Creating Useful Education and Training

“In times of change, the learner shall inherit the earth while the learned will be equipped for a world that no longer exists.”

– James Thurber

Chapter contents

2.1    Introduction

2.2    Training vs. Education and Knowledge

2.3    The Knowledge Society

2.4    The target market for online learning

2.5    Informal Learning

2.6    Authentic Learning

2.7    Measurement of the Efficacy of Training

2.8    Two Thrusts in Pedagogy–Behaviorist or Constructivist

2.9    Application to Engineering Professionals

2.10  A Few Final Words

 

2.1 Introduction

The former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, once remarked, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage”.1 Corporate CEOs realize that training is vital to their competitiveness and to employee motivation and critical to the survival of their companies.23 This chapter will look briefly at the underpinning theories and the market before focusing on what engineering professionals are after in terms of effective training and education.

In a corporate environment, training should be unashamedly aimed at improving productivity. This is perhaps somewhat mercenary when compared with the more lofty objectives of education at a university: to increase knowledge.

The target market for online learning will be discussed, then followed by a review of the rather overlooked topic of informal learning. The importance of knowledge in relation to work will then be examined. Authentic learning, as a key attribute of all training and education, will be considered and the efficacy of training and education (or return on investment) in today’s more challenging economic environment will be debated. Two thrusts of education pedagogy–constructivism and behaviorism–will then be detailed. Finally, the impact of training and education on engineering professionals will be examined. Once these areas have been covered, the book’s way forward will have been prepared: addressing the real needs and challenges to provide education and training (focusing on the online methodology) for engineering professionals.

 

2.2 Training vs. education and knowledge

At this early point, the differences between education and training need to be clarified. “Education” is often considered a process of knowledge acquisition over a protracted period of time with a focus on higher level thinking, whereas the term “training” is most often used to refer to the acquirement of specific technical skills.4

Figure 2.1: Training vs Education

 

Generally, these terms are used interchangeably in this book as training has moved significantly beyond its psychomotor base to incorporate more cognitive content, and similarly education now often has a more job-oriented, practical focus (e.g. in completing an engineering degree, industry and job related skills are applauded).5 Training is thus generally focused on preparing a student for one particular job or activity with a specific skill or practice (e.g. such as using an item of equipment or engaging in a particular procedure). Education is aimed at providing a student with a broad range of problem solving abilities with a strong underlying theory base.

The term “learning” will be used here in a more general sense, as the outcome of both training and education.

Training and corporate productivity

It is important to place the need for training and education into context, as important drivers of our economic well-being.6Training is a strategic and critical investment and one that is becoming even more imperative with equipment growing increasingly complex. If the maximum possible value cannot be extracted from the equipment (including the ability for troubleshooting), the outcome will be a lower return on investment.7

It is vital that the changes wrought by training are of benefit to the organization–some return on the training investment must be expected.8 Unsurprisingly, some commentators have railed against the amount of unproductive training that is conducted.9

Figure 2.2: Effective training translates into productivity improvements

 

In the modern workplace, employees educated in a particular body of knowledge are also expected to be competent communicators–in both written and oral forms.10 This tends to be more difficult for those who are from an engineering background–a truism claimed by an engineer!

One of the challenging aspects of effective education is the tying together of theory (why does it work?) and practice (how does one make it work?).11 To this end, a lab or other hands-on activity should be closely aligned to the theory and to the real world. This ensures that the student can test ambiguities and errors possible in his work environment and contrast them to what the theory would have predicted. When this is effective, the learner will be qualified to work on and diagnose problems in a range of real devices, not just on the one used for training.

From an engineering point of view, one of the challenges with training in this area is the diminishing number of experienced instructors available due to aging, and also in part due to inadequate interest in the engineering and sciences by the younger generation in the Western World.12

Wisdom is the end product

It is useful to take a graphical view of the basic path education takes, from “data”, “information”, and “knowledge” to “wisdom”.13“Data” are collections of unrelated facts whereas “information” is essentially data related to other data. “Knowledge” then can be considered to be organized information such as theories. When the knowledge is applied in a work context, the design of a useful item of equipment for example, this is referred to as “wisdom”.

Figure 2.3: Moving from data to wisdom Different levels of knowledge and online learning

 

Care must be taken when designing and conducting online learning to ensure that students learn deeply enough to enable critical thinking. There has been some concern that online courses "spoon-feed" students and therefore limit their ability to manipulate ideas or move beyond the concrete level of thinking. It is imperative that students are able, through their learning, to apply higher order skills such as the analysis and evaluation of situations.14 This is considered shortly in the discussion on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Figure 2.4: Myths of online learning have to be dispelled

 

As knowledge and its availability are expanding at such a fast rate, it has become important to know where to find it, to determine its validity and then to use it appropriately. Involved in this process is the ability to think creatively (and laterally) and to perform problem solving and decision making in a logical and structured manner. Bloom developed a model to break critical thinking up into a hierarchy ranging from recall, at the bottom, up through comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation and to the highest which is creation. Note that revisions were made to the original Bloom’s Taxonomy in 2001. How is this applicable to engineering education and the acquisition of technical skills?15 A few examples are given below.

Examples of the application of Bloom’s Taxonomy (as in figure 2.5) are as follows:

Figure 2.5: Bloom's taxonomy Remembering (the lowest level)

Online learning activities can test a student’s ability to recall using tests and quizzes (and sometimes assignments). Information simply has to be regurgitated. An example could be to show recollection of Kirchhoff’s Current Law by identifying the correct formula in a quiz containing a range of formulae.

Understanding. This requires an understanding of the materials in order to respond to a question based on the content. An example from the field of civil engineering is to understand the characteristics of a concrete beam by comparing the durability of it with one that has been reinforced by undertaking various tests.

Applying. The student has to apply information learned to a new situation. For example, by comparing differently-sized electrical conductors with different voltage drops, it should be possible for a student to establish that the larger the current carrying conductor, the lower the voltage drops along the cable.

Analysing. This is the ability to break down a concept into its components and to analyze their structures and the relationships between the individual components. This allows a student to reorganize the components. An example of this process would be to take a schematic of an electrical distribution network; to analyze the different power flows and to assess whether the power system protection settings for each component circuit are acceptable and to suggest changes if required.

Evaluating.This requires the student to review the value or worth of a concept or component based on predefined criteria. For example, the student is provided with submissions from four different vendors of control systems against predefined criteria in a tender document and has to assess the strength or value of the product (and service) propositions from each vendor and then rank the offerings.

Creating (the highest level). This involves combining the individual components into a new working product, or restructuring the existing components into a new system. For example, a student is given the individual components of an hydraulic circuit and has to assemble them into a working product to handle a particular application.

Online education, traditionally, has been very good at transmitting information to students; but perhaps not always so good at getting students to apply, analyze, evaluate and create with the knowledge received. This is why the value of bonding the gifted instructor with the student is as vital as ever, no matter how remotely they may be located. To ensure the levels of learning are acquired, further consideration of the online teaching methodology is necessary. Alternatively, the local university (local to the student) may still be able to effect this final transformation of knowledge into a true learning outcome.

Learning is an active process.16 We don’t learn much from listening. We do learn enormously from ‘doing things’, however. It has often been suggested that the higher levels of thinking (e.g. analysis, evaluation and creation) do not take place during online learning as the student is simply listening (a similar scenario in a lecture theatre?). Although this may be true of much of online learning, the higher levels of thinking can be effectively provided in online courses.

 

2.3 The knowledge society

The famous management thinker, Peter Drucker, wrote that the next society that we live in will be the knowledge society, with its key workforce component being knowledge workers.17 The three main characteristics of this society will be borderlessness (knowledge travels easier than money), upward mobility for everyone (once you have acquired the relevant knowledge) and the potential for failure and success (while most can acquire the appropriate knowledge, not everyone can win).

The term “knowledge worker” has traditionally referred to such professions as engineers, lawyers, teachers, accountants and doctors, but those not greatly considered are the “knowledge technologists” (as Drucker refers to them) who are likely to be the dominant component of the workforce in the 21st Century. This includes workers such as computer technicians, programmers, lab technicians and manufacturing technologists.

Figure 2.6: Various incarnations of Drucker's knowledge worker

 

In the past, they would have been engaged in manual tasks, but now they are manipulating large amounts of complex knowledge (including theoretical knowledge) and using computers (often working remotely) to affect work results. They generally acquire their theoretical knowledge through formal education and on-the-job training from their peers and mentors. With the emphasis on knowledge as opposed to gaining manual skills (e.g. building up prowess in bricklaying, where hands-on skills are acquired through practice on a building site), the opportunities for imparting such expertise online is obvious and the need for such education is expanding.

 

2.4 The target market for online learning Attributes of a changing generation

Changes between generations are fairly slow and any belief that the new “digital generation” is dramatically different to earlier generations is flawed.18 The current generation, however, is undoubtedly more familiar with digital media. Another trend seen in this generation is the decrease in traditional literacy and general factual knowledge, but an increasing sense of entitlement in terms of services and technology.

Massive investments made into telecommunications and computer technology have done little to reverse the trend. For example, reading proficiency in the USA dropped from 40% to 35% between 1992 to 2005.

The “Net Generation” (born between 1980 and the present) refers to the generation of people who have had ready access to computers and the internet and who are expected to be proficient in the use of the technology.19 This generation tends to expect products and services to be delivered immediately, customized to their needs, conveniently accessible and under their control. They are not particularly satisfied with being passive consumers and in order to accelerate this process they have taken control of designing, producing and distributing content, services and products themselves. Surveys show that students from this generation (and other earlier ones) spend a prodigious amount of time on the internet researching and writing assignments, instant messaging, email and surfing the net (for 15 hours or more per week).

Surveys of first year engineering students at Virginia Tech in 2010 showed a considerable inclination and ability to multitask (for example accessing the web, texting and emailing simultaneously) with 93% reporting that they could do two or three simultaneous tasks while working on academic work.20 The result is a weakened ability to focus on individual tasks competently and adverse effects on memory recall.

The “Net Generation” are also referred to as “kinesthetic learners”, meaning that they supposedly learn best through “doing, experiencing or being involved”.21 Students in engineering are generally oriented towards problem solving, designing and creating things and new technologies and it is therefore imperative that the learning and labs facilitate this. However, it is felt that in Australia and much of the Western World (at least) this need is not being satisfactorily met due to poor lab infrastructure. This point will be addressed in more detail in Chapters 8,9,10 and 11.

Two major groups of students have been identified at Australian universities and by extension, in most others in the western world: traditional students (post high school, full-time, between the ages of 18 and 24) and non-traditional students (with additional roles such as parent, employee, business owner).22 Mature age students would fall into this second group, although they are a large and defined subset of students, as will be discussed in the followed section.

Attributes of mature age professionals

Mature age students are often considered better candidates for online education, as they tend to be more independent. They also prefer the flexibility offered with online learning as it enables them to juggle work and life commitments.23

Experts such as Knowles indicate that adult learners require three things, in terms of learning.24 They need learning that is:

• relevant to their jobs and/or careers.

• capable of translation into immediate applications

• containing access to actual hands-on practical exercises.

To extrapolate, Knowles has made the following suggestions for creating a successful environment for adult learning.25 He asserts that an adult learning environment needs:

• A supportive environment focusing on content and concepts rather than individuals.

• Unerring and ongoing focus, throughout the course, on adult learning.

• A course plan and structure with clearly defined objectives, outcomes, resources, materials and a time line.

• Movement from the general to the specific in the presentation.

• Active participation with breakout and study groups normally generating great results.

Put in another way, factors that motivate adult learning include expertise of instructors, relevance of content to their work, choice in applications of recommended methods, implementation of methods to practice (and then reflection on generalizing the outcomes) and working in a collaborative way to facilitate knowledge and experience sharing.26

 

2.5 Informal learning

A critical part of training and education, which is often ignored due to its lack of structure, is informal learning.

Figure 2.7: Examples of informal learning

 

A suggested definition of informal learning refers to a process that is neither determined nor designed by the organization and is not necessarily aligned with organizational goals. It occurs during team sessions, meetings and when working with customers and suppliers. It includes the mentoring or on-the-job training of new recruits, exploration by staff members, all forms of communication and inadvertent cross-training. Documentation assists the learning and obviously it occurs when a person simply does their job and works in the industry. The environment or context in which the work activity occurs plays a huge part in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Formal learning should not be discarded, however; the opportunity to significantly add value to an individual’s learning is through linking them together effectively.

The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (1996) indicated that as much as 70% (some pundits put it at 80%) of all workplace learning may be informal–that which takes place outside the traditional formal training environment.2728Informal learning should, therefore, be considered when formulating any program of education or training, as it accounts for so much of a worker’s competence on the job, skills and knowledge acquisition.

More specific and typical examples of informal learning when faced with problems at work include:

• Emailing a query.

• Performing a Google search.

• Consulting with experts.

• Chatting to colleagues in a meeting or over the "water cooler"

• Testing various approaches using trial and error.

• Using social networks.

• Instant messaging, texting and video collaboration.

Informal learning is the grandfather of learning. In the Middle Ages, for example, trainees were indentured to master craftsmen/women. His/her skills were transferred through thousands of minute training interventions (over many years), without any formal methodology.

And still today, as mentioned, Bersin has estimated that 80% of training is conducted informally.29 For engineering professionals too, 80% of their learning occurs on-the-job rather than through formal processes.30

Contrast this to formal learning, which is effectively a curriculum often defined by a committee, and which may not match each learner’s needs. Formal learning has a designated start and finish with some sort of recognition at the conclusion of the process.

Informal learning, conversely, is never-ending without formalized sessions. The latest technologies, including social networks, are a powerful and modern form of the method as they enable information transfer via human conversation. It offers a great way of tapping into the experience held by retirees, no matter where they are based. Their reserves of knowledge can be transferred quickly and effectively through the modern communications networks (on which the web is based). According to Bersin, informal learning can be categorized into:

• On-demand learning or self-study learning using books, videos and podcasts.

• Collaborative learning. This also includes the use of coaches and mentors and communities of practice.

• Embedded learning that is comprised of checklists, reference cards (for instance, how to use your photocopier to print an awkwardly sized image) and help systems in the software of your application.

One suggested (but debatable) model for blended learning is based on the principle of 70% on-the-job learning, 20% from peers and 10% from formal learning.31 Despite the lowly 10% suggested here, formal learning still plays a key part in the training process. For example, to use a software tool, on-the-job trial and error (and by consulting a manual) could be a solution to gaining the basic knowledge, but by attending a sharply focused and intensive training event proficiency with the tool is likely to be gained more quickly.

Working on your own with the much vaunted discovery learning is not necessarily the best strategy, particularly for novice learners. Guided learning, from knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructors who employ worked examples related to the topics of study, is a more substantial and recommended approach.32 In fact, a concern with the free availability of resources on the internet (especially worked solutions to problems posed) is the very real possibility that these solutions are actually incorrect.33

One strategy that’s recommended for colleges and universities but has thus far proven difficult to achieve is the linking of their classroom teaching to work sites and industry, tying together formal and informal learning for optimum results. Online learning can certainly assist with this endeavor.

 

2.6 Authentic learning

Technology can, and should, be used to support authentic learning rather than as a mere convenience or entertainment.34 By “authentic”, we mean that the learning has real, practical value for the learner. Meaningful learning using new technologies, however, will only occur if it relates closely to the leaner’s work context.35

An authentic learning environment (which can be greatly assisted with technology tools such as videos, blogs, wikis, synchronous web conferencing, podcasts, communities of practice, emails and discussion boards) includes:

• An authentic context. The learning environment should not only reflect the real working world, but should be holistic and all-embracing.

• Authentic activities. The learning should focus on the real activities students that will undertake in the real world over an extended period of time and which are generally ill-defined.

• Expert demonstrations.

• Multiple access and perspectives from various sources of learning.

• Time for reflection on the learning that has occurred.

• Collaboration with other learners.

• The articulation of what has been learned using presentations and video production.

• Coaching and scaffolding by the instructor using hints, reminders, prompts and feedback.

• Integrated assessment of activities that are seamlessly built into the learning activity.

• Continuous professional development of the educators and trainers on the latest developments and applications in available learning technologies.

Industry requires proof of the value of training with a close alignment to their financial goals. It is important, therefore, that the authenticity and value of the training is clearly demonstrated to business by the training provider.

 

2.7 Measurement of the efficacy of training Five evaluation levels for measuring the efficacy of training

In an engineering context it is a worthwhile exercise to evaluate training, to ensure that it meets the required standards.

By building on Kirkpatrick’s model, Phillips identifies five levels of measurement to assessing the efficacy of training:36

Level 1 Reaction and planned action. This measures participant satisfaction with the course and captures planned actions.
Level 2 Learning. This measures changes in knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Level 3 Application. This measures changes in on-the-job behavior.
Level 4 Business Impact. This measures changes in business impact variables.
Level 5 Return on Investment (ROI). This compares program benefits against the costs.37

Put another way, the first four can be rewritten as:

Level 1 Reaction – Did the participant like it?
Level 2 Learning – Did the participant learn?
Level 3 Behavior – Did the participant use the knowledge?
Level 4 Results – Did the training result in a monetary benefit to the company?

Figure 2.8: Phillips building on Kirkpatrick's model

 

Level 1 is always measured through so-called smile sheets, but little correlation has been shown between this and level 2, which considers how much the participant learned. In other words, enjoyment of and benefit from training are not always correlated.38

Return on investment (ROI)

A key driver in using online learning and blended learning is reduced costs. Online learning has often been considered one of the best ways to achieve significant savings, but when the potential problems with poor learning outcomes are considered it often proves more costly in the long run than face-to-face instruction.39 For instance, if a poorly-executed online course leaves trainees undereducated in a specific topic, it can lead to wasted hours by the employee and wasted money for the company. Add to this the cost of re-training the employee, and you can see where the problem lies.

There are, however, enticingly significant savings that can be made through online training–as long as the substance of the training can be guaranteed. The list that follows (some of which have been mentioned) indicates the typical, quick cost benefits that can be gained from online learning:40

• A reduction in training costs through savings on travel, accommodation, venues and materials (for both instructors and learners).

• The rapid launch and implementation of training products into the market.

• A reduction in staff turnover by providing more challenging and interesting training.

• The minimization of downtime due to quicker access to pertinent information.

• Improved productivity.

• Lower per unit costs of training materials due to re-use.

• Improvement in customer satisfaction and thus retention and greater sales.

• Improved quality of products and services for customers.

• Employment and retention of better quality employees.

ROI is defined in accounting terms as earnings divided by the investment made to achieve these earnings.41 The measurement of ROI is particularly difficult to do each time some training is undertaken, due to the depth of research required of a particular company’s processes. ROI is used in the context of a comparison of blended and online learning against that of classroom training. Generally, there is difficulty in assessing each company’s increased revenue or the savings that directly originate as a result of the training expenditure.42

In calculating ROI for online learning it was presumed, at worst case, that there was no difference in the learning output (behavior, knowledge and skills) no matter the methodology; online or classroom based. The focus of ROI, therefore, is the savings that online learning can generate when compared with classroom training (as discussed below).

Figure 2.9: Online and other classroom

 

In terms of asynchronous (web-based) vs. synchronous (for example, videoconferencing) online learning, there is one main cost difference.43 This involves the cost of adapting materials to be placed on the web server for asynchronous online learning. The initial costs of asynchronous web-based training are often considerably higher than for synchronous videoconferencing, but the incremental costs are much lower. Once the material is prepared, students can access it without the requirement for costly human intervention. Web and videoconferencing, on the other hand, cannot claim this saving.

A variation of the above formula for calculating ROI is to divide the savings produced through web-based training by the additional initial investment it required as follows:44

ROI = (Total costs for classroom training – Total costs for web-based training) (development costs for web-based training – total development costs for classroom training)

and quoted an example as follows:

ROI = ($513,000 -$338,500) x 100% / ($160,000 -$20,000) = 125%

Where: $513,000 was the cost of classroom training
  $338,500 was the cost of web-based training
  $160,000 was the development cost of web-based training
  $20,000 was the development cost of classroom training

ROI must be the ultimate measure of evaluation from a business and corporate perspective–and for any activity within a firm to be sustainable it must be measurable.

The main payoff of the ROI methodology is that it allows the justification and defense of budgets for online learning.

In a survey, cost benefits for web-based courses in a Bell Canada pilot project had ROIs ranging from C$3 for every C$1 spent to C$33 for every C$1 spent.45 The synchronous training and the asynchronous training savings per student were C$1103 and C$702 respectively. The main savings came from the ability to train numerous students without large incremental costs. Furthermore, it was deemed more efficient with fewer training hours necessary to deliver a given course (the so called Compressor Factor).

 

2.8 Two thrusts in pedagogy-behaviorist or constructivist

Whilst these terms may sound somewhat theoretical, conceptually they are quite straightforward and are important considerations in the context of online learning for engineering professionals.

Figure 2.10 Behaviorism vs constructivism

 

The first pedagogical approach is behaviorist/objectivist. This is often considered the traditional form of classroom teaching where the “teacher teaches” and the learners eventually show a different behavior based on their degree of learning. The entire process revolves around the teacher with the learning process acting upon the students and manifesting behavioral change. This model ignores the key fact that a teacher cannot “learn” for a student; only the student can undertake this.

The second pedagogical approach is constructivist. This occurs when the students actively engage in their own learning and the teacher is more of a facilitator. Use of the constructivist model is considered vital for successful online learning, especially as the learners are separated from the teachers and more responsibility is required on their part to take ownership of their learning. Sometimes, the behaviorist approach is referred to as using the “sage on the stage”, against that of the constructivist model where we have the “guide on the side”.46

Figure 2.11: Sage-on-the-stage against guide-on-the-side

 

Encouraging students to embrace active learning with the constructivist model is not always easy. Depending on the type of students engaged in the learning, resistance and dissatisfaction from students is often the end result. Sometimes they believe that they have actually learned less with this approach, as students often prefer to be “spoon-fed” by a teacher rather than have to engage and think during the leaning process!

The constructivist model revolves around the learner constructing knowledge by interpreting and assessing the world and making sense of the new inputs in context. In the construction and expansion of a new mental model, comparisons are made with the student’s existing model (or information base), with new data coming in. Discrepancies are then assessed and a new, modified model (or understanding of the world) created. Constructivist theory posits that each learner develops an individual perspective of the world by building on his or her existing knowledge, experiences, personal interests and goals.47

The theory of constructivism (conceptualized by Jean Piaget) is that all knowledge is constructed by the learner.48 The learner actively tries to derive meaning from the knowledge and thus constructs new knowledge. This is in contrast to traditional thinking where the learner simply copies ideas from lectures onto the blank slate of her mind. The philosophy of constructivism indicates that learners will construct their own unique meanings of a concept therefore making it difficult to assess students on meeting normative goals.

Another term often heard is constructionism (proposed by Seymour Papert, a student of Piaget) which is based on constructivism but is more of an educational method. According to this theory, learning is most effective when constructing a public artifact such as an engineering software design program or electronic circuit. Others can observe the artifact, critique it, make or suggest modifications and apply it to their activities. This strengthens the learning experience for all parties as complex activities such as problem solving and interaction with the environment and others are involved.

Following on from this, it should be noted that experiential learning is so powerful thanks not only to its repetition but also to the enormous variety in the new information confronting the learner.

Some of the constructivist approaches for online education involving active learning include real world experiences, written essays, multiple choice quizzes, collaboration with other learners and working in remote or virtual labs (with a strong hands-on or experiential component).

It is suggested that an improvement of up to 30% can be achieved in the learners’ grades with experiential lab work; also combined with collaborative work in groups on the lab experiments and then presenting the results to the rest of the class.49

A great deal of importance is attached to experiencing something in knowledge construction. Experience does considerably more than simply reinforcing mental models through a repetitive application of skills. The key attribute of experience (such as using hands-on training in a lab environment) is to allow the learner to experience a high degree of variety in the knowledge construction. This exposes the learner’s current mental model to a high level of testing in terms of similarities and dissimilarities, for example.50

This is visited in greater detail in the chapters on labs, but summarized here are other suggestions for improving the quality of learning:51

Failure. When the course provides unexpected results for a learner. A good example here is a lab experiment where the results are often characterized by error in the observations.

Emotionality. Where the learner has to have some emotional response during the learning process.

Reasoning. Where the learner has to work out what is happening with the experiment and why a specific result arises.

Observation. Where the learner watches and notes certain outcomes to an experiment or activity.

Practice by doing. Where the learner executes certain hands-on tasks in the experiment

Motivation. Where the learner is motivated to complete the course or experiment.

 

2.9 Applications to engineering professionals How jobs are developing

It has been observed over the past few decades that jobs are requiring less hands-on experience and more cognitive capabilities.52 The latter requires an increase in technical knowledge, excellent communication skills and collaborative team working abilities.

Most of the job growth in the past 36 years has been in jobs requiring some tertiary (post high school) education, and most of the growth today is in companies with fewer than 500 employees.5354 This implies that the most successful companies have fewer employees, but that those employees are more highly educated, potentially in specific areas.

Talent is in short supply

The World Economic Forum in 2011 remarked that despite high levels of unemployment, talent was in short supply.55 This is especially obvious in the engineering world.

A basic troubleshooting ability in engineering professionals is considered, by some, as a key requirement. For example, automation technicians, technologists and engineers should possess an ability to troubleshoot the control system for a process plant when it does not perform as expected. The most difficult skill, however, in remote monitoring is to convert data into useful information which can be acted upon.56

Many university graduates simply do not have the skills and expertise required. Boeing and Siemens are good examples of corporations addressing this collapse in skills that were formerly taught in schools. They have launched apprenticeship programs in their manufacturing sectors. Adding to the problem is the issue of jobs becoming more specialized, making it difficult to provide specific skills on-demand.

Furthermore, jobs are changing swiftly and dramatically. In the USA the top ten jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. Universities need to urgently re-examine their offerings and methods of instruction.57

Another shift in an employee’s attitude involves his allegiance to an organization. In the current work environment, employee loyalty is a far more flimsy thing and workers no longer have expectations of long-term employment. Corporate training is transforming itself too; it’s moving from a centralized model to one where there is a focus on building up capability using a combination of formal and informal learning, social tools, expertise networks and performance consulting.

How engineering education and training has developed

Engineering education, up until the 18th Century, was largely hands-on.58 It remained this way, but with increasing amounts of theory being built into it, until about 30 years ago. At that time, there emerged a strong emphasis on lecture-based education with considerably less activity in the lab and workshop. This was mainly driven by the increasing costs of rapidly changing lab equipment and student numbers.

Engineering education has always been based around content, design and problem solving.59 Three areas of skill development are considered essential in engineering education: (collaborative) problem solving, teamwork/teambuilding and communications skills. These are now emphasized by engineering degree accreditation authorities.60 A detailed set of requirements for labs, as put together by ABET (The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), is covered in Chapter 8.

It is suggested that students have a maximum attention span of 10 to 18 minutes during a lecture.61 In a typical 45-to 90-minute lecture, each shift in focus further reduces the attention span.62 By combining the lecture with experimentation in the classroom, interest levels are maintained better and renewed less often, which helps learners to make more sense of the content covered. After all, engineering is an applied science.

Despite all the techniques touted for learning improvement, it should always be borne in mind that self-efficacy is the key to such success in science, engineering and mathematics. Studies have shown that one of the strongest indicators for success (both achievement and persistence to complete) in mathematics is self-efficacy–the personal judgment of one’s ability to successfully complete a task.63

Hands-on work

Engineering education distinguishes itself from that of other disciplines by requiring practical training using laboratories and (electronic) equipment, where the theoretical materials are tied into the practical laboratories. In the context of online learning, therefore, it is clear why remote labs (and simulation software) become attractive.64

My father used to remark that a professional engineer’s often arcane and complex designs are nothing until an electrician picks up a screwdriver and commences work towards implementing them. However, the plant electrician today is more likely to be using a computer to diagnose and investigate problems in the plant. While it is unlikely that manual skills and the dexterity necessary to wield a screwdriver, drill and spanner will ever be dispensed with, there is an increasing emphasis on using cognitive skills and the computer at work–a morphing away from the purely physical.

When it comes to training, research indicates that the hands-on approach is regarded as the ideal approach. According to Wikipedia, “Hands-on” refers to human interaction, often with technology. It implies active participation in a direct and practical way. While this implies a physical intervention with a hand tool (as discussed above), it simply means working with the technology and equipment relating to the job.

A common remark about engineering education is that in transferring knowledge we focus too much on lectures and, often, outdated lab work.65 Instead, active learning, with its emphasis on hands-on experiences, is believed to more effectively increase student understanding and competency in a subject.66 The challenge for online learning, therefore, is to ensure that active learning remains a significant part of the process.

Formal versus informal training

As discussed earlier, the suggestion has been made that formal training only accounts for 5% to 10% of how people, especially engineers and technicians, acquire job skills.67 The remainder is as a result of informal learning. Those working in an R&D environment are likely to use many aspects of their four-year engineering education. Others, however, will notice how little of the vast amounts of theoretical content provided at university is applied to the job–and this encourages us to realize that the statistic above has an ominous ring of truth to it. Academic gain-sayers will argue that they teach students to think, and that it is not all about content.

Expert level skills are not based on internal talents, but are as a result of significant levels of practice.68 The process should not involve rote learning, but have learners engaged in feedback about their own activities.

Application to online education

Most online engineering education has focused around the provision of master and certificate (presumably graduate certificate) programs.69 There are several reasons for this:

• The first two years of an undergraduate engineering qualification are heavily focused on mathematics and science, subjects that have proved more difficult to learn online.

• Laboratories are a core part of undergraduate engineering education and they are considerably more difficult to do online.

• Postgraduate engineering education is easier to implement and often does not attract attention from national accreditation systems that tend to focus on diplomas and bachelor degrees.

• Certificate programs are short and very focused, hence very attractive to the working professional; even a master’s degree is about a quarter of the required hours for a bachelor of engineering.

Partnerships between different institutions providing online engineering education can work, particularly at the bachelor level.70 They provide manifold benefits such as increasing choice, flexibility, reduced costs (for the institution, at least), creativity in design and improved collaboration.

Stanford university engineers have their say

A survey by Stanford University’s Center for Professional Development asked what engineers wanted from continuing education programs.7172 The responses indicated that the following are essential:

Access to learning anytime, anywhere. This strongly suggests the need for online learning. Convenient choice in methods of learning. This suggests that engineers want the freedom to be able to select online, classroom or blended approaches as convenient for them. Real world learning. Engineers want a strong focus on real applications– problems and issues–as opposed to a theoretically oriented university approach. Customized learning. This is perhaps the most difficult to satisfy–learning that is tailored specifically for the individual, addressing specific learning gaps. strong>Learning communities. Engineers indicated they wanted to learn in groups comprising likeminded peers from all over the world. Ongoing learning advice from the university. This refers to the university identifying gaps that naturally develop in an engineer’s know-how as technology moves forward. Ongoing alumnus support and advice from the university, throughout the graduate's career, would also be required. Preview of learning materials. Inappropriate training abounds, resulting in engineers preferring to preview course materials prior to commencing. Further to this, touching base with past students can help communicate the value and impact of the learning.

These requirements should be seen in the context of a post-bachelor degree; a graduate certificate or master’s degree. From an engineering point of view, at this stage in their studies, the online format is appealing. Most engineers are working and online learning offers flexibility in terms of time and travel. They also have the requisite motivation to complete an online degree.73

Continuing distance education and what engineers in the US want

Figure 2.12: Examples of various forms of continuing education

 

A survey of practicing engineers was completed in 2000 by the University of Cincinatti.74 Approximately 150 responses were received from the 1,000 surveys mailed out. The age of the respondents ranged from 23 to 64 with an average age of 38 years. The educational levels included bachelor (62%), master’s (34%) and doctorate (4%). There was high to moderate interest of 70% against no interest of 3% in continuing education. Inevitably, engineering management responded with the highest level of interest at 62%. This was followed by computer science and engineering at 40% each then through to mechanical and manufacturing engineering at 35% each. 20% to 30% was attributed to environmental, electrical, civil and environmental management. There was strong interest in participating in non-credit professional programs (+80%) vs. pursuing an advanced degree such as a master’s (estimated at 40%), with the remainder of the responses favoring Graduate Certificates (~40%) and in maintaining their engineering certification (~30%).

The suggested approach, then, is to establish a program where the individual modules build up a student’s credits towards a master’s degree. The format/structure should not be constrained by the academic calendar or by time or place. Technology support for the inevitable and irritating problems encountered when operating computers is vital. Interestingly, there was a strong interest in lifelong learning from those older than 40 years of age (over half the respondents). This indicates the danger of targeting recent graduates in any proposed training and education program.

Training and online learning: research on engineers

Research has been conducted into the training situation of engineers and technicians with a focus on online and blended learning.7576 The initial survey, to over a 100,000 engineering professionals (with 2500 respondents), was aimed primarily at industrial automation professionals–a narrow discipline in engineering–but also included a small and uneven distribution of engineers and technicians from other disciplines. This colors the results and cautions the drawing of conclusions for all engineering disciplines.

Some results

The target audience for the survey was mainly engineers and technicians with a smaller proportion of managers and very few tradespeople and operators. The dominant job function was in engineering maintenance (59%) followed by research and development (14%).

Only 4% of the respondents were female. There is no doubt that females are considerably under-represented in engineering. There is more evidence latterly, however, of a stronger enrolment of younger females against younger males in engineering than in earlier years.

The overwhelming bulk of respondents were over 30 years of age. There is evidence that the traditional western economies (North America, Canada and Europe) are experiencing a greater aging workforce than in other regions. Problems will be encountered when their wealth of knowledge needs to be transferred across to younger workers. Furthermore, as these numbers imply, there is a need to accelerate the number of young entrants joining the engineering workforce, with serious shortages of engineering personnel predicted over the next decade. The most active areas for employment for engineers and technicians would appear to be in manufacturing, consulting and contracting, oil and gas and public utilities. Interestingly, almost a quarter of the respondents came from firms with fewer than 100 employees followed by those with 101-500 employees. The educational level was strongly oriented towards graduates or advanced degree holders who made up most of the sample.

The quality of formal education from universities (as compared to that from other sources) appears to be one of the more highly regarded forms of training on a global basis. The number of hours of training provided to personnel in these companies appears adequate, with an average of 65 hours per year (40 hours for the statistical mode). What is of concern, however, are the significant number of employees (mainly in the smaller companies) who receive very little or no training. Many respondents were critical of their management’s neglect and attitude to training.

Application to engineering education

There is certainly scope for improvement on the current approach in education for engineers and technicians. There is ample evidence, at the level of the local technical and community-based colleges, of a tedious lecturing approach with predictable laboratory sessions. In making any improvements, the current student profile should be taken into account for the two main categories of engineering education programs. The four-year engineering degree programs comprise mainly traditional 18-25 year old students, whilst the two-year associate degree programs have a large number of mature age students, who are likely to be working. In order to provide a high-quality learning experience for these learners, a number of suggestions should be taken into consideration:77

• Place the instruction in the context of the real world and real systems, then ensure there is clarity for the students on how the individual course modules fit together. This will provide a holistic educational experience.

• The learning outcomes provided to the students need to be measurable, but also linked to the requirements of industry.

• Provide ongoing (formative) feedback on how each individual student is performing through a variety of means. Ensure this remains focused on the real world–one in which they are going to be applying their knowledge.

• Get students to undertake practical experience, experiments and tasks prior to engaging in an in-depth theoretical discussion and analysis.

• Put the students into teams to collaborate together in solving real world problems and designing products. Ensure they spend adequate time together reflecting on the work that they have done.

• Use active learning wherever possible to maximize their hands-on work. This could involve such activities as actual hands-on experience, problem solving exercises, the analysis of existing products and the design of new products.

• Encourage students to develop their abilities for learning independently of the instructor and to actively seek to fill in the gaps in their knowledge (and thus build up so-called “metacognitive” skills).

• Build up strong academic-industry linkages. Local industries can provide real support in terms of equipment, advice, curriculum development, on-the-job training, and internships and eventually provide a seamless path to employment (if required).

 

2.10 A few final words

The odd thing about education is that the lecture format is still the dominant one used for teaching, despite research indicating dubious benefits from it.78 A high level of interaction is a critical ingredient of successful teaching and learning–online or otherwise–and this is often lacking in the lecture format. Lecturing has been around at least a thousand years; it is referred to in the mediaeval Latin schools of the 12th Century.

Figure 2.13: The classical lecture in a classroom

 

Admittedly, the technology of lecturing has evolved to some degree; from a master, perhaps under a tree, to classrooms, blackboards, whiteboards, overhead projectors and latterly to PowerPoint slides (often based around a web conferencing software whiteboard). The emphasis today, with online education, is still to take lectures and to provide them as recordings–video or audio or both. More engaging and successful are the classroom lectures that use classrooms transformed into studio-type labs. Here, the students interact in groups with the instructor, equipment and computers and there is a high degree of interactivity in the learning process.

Figure 2.14: Interaction between instructor and student works

 

Lecturing has survived for so many years because we tend to employ what has already been modeled. It is also easy and cheap, with fairly predictable outcomes. It represents very little risk for the instructor and is expected by the students. Most learning institutions are built to facilitate lectures; with their lecture rooms/theatres, timetabling and use of staff. Finally, it is a very reliable way of reaching large groups of students.

There is strong evidence that online education is at least equivalent to traditional instruction for gaining knowledge and in problem solving–but in moving from one form of technology, such as traditional classroom based lectures to online learning, the key to success is to break the old mold.79 It is imperative that new approaches are experimented with in order to optimize learning.

Bear in mind

It should be again emphasized that simply creating handouts or slide presentations is not going to facilitate learning.80

Preparation and an increased level of participation in class is critical to improving students’ motivation, learning and level of critical thinking.81

When the instructional method includes self-directed learning, group discussions and reflection on concepts, students are likely to engage more deeply in the process and to self-regulate their learning effectively. To maximize the efficacy of the learning, however, the instructor needs to give strong and continuous support to the student.82

The position of the learner and teacher can often be inverted, where learners build their own training resources and instruct.

Lessons from socrates

Programming exercises (referred to as the Game Motif method) based on the programming languages C++ or C# were created at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. These were non-traditional and were aimed at developing basic skills and knowledge to build complex game systems.83 The learning principles were built around the Socrates method. Teaching (and learning) with this philosophy is based on asking a series of directed questions to help the student identify the truth. The Socratic instructor acts as the guide and coach and avoids ever providing a glib answer to a student’s problem. All programming exercises are designed for independent learning, in the classroom or online. This appeals to the modern generation of game players who thrive on collaboration with others. They are used to seeking knowledge on the internet and have indulged in multiplayer games on the web. Instructors often work with their students, on a one-on-one basis, working through problems, but never giving “pat” answers.

In conclusion, learning programming for gaming applications makes significant demands on students who generally rise to the challenge. The approach described above, coupled with the use of the Socrates method, can result in superior outcomes in student performance. This approach may not always be suitable for other more prosaic applications such as in the financial, administrative and manufacturing areas.

An interesting comment was made by R.L. Moore, a famous proponent of one of the Socrates’ methods (“The Discovery Method”): “That student is taught the best, who is told the least”.

The importance of intrinsic goals

Research indicates that those students who are most successful in distance learning have intrinsic goals, value their learning and believe in their learning abilities and achievements.84 An intrinsic goal in learning involves an interest in the content, which results in the ability to more ably grasp the key elements in the materials. The process of assimilating the material is found to be pleasant. Furthermore, the gaining of the know-how is sufficient, as an end in itself and no other objective is required. Success for the students with intrinsic goals was more likely when they were able to stay focused on the learning tasks, with distractions minimized.

Key points and applications

Chapter 2

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Creating Useful Education and Training.

1.  An organization’s ability to learn, and to translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage. (Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric).

2.  Education is the process of knowledge acquisition over a long period of time with a focus on higher level thinking (e.g. process control strategies for mining plants), whereas training is used to refer to the acquisition of specific technical skills (how to wire up a machine safely and effectively).

3.  Education goes from data (unrelated facts), information (inter related data), knowledge (organized information such as a theory) to wisdom (knowledge applied to a work context).

4.  Bloom’s Taxonomy indicates the different depths of thinking, ranging from (the lowest to the highest):

• Remembering (“Recall the steps to start the diesel generator”).

• Understanding (“Explain how the diesel generator operates”).

• Applying (“Select the appropriate diesel generator for a particular application”).

• Analyzing (“Compare the designs of three different diesel generators”).

• Evaluating (“Assess the design of a particular diesel generator for a particular application”).

• Creating (“Design a new type of diesel generator for a new context”).

5.  In the 21st Century, online education is suited to the knowledge worker (especially the knowledge technologist) who will be the dominant player in the workforce, as opposed to the manual worker who represents a declining component.

6.  The first major group of learners are the “Net Generation” (born after 1980), with ready access to computer-based devices and the internet. They expect instantaneous consumption of products and services customized to their needs, and want to multitask with a weakened ability to focus on individual tasks in depth.

7.  The “Net Generation” are also kinesthetically-oriented, learning best through ‘doing, experiencing or being involved’. Thus hands-on tasks and labs are critical.

8.  The other major group are mature age professionals who require learning to be relevant to their jobs. This learning should be able to be applied immediately and have a strong bias to hands-on, practical, work-related exercises.

9.  Informal learning (over 70% of learning) occurs during team sessions, meetings, on-the-job training, mentoring and all forms of communication.

10.  Authentic learning that has real practical value for the learner is vital. This includes authentic job-related activities, expert demonstrations, coaching and scaffolding by the instructor, and training of instructors in the latest developments.

11.  There are five levels of measurement of the effectiveness of training:

• Level 1: Reaction. Student satisfaction with a course.

• Level 2: Learning. Changes in knowledge, skills and attitude

• Level 3: Application. Changes in the on-the-job behaviour

• Level 4: Business Impact. Changes in business impact variables

• Level 5: Return on Investment. Benefits against costs.

12.  The constructivist (against that of the behaviourist) approach is vital for online education. The learner constructs knowledge by interpreting and assessing the world and making sense of new inputs in context.

13.  Constructionism is an educational method in which the student constructs a public artefact which others can review, critique and make suggestions on. This is very important for engineering education. Experiential learning is a powerful form of learning especially with lab work.

14.  Some suggestions for improving the quality of learning include: failure (unexpected results), emotionality (an emotional response during the learning), reasoning (to work out what happened with an experiment), observation (noting certain outcomes), practice by doing and motivation.

15.  Jobs today require less manual work and more cognitive effort.

16.  Engineering education used to be largely hands-on, but about 30 years ago emphasis shifted to lectures due to increasing cost and complexity of lab equipment.

17.  Students have a maximum attention span of 10 to 18 minutes in a lecture, so by combining this with experimentation in the classroom, learning can be increased.

18.  Engineering professionals in continuing education are demanding learning that:

• Can be done anytime/anywhere.

• Has real world applications

• Is customised to the individual.

• Is conducted in learning communities.

• Comes with ongoing learning advice from the provider.

• Shows a preview of what the learning comprises and how it is conducted– before it commences.

19.  Companies in a highly competitive environment often neglect training and education, so it is up to the individual to drive this.

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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