students attending lectures and a poorer learning experience overall. The research suggests that WBLT can be preferable to face-to-face lectures that are delivered in a traditional format (one-way communication) when class sizes are large. However, WBLT is less preferable than face-to-face lectures when classes are small and interactivity is possible between students and lecturers, facilitating problem solving and discussions.

Lecturers feel that the flexibility of WBLT means that students only review lectures just before an assessment, resulting in learning that is fractured and inadequate. By integrating/blending the WBLT into their existing lectures the learning experience is more likely to be optimized. Lecturers need to clarify their expectations for students too.

As an aside, from the student perspective there are two contrasting demands made in terms of distance learning or online learning.48 On the one hand, a student’s first choice is not to have distance learning. They generally prefer face-to-face and classroom based sessions with strong physical interaction. But on the other hand, students enjoy flexibility and the option of being able to select distance learning when appropriate for them.

Although the markers remain strong and positive for online learning, there have been significant failures. An example is INSEAD, an important European university, shutting down their online ventures due to poor attendance.49

1.6 Corporate training trends

Academic vs corporate online learning

Companies and academic institutions have different objectives and thus offer different forms of online learning. Corporations require specific skills and knowledge relating to their processes and activities and generally focus on provision of online training which yields an immediate commercial outcome. Universities focus on a more generic educational outcome where there is not necessarily an immediate commercial return. Both approaches are important.50

To compare the two types of knowledge (training and education) consider the following (as in Figure 1.6):

Figure 1.6: Comparison of Conceptual vs. Procedural Knowledge


Procedural knowledge (training) involves learning the steps necessary to optimize the operation of a process control loop on a specific item of equipment from a vendor (e.g. how to tune a process loop on the Rockwell Automation programmable logic controller).

Conceptual knowledge (education) involves understanding how all process control loops operate theoretically and identifying key theoretical principles in their operation that allows one to categorize the different types (e.g. temperature and flow control loops).

Corporate Trends

In 2007, US organizations paid out $58.5bn for training with $16.3bn of this for external learning products and services.51 It should be noted, however, that the growth in 2007 was trending downwards compared to earlier years. Naturally, the financial crisis after 2007 put a significant dampener on corporate training with companies struggling to survive let alone grow.

The most popular areas of training are management training and professional or industry-specific training (e.g. accounting, engineering or telecommunications) with 15% of the total online training market characterizing each. Other areas include mandatory/compliance training at 13%, sales training at 13% and IT Systems training capturing 11%.

Instructor-led training covers 65% of all formal training hours, but this has dropped over the years. The use of self-study and online learning currently account for over 20% of student hours. Live, virtual classroom training (based around web conferencing) accounts for a rather small 10% of student hours. Use of other technologies such as videos and paper-based workbooks are declining. Among companies with more than 10,000 employees, 25% of formal training is now self-study completed online and virtual classrooms deliver 12%. Even for small organizations (100 to 999 employees), online training accounts for 20% of formal training.

Almost 40% of organizations are using a learning management system (LMS) with specific figures of 35% for small companies (100-999), 63% for midsize (1,000-9999) and 72% for large (+10,000).

According to the respected IDC, an international market research firm, in a survey conducted in 2004, nearly 80% of companies were creating e-learning objects internally or were planning to do so.52 Web conferencing was considered one of the most popular tools to use in distributing content either synchronously or asynchronously. Companies also wanted to access courses by individual component rather than as complete courses. One example is where a company took a 30-hour course and broke it into 30-minute modules with more focused testing.

From a corporate point of view, in 2003 only 17% of respondents were applying online technologies to their training.53 There is definitely support for increasing its use, however, with many executives insisting on the use of online learning in preference to the traditional on-site courses.54

1.7 The impact on engineering and science


Engineering education has generally lagged far behind other disciplines in terms of online education.55 Currently, over 300 engineering schools in the USA have received accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) but only a few offer online programs.

Figure 1.7: Engineering Education


Distance learning in the engineering arena began in the late 1960s with graduate courses.56 It was considered an easy and affordable way of teaching small classes and was encouraged by the fact that it is easier to deal with technical problems with mature students than with 17-year-old undergraduates.

In the earlier days, many US universities offered engineering programs to off-campus students who were located mainly in metropolitan areas where large numbers of companies and/or military installations were based.57 The newer web conferencing technologies, however, can now reach engineers and technologists at isolated locations throughout the world. This also allows students to keep working in their jobs, without interruption, while taking courses.

In 2009, in a survey conducted by the well-known Electronic Design Magazine, 75% of colleges and universities indicated support for online electronic technology education.58

Two years later, aided by superb media coverage from the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, Stanford signed up 90,000 students within the first two weeks of launching a free course on Artificial Intelligence in October 2011. In total, 130,000 people enrolled, from over 190 countries, with a median age of 30.59 It was observed that the course materials were not slick, but rather quite quirky and engaging. Over 2000 people volunteered as translators (with course videos now in 18 languages). At the conclusion to the course it was noted that homework was commonly left to the last minute, with only half the class submitting it (and this was presumably accompanied by a high attrition rate). This concept, though, has now blossomed into various for-profit companies (such as Udacity and Coursera).

An excellent example of online learning applied to engineering

At this stage, it is worth noting a very early application of online learning to engineering.60 The 10-week Six Sigma quality training used the voice over IP protocol to provide instantaneous, low-cost communication over the internet. Desktop software was shared by the instructor and students, video clips were employed and remote laboratories visited (over the web) to see theory being put into practice. On-the-job training was required, in addition to the online learning, to achieve the required learning outcomes. As such, this training could be regarded as blended learning.

Relevance of online learning to engineering education

As engineering professionals with a penchant for technology, we have to be vigilant about the use of online learning for technology’s sake rather than because it improves our educational offerings.61 It is absolutely necessary to ensure that online learning in the engineering realm is of genuine benefit to education in this subject rather than an exercise in what can be achieved online.

In the past three or four years, several distinct shifts have occured. These can be summarized as follows:

• The computer is now firmly set up as an intermediary for most of our instruments and equipment today, and where easy remote connection is possible, access to equipment can be gained by anyone anywhere.

• Working and learning in engineering is no longer as physical as in the past, but has become considerably more cognitive. The days when you had to file a piece of metal using strength and dexterity are gone, as machinery has taken its place. However, the calculations necessary to program the computer to achieve your desired design outcomes are crucial.

• Communications over the internet have finally achieved a reasonable speed (generally with broadband), allowing the transfer of video and communication remotely without irritating latencies and delays.

• Due to technology changing at such a rapid pace, one has to reconcile or delight in “lifelong learning”. Today it is rare to gain an engineering degree and settle with a company for life, during which time only the skills initially acquired are used.

• Competition between companies is so fierce today that old style classroom education and training is simply too expensive, often outdated and unworkable. Lower cost options, such as online learning (and informal on-the-job training) are being employed.

• We have some incredible insights into what works with learning these days (especially in terms of the brain). The traditional one-way lecture is more frequently being viewed as one of the big “con jobs” of the 20th Century in terms of providing useful knowledge and skills.


1.8 Online learning can be bwtter than face-to-face learning

Considerable debate abounds over the merits of online education against that of traditional classroom instruction. We believe that the issues revolve around the design and delivery to an appropriate audience rather than the delivery medium.62

According to the US Department of Education, as was noted earlier from other sources, online enrolments are growing at a far higher rate than overall higher education ones; 13% vs. 1%. Engineering is still one of the lowest ones represented with the main problematic areas including course quality and integrity.63 The larger uptake in online education seems to be paying off too; a comprehensive analysis in 2009, by the US Department of Education’ concluded that students in online education actually performed better than those attending classroom sessions.6364

A slightly earlier analysis of research literature, over the period of 1996 to July 2008, looked at more than a thousand students of online learning.65 The meta analysis showed that:

• “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction”.

• In comparison to traditional face-to-face classroom sessions, blended learning showed the best outcome. However, this finding needs to be tempered by the fact that the blended approach provided additional learning time.

• The different forms of online learning (asynchronous and synchronous) did not affect student learning significantly.

The main reasons suggested for the superiority of the online learning experience included; the additional learning time, access to better and more learning materials and better collaboration opportunities.66

A comparison between an online and classroom course on Engineering Cultures presented at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (both online and classroom) and Colorado School of Mines (classroom) revealed that online students had greater gains in knowledge than their classroom-based peers.67 However, this impact may have been due to the increased motivation of online students and the multiple choice questionnaires used to test the students favoring those candidates online.

Although the research shows that learning outcomes for online and traditional courses are similar with online revealing slightly better results, it is not always entirely convincing.68 Online students were often allowed to select the courses they preferred to attend with no mandatory classes, thus matching their learning styles and abilities to the subjects they find most suitable for them. Other variables that could confound the results included; content variations and instructor quality, more generous time allowances for tasks and finally, exams and assignments differences with varying levels of proctoring. A study at Deakin University (Australia), for example, showed that the grades of off-campus students were higher than for on-campus students.69

A sobering recent survey (4564 faculty members in the USA), garnered mixed feelings for online learning. Almost 70% of respondents indicated that learning outcomes for online courses was inferior, and 40% of those teaching online concurred with this assessment.70


1.9 Advantages and disadvantages of online learning advantages of online learning

The tremendous growth in online learning has been due to a number of benefits for learners, instructors and course developers.71 Many, in the following rather exhaustive list, may be construed as disadvantages. The chapters a little later on will flesh these out.

There are many reasons why students select online learning.72 These include flexible study times, difficult geographical locations and the perception that online is easier than on-campus with a lower level of supervision and control. Against this, there are a multitude of reasons why students prefer not to do online learning. These include the perception that the online courses are boring, involve high-powered computing technology and skills, are more time consuming, are isolating, that there is increased discipline and that better time-management is required.

Figure 1.8: Advantages of eLearning


Key benefits

• There is a dramatic reduction in costs in terms of travel and accommodation for learners. Naturally, online learning reduces the costly and exhausting travel for instructors and support personnel as well. A little reflection reveals that travel is not particularly cheap. For example, in the USA, flying between cities coupled with accommodation and associated costs to engage in a few days of meetings and training can easily cost over a thousand dollars per trip.73

• Students can learn at their optimum pace as online courses facilitate this.

• Learning can be provided to the students flexibly in terms of time and place.

• Learners are independent and are therefore more likely to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning.

• The pre-packaging of materials and recording of sessions allows the instructor to move to higher levels of presentation.

• Recordings of all discussions and interactions are available for later review.

• The quality of the teaching content is more reliable (a standardized set of up-to-date materials).

• There is a single point for access of all course materials–on the server, intranet or specific internet site.

• There is often broader peer-to-peer learning with interaction using chat or web and videoconferencing facilities.

• Professional relationships can be nurtured and learning sustained after a course has been completed with the continued use of the chat, audio and video facilities.

• A standard framework can be established from which new courses can be created.

• To counteract the remoteness of the students, instructors are more inclined to be interactive in their presentations using remote/virtual labs, polls, quizzes, texting and talking.

• The materials are more likely to be absorbed as they are provided in smaller portions.

• The costs of the actual training can be lower when compared with instructor-led training. This is especially useful for developing countries for larger numbers of students.

• It is possible to respond to business requirements quickly and effectively.

• New material can be uploaded to multiple sites quickly.

• The training can be scaled up or down efficiently to handle the number of learners.

• Knowledge consistency is achievable to multiple sites and participants.

• As it is independent and adaptable to the student’s schedule, learning is possible 24 hours a day.

• It is possible to build a learning community within a business as it can fit into the e-business and existing IT infrastructure of an organization.

• Continuous improvements can be made to courses and course materials, resulting in better quality content. This leads to better learning outcomes for the students.

• It is adaptable to different learning styles and pace.

• One can achieve global reach with the learning materials (especially to geographically remote individuals).

• It is claimed that the technologies can promote more rapid learning.

• It can provide the means of documenting a complete curriculum. This ensures that the departure of a lecturer does not require rewriting of the course. From a company perspective, capturing an expert’s knowledge via online technologies is useful.

• One can enhance and build upon the enormous supply of materials available on the web.

• Instructors have quick access to the latest training materials from a website no matter where they are.

• A more consistent level of instruction can be achieved when asynchronous (for example, recorded) sessions are mixed in with synchronous live presentations.

Lesser-known benefits

They are nonetheless important benefits and are as follows:

• There is a reduced impact on climate change (in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and that of other greenhouse gases). With reduced travel to and from the classroom or campus, less energy is used.

• Exposure to diseases is reduced and therefore the spread is contained (e.g. a new pandemic creating potential strains of influenza).74

• There is a greater likelihood that the student body is from a wider geographical area, more multicultural; thus exposing students to a wider range of experiences, cultures and knowledge.75

• With online collaborative events there is an increase in student retention and learning effectiveness. With less travel perhaps an added benefit is the increased time available for tasks.76

• A wider range of interactive learning experiences can be provided and can include; dashboards, polls, question and answers, audio, video, application sharing and remote labs.

• There is extraordinary flexibility in presentation structures, ranging from large to small meetings; just-in-time presentations to formal presentations with full recordings for later viewing.

• There is a close alignment with informal learning that allows for spontaneous training and collaborative sessions.

• Sessions can be easily prepared without much or any IT support.

• Comprehensive reporting and analysis of participants with their feedback on quality and interest can be especially useful for compliance reporting. From an organizational point of view, therefore, one little known benefit is better recordkeeping.

• There is readily accessible data on participant contact details and evaluations of sessions.

• Highly secure training sessions can be conducted with restricted passwords and encryption of all training materials.

• The training and education can reach participants throughout the world with a global impact initiated by organizations, ranging from a one-man band to multinationals. This equalizes the competitive advantage.

• Organizational productivity can be improved with multiple usage out of recorded webinars.

• Work-life balance can be achieved by engaging in learning in a just-in-time modular fashion.

• There is often a strong technical literacy in graduates.77

• The technology can help to reduce impact of a shortage of qualified instructors.

• Reduction in overcrowding and infrastructure costs is possible.

• Enrolments can be boosted by the wider student reach and more flexible nature of the courses.

• With improvements to the delivery and numbers of students, there is scope for greater profitability.

• Universities are able to extend their “footprint” through making their education more widely available.

• It is a potentially a more friendly, more egalitarian learning environment.

• New streams of income can be created, for example, with the reselling of course materials.

• Provision of courses to third world and isolated locations can be achieved.

• There is a reduction in costs due to the use of online technologies.

• There is an improvement in graduation rates with more customized learning.

• There is an adjustment of teaching to students’ learning styles.

• With the idea that learning is more rapid resulting in the swifter acquisition of competencies, it follows that the return on investment is quicker too.78

• In a project-based distance learning course, advantages reported were more extensive collaboration than in a face-to-face classroom due to use of electronic technologies (instant messaging, emailing and message board uses in the LMS– Blackboard).79 The ease of electronic document delivery over paper-based documents was also noted. The authors also suggested that the distance learning courses allowed for equity as students are drawn from all backgrounds over a geographically wide area, without any discrimination due to travel and access issues.

It’s also worth noting that mature age learners are often thought to learn better during online education than in the traditional classroom sessions mainly because they are more independent learners. They also need flexibility in their education because of work and family commitments.80

Disadvantages of online learning

The key disadvantages to online learning include; no learning schedule for courses that contain large numbers of students and the lack of motivation to keep up with the required study, difficulties in accessing materials and other technical issues. These, and a lack of personal contact and interaction can account for high rates of attrition.81

Research conducted with three major US universities indicated that both students and faculty felt that technical topics could be effectively taught via online, are as effective as the classical classroom sessions but there are difficulties with effective communications (asynchronous/synchronous and interpersonal).82

A comprehensive list of disadvantages also exists.778384

Key disadvantages

• Personal and work-related commitments can impact upon the learning experience.

• There is minimal interactivity (especially with asynchronous courses) between the student and instructor.

• Online learning can be lonely and requires one to thrive independently. Students often feel extraordinarily isolated.

• Hands-on experiences are difficult to provide. The inability to deliver lab experiences online was a major obstacle to increased acceptance of online education in the engineering realm.85

• Students need to have increased self-discipline.

• Attrition rates are often huge (figures of 70% are often quoted). Students often struggle to find the motivation to complete their courses.

• Written documentation is often the only direction a student will receive during a course.

• Instructor feedback is not immediate and can be delayed (sometimes by a few weeks).

• Online learning can be extremely time demanding–often more so than classroom-based courses (e.g. due to lack of quick responses from an instructor and lack of spontaneity).

• The blended form of online learning that requires regular visits to a residential campus can be difficult due to other commitments.

• Programs are often of poor quality (so-called “shovelware”). As a result, students and their employers are often concerned about the quality and sustainability of the online experience. Online learning can be extremely time demanding – often more so than classroom based courses. For example, the instructor is not immediately available to assist with an awkward conceptual problem.

• Class sizes are often huge.

• Online workloads can accumulate (due to procrastination on the part of the student perhaps) and result in huge peak workloads.

• Technical problems with synchronous and asynchronous online systems can be difficult to troubleshoot and remedy.86There are often gaps and variability in technology such as bandwidth and IT infrastructure. Poor or intermittent access to computers and the internet can compound the technical issues.

• There are significant setup costs, course resources, support and infrastructure.

• Administrative problems with the management of programs are often encountered.

• There is a loss of serendipitous learning moments and contact with students and instructors (e.g. spontaneously on the campus).

• Increased competition, even in previously niche geographical markets, is occurring due to the rapid provision of online education.

• There is weaker scholarly control of online educational resources.

• Competition and cannibalization of existing (face-to-face) programs occurs, resulting in questions over their economic viability.

• When not managed properly, online courses can result in costs that are often higher than those for classroom-based training.

• Developers, administrators and instructors may be unsuited to the new online medium.

• Certain types of content are inappropriate for online learning.

• Young learners often lack the motivation and initiative for online learning.

• The physical instructor presence is important for many learners.

• Security restrictions exist where learners cannot access the internet due to military, political or corporate policies.

• Secure online testing of course materials is risky without direct supervision.

• Team building is difficult to achieve with people located remotely and with weak connectivity.

• Corporate support can be non-existent or even negative.

• Content on a screen is difficult to learn from.

Lesser-discussed disadvantages

• The online presentation is often fragmented and a holistic picture of the learning process is difficult to acquire.

• Some online colleges and universities (particularly for-profits) are not widely known and training from these institutions can actually cause some hurdles to acquiring work.

• (Re-) training costs required to teach online are often huge (and initially ignored).

• There is often huge faculty resistance to change to the online model of learning.

• Financial aid is often restricted for online programs that are considered lowlier than their counterparts.

• Online courses are often regarded as a poor medium for “soft” or subjective courses due to the need for face-to-face contact and a high and spontaneous level of interactivity.

• The explosion of online education has created a demand that is outstripping universities’ abilities to deliver.87 As universities are increasingly strapped for cash and looking for alternative sources of revenue, they have begun to add online courses to service this additional demand. This has resulted in a collapse in the quality of many institutions.

• Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that while the current generation of computer literate students is easily able to use digital technology in shallow ways (e.g. browsing the web or socializing on Facebook), there are concerns about their use for deep learning with focused attention.88

• Faculty members teaching online find to their surprise or horror that considerably more effort is required to prepare and present the courses. Students expect more of a 24/7 service than for the classroom based approach. The crossover is also avoided because of the perceived isolation, their lack of confidence in using the technology effectively, and fears that the technology is replacing them.

• There are concerns that students engage in a lower level of critical thinking and problem solving exacerbated by the reduced interaction between the students and their instructor.

• Increased time and increased human and financial resources are required for small and medium sized organizations to run online learning programs.89

When is online learning best not used

This is a rather odd question to address in a book on online learning, but as one is approaching training and education holistically, one needs to concentrate on ensuring good quality and effective learning. Many of the issues discussed below will be overcome as technology is improved, but in the interim it may be best to exclude the use of online learning in the following instances (particularly with equipment):

• When you need a live human to intervene in the training. Examples here would be a course on First Aid where there has to be some physical involvement between instructor and student using real equipment.

• When one needs a close reproduction of the real world–for example, touch, vision and hearing. There are courses that would be significantly degraded without these senses present.

• When the number of potential users is very small. As noted earlier, the effort and resources required to put an online learning course together is often significantly more onerous and costly than a classroom session. Alternatively an instructor, with a detailed knowledge of a subject, can often “walk in” and present an outstanding course with minimal preparation and resources.

• When the targeted users do not have access to computers or the internet. Or if they have access, but it is fractured and intermittent. If the latter is the case a solution may be to record the sessions.90

• If the student’s security requirements hamper internet connectivity. Again, a recording may be the solution here.

• If the medium may be unsuitable for some students–particularly if youth or immaturity is an issue.

• Where effective proctoring of students is lacking resulting in the inability to authenticate assessments and certification.

There is a well-founded suggestion that the following issues make a fully online program for young traditional college students less than optimal:91

• The requirement for additional self-discipline.

• A lack of real world experience with equipment, “life” and business.

• Limited faculty and student interactions.

A blended approach to the education model is perhaps the solution.


1.10 The different forms of online learning

As delineated earlier, online learning (also referred to as e-learning, online training or web-based instruction) refers to instruction conducted using the internet where the instructor and learner are remotely located from each other.92 There are two types of online learning: asynchronous (web-based) and synchronous (streaming of video and audio). In addition, there exists a combination of these (often with the addition of classroom instruction) referred to as blended learning.

Asynchronous online learning is where the teaching and learning does not occur simultaneously. It is self-paced and does not require synchronized or concurrent interfacing between the instructor and learner. Often a Learning Management System (LMS) is used to access course resources (such as PowerPoint presentations, recordings and course notes). The majority of online learning is conducted through asynchronous forms of communication. Asynchronous online learning has proven to be successful for the “softer” or “socio-constructivist learning paradigms”. There are reservations, however, about their effectiveness for symbol-based activities such as mathematics, engineering, the sciences and statistics, where synchronous web conferencing may be very effective.93

Synchronous online learning is also more likely to become the mode of choice for collaborative forms of distance learning as it requires the teaching and learning to occur simultaneously. Examples include real time video or audioconferencing or chatting in real time. Web conferencing tools are particularly useful for the “harder” disciplines as mentioned above and include the whiteboard, pointing tool, graphing calculator and application sharing.

The synchronous experience is the focus for the online learning in this book.

Traditional, or face-to-face, training is still classroom-based and is mainly instructor-led. Classroom also remains the dominant form of corporate training today. It is a particularly valuable teaching method for young children and young adults with less maturity and lower levels of self-discipline.

Blended learning is a combination of different training media and events that can create an optimum training program for a specific audience. An example here would be self-paced web-based training (asynchronous), followed by on-the-job training and classroom instruction. These could be accompanied by printed aids, and supplemented by virtual classroom follow-up sessions (asynchronous).

1.11 Remote and virtual laboratories

All engineering professionals regard interaction and hand-on practicals as hallmarks of a good course. For students enrolled in online courses this feature is provided through the use of simulation software, otherwise known as virtual laboratories (labs). A considerable contribution can be made, to both online and blended learning for engineering education and training, by their inclusion.

Learning is an active process. We do not learn much from listening, but we learn enormously from “doing things”. It is also suggested that the higher levels of thinking (e.g. synthesis and analysis) do not take place during online learning as the student is simply listening.94

It follows, then, that many educators have commented on the importance of practical work in the learning process. This would include experimentation with real equipment in the fields of science and engineering, to assist in knowledge construction and to provide students with the expertise necessary to tackle real world problems. A laboratory (or lab, as it will henceforth be called) is commonly acknowledged to be comprised of a room containing specialized equipment on which experiments are conducted, and after which results are recorded.96 Typical skills gained in labs range from observational to manipulative and interpretive.97 Other positive attributes include an increased interest and enjoyment in the subject and a conversion of the theory into reality.

There has recently been a decline in science and engineering literacy, particularly in the USA. A suggested solution includes the online mode of learning with labs conducted by the students at their preferred locations.98 Science courses are seldom offered online, however, because educators are unsure about the efficacy and validity of the online lab experience. Furthermore, there are concerns about the safety of students and the liability of the institution when students conduct physical experiments without supervision.

This book aims to provide you with useful and practical information to set up an online learning project–particularly if you aim to target engineers, technicians and/or scientists with a focus on more technology-based subjects. Skepticism is widespread in the academic community regarding distance learning courses in engineering, largely due to the perceived difficulties in implementing hands-on labs.99 Despite this, included here is the wherewithal required to provide a hands-on, experiential approach to the online learning process using real equipment and laboratories.

There are two possibilities to consider with online labs:100

• Virtual labs involve simulation software running on a host machine. The trick is to set up realistic simulations with real world situations. Despite this, it is sometimes felt that students struggle to gain the required skills and adequate practice, due to their overly theoretical nature.

• Remote labs involve real equipment that is situated at a remote location. Possible hurdles here include the absence of real equipment in close proximity to the student and the speed of response.

Despite the inevitable detractors, remote and virtual labs are widely considered an excellent way to share specialized skills and resources over a wide geographical area.101 They can reduce overall costs and improve the educational experience.

Figure 1.9 gives a diagrammatic representation of a remote lab. Learners are based in different cities in the world, engaged in hands-on activities with a lab situated in London.

Figure 1.9: Operation of remote labs


There are some concerns about the disconnect between the real and simulated worlds and having the computer as an intermediary between the equipment and the student may be found cumbersome. Despite this, many feel that the simulated labs are as effective as traditional hands-on labs.102

Figure 1.10: Example of a typical hands-on lab


1.12 Why students prefer online learning

The students themselves explain the positives for engaging in online learning:103

• They can sleep in; many prefer to work late at night.

• Online learning provides them the flexibility to pursue other pastimes and/or hobbies.

• There are huge distractions in a school environment especially when peer pressure is a factor.

• They can set their own pace and agenda to suit their own requirements.

• Sharing of thoughts and ideas online is felt to be more egalitarian with fewer competitive pressures (especially for introverts).

• There is more flexibility and a greater range of topics available.

• It accommodates students with health and disability issues.

• Direct communication to teachers and peers is more easily achieved.


Key points and applications

Chapter 1

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Introduction.

1.  The growth of online education is huge and unstoppable and is claimed to be one of the ten most outstanding achievements in engineering education in the past century.

2.  The application of any successful technology requires it to become invisible in the fabric of everyday life. This is true of online education.

3.  Much of online learning today is poorly done with high attrition rates.

4.  There are five megatrends impacting on education on a global basis:

• Democratization of knowledge and access.

• Increased competition in markets and funding of education.

• Increased prevalence of digital technologies (such as online education).

• Global mobility of colleges, students and resources.

• Tighter integration between education and industry.

5.  The traditional lecture is rapidly dying.

6.  The world’s finest teachers from elite universities are now presenting in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) through Coursera, Udacity, and EdX.

7.  There is rapid growth in online enrolments with over 60% being adult learners (in the USA). Fewer than 25% of students between 18 and 22 on US campuses attend as full time undergraduates.

8.  The most popular forms of corporate training are management and professional or industry-based (e.g. accounting and engineering) with online training making up at least 20% to 25%, a figure which is growing rapidly.

9.  Online education is also driven by the following scenarios: The job market is continuing to change dramatically; automation of jobs is accelerating; technology requirements are changing thus requiring more lifelong learning to keep updated; classroom infrastructure is proving expensive to maintain; lectures are increasingly regarded as a dysfunctional form of learning and the computer (and internet) is becoming the key tool for execution of all work activity.

10.  Students perform best with blended learning, followed by online learning and then classroom-based learning (according to a US Department of Education study).

11.  There are many advantages of online learning such as convenience, no travel thus lower costs, pre-packaging of materials and recording allows for “flipped classroom” and global reach of programs (and more economically viable courses).

12.  The disadvantages of online learning include a student’s lack of motivation to learn, minimal interactivity, the difficulty of providing hands-on learning, poor quality programs (“shovelware”), expensive courses and a lack of personal contact between instructor and student.

13.  Online learning is not recommended for many situations, such as those requiring a live human (e.g. First Aid training) or a close reproduction of the real world. Situations with a small number of potential students that may not have computer or internet access are also not appropriate for online learning.

14.  There are two main types of online learning: Asynchronous (self-paced often using a Learning Management System to access resources) and synchronous (real time web and video conferencing).

15.  Probably the most effective form is blended learning, which comprises a combination of the different forms such as classroom, self-paced web-based, on-the-job training, and web conferencing.


South African Management Team

Cheryl Reyneke Apolonia Chitongo

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How can an e-learning course be interactive?

Boredom can be a real danger, however, we use an interactive approach to our e-Learning – with live sessions instead of recordings.  The webinar software allows everyone to interact and involves participants in group work; including hands-on exercises with simulation software and remote laboratories where possible.  You can communicate with text messages, or live VoIP speech, or can even draw on the whiteboard during the sessions.


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