If you’re looking to build outstanding online training and educational programs in the fields of engineering and science, then this book is for you.

The internet, still young though it may be, holds near limitless possibilities for online learning throughout all disciplines, especially engineering and science. You may ask, then, why another book on online learning is necessary. Though our reasons for writing this book are myriad, the central point is that few texts have examined the engineering and science-based online learning experience, in a holistic way, with a strong evidence-based approach. This book, in contrast, contains useful and practical information, with a focus on labs and hands-on education and training. There is a renewed impetus for clarity in the online learning sphere as a result of the rapid growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the likely outcome of which is a transformation to the more traditional approaches followed in universities and colleges. In a similar vein, there is also a trend towards the privatization (and corporatization) of higher education, with private providers beginning to compete extensively with traditional universities.

Our experience over the past two decades, in the engineering training and online learning business, has led us to the belief that there is a significant need for online education, but also an opportunity–some might say, a need–for tremendous improvement in this method of teaching. Currently a considerable proportion of this activity is wasted or improperly used.1 As the well-known expert in corporate education, Jay Cross, remarked about online offerings (perhaps, too harshly), ”Vendors churned out page-turners and shovelware.2 Training departments purchased libraries of this garbage and touted cost savings. Unfortunately, workers avoided these awful courses whenever possible and training departments sullied their reputations.”

Our research has also revealed a significant level of dissatisfaction with online tuition from an engineering professional’s point of view. We hope to provide some solutions to these challenges. We hasten to add that we have had our fair share of mediocrity in development of resources for online learning as we experimented with different approaches and philosophies. Opportunities with the internet and emerging computer technologies will, we believe, continue to positively transform education and training in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Interestingly, the role of the instructor is probably even more important in online education than ever before. It is a complete delusion to believe that resources can replace the talented teacher–and yet training entities have invested substantial amounts on replacing the instructor, believing erroneously that this form of software system in online learning is effective. What the internet and the improvement in computing power has provided, however, is an opportunity to tie outstanding instructors to students no matter where they are located in the world. In replacing classroom-based sessions, online instruction can also make education and training economically viable due to its wider geographical reach. If anything, an effective teacher is even more important online than in the traditional classroom, due to the lack of visual cues from students. Technology does not and cannot alleviate this need.

However, it should not be assumed that a good teacher in the classroom would be a good teacher online. Conversely, we have found that many instructors able to deliver good training within the classroom setting are unable to provide good instruction using these new online technologies. Paradoxically, the additional availability of technology is challenging and can increase the amount of work necessary to prepare training resources.

Before we go much further, it should be noted that the “e” in e-learning is starting to disappear; so we will stick to the term “online learning” or simply ‘learning’ in our discussions.3 To provide some justification for this, we would note that there are markedly fewer references to “e-learning” job positions of late; fewer digital training programs labeled “e-learning” (they are instead simply referred to as “learning” or “training programs”) and although webinars are becoming more commonplace, they are not generally referred to as “e-learning” events. As standard, when “$” are referred to, this will be with reference to the US dollar.

This practical book, then, is about helping you successfully apply online applications and methods to engineering training and education. Bear in mind that online learning is only one part of the training solution. One should always consider education holistically, necessitating a combination of methods rather than any single one. This combination should include online learning, classroom instruction, on-the-job training and informal learning (reading, talking to one’s peers and personal study). If this combination is accomplished effectively, tangible and measurable results should follow. It is interesting to note, however, that on-the-job learning is often the most effective, especially in small business.4

Applying online learning to the engineering and science domains has been an ongoing journey of discovery for us. Initially we were enthused by synchronous online learning (web and video conferencing), but dismayed by the materials provided for asynchronous online teaching (“books on the web”). Having reviewed and experimented with the different technologies, however, we have discovered that nothing is totally black or white, but by using a judicious combination of the different components of online learning one can provide a superb overall solution. Most of this book reflects real world experiences through our efforts to implement and test various online learning technologies. Our students are often brutally honest, so we learn very swiftly what works and what does not!

Online learning has been around now for well over a decade.5 As noted earlier, much of what has been offered thus far has a poor reputation for quality of learning with terribly high attrition rates; sometimes less than 10% of people complete a course. On the other hand, online learning has been successfully integrated into numerous areas including simulations, remote labs, 3D learning environments, informal learning, video and web conferencing and indeed successfully forms part of a blended learning approach. Online learning has become a key part of any normal learning experience.


To avoid redundancy in education, and to avoid your teaching methods becoming staid, it is vital to jump on board. The online techniques now available reveal enormous opportunities to provide an outstanding product in its own right or as a complement to classroom teaching and indeed to on-the-job training.

We struggled between two extremes when writing this book. Should we put together a brief aide memoire to help people get up to speed when they’re short on time, or gather in one complete text all the materials uncovered in our research over the past five years? After much deliberation we eventually favored the latter, but as a compromise we have highlighted and summarized the key points at chapter endings. Although tempting from an academic point of view, we have avoided putting in bibliographical references in the main text to increase readability, and have settled on a list of sources at the back for further reading.

There is a weighty coverage of labs in general and remote experimentation specifically in this text. This is a necessity, we believe, for high quality engineering and scientific education. In a similar vein, our coverage of science (as opposed to engineering) is fairly thin, but we hope you will forgive us on this score by viewing engineering as an applied science, as we do.

How Will You Benefit From Reading this Book?

With its focus on online learning for engineers, technologists, technicians and tradespeople, the following skills and knowledge can be gained from this book:

•  Exposure to the new and different terms, acronyms and methods available for online learning in engineering, technology and the sciences.

•  Skill and knowledge acquisition for designing and presenting high quality online courses.

•  The requirements to make a smooth transition from the classroom to the online learning approach.

•  The enhancement of existing learning and training strategies with these new approaches.

•  The knowledge to set up the infrastructure and technologies necessary for the efficient delivery of online courses.

•  The requisite operating skills to run a high quality online college or institution in the engineering and science fields.

•  The requirements necessary to train instructors to effectively present online courses.

•  A strong evidence-based approach to online learning.

Figure 0.1: Hopefully This Book Contributes to Your Learning Toolbox

Who is Our Target Audience?


We believe this book will be useful to you if you are:

•  An engineer, scientist, technologist and/or technician wanting to deliver high quality online education and training.

•  Working in an engineering and/or science-based academic faculty at a university or college.

•  A staff member working in a corporate training department who wants to extend and improve their training results.

•  Working in engineering/scientific sales and marketing and wanting to educate others on their products.

•  Someone who needs to educate the general public on government programs that are specifically engineering- and technology-based.

•  A science teacher or student at school who wants to connect to other students and schools throughout the world with teaching/learning programs.

Assumption of Prior Knowledge

This book is about online learning as applied to engineering and science students and professionals. As such, we assume that you have had some contact with online learning, have worked on a computer and are familiar with basic educational and training concepts. If so, this book will be of value to you.

If you have any comments or queries, however, we would be delighted to hear from you. In the first instance, simply email Steve Mackay at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

What are the Contents of this Book?

What follows is the briefest summary of each chapter:

Chapter 1 Introduction. This chapter sets the stage and gives a brief overview of what online learning is about especially in the engineering and, to a lesser extent, science-based context.

Chapter 2 Creating Useful Education and Training. This chapter examines the basic elements of high quality training and education from a general and then engineering perspective. It provides some suggestions on what engineering professionals are after.

Chapter 3 Putting Online Learning Under the Microscope. In this chapter we examine online learning in general and provide background to the following two chapters on asynchronous and synchronous technologies.

Chapter 4 Key Elements of Asynchronous Online Learning. Here we review the most common form of online learning, which is also the form that has the highest attrition rate.

Chapter 5 Synchronous Online Fundamentals. This section examines the key elements of synchronous online learning.

Chapter 6 Good Practice in Web Conferencing. We detail the methodology to be followed in designing and running a web conference.

Chapter 7 Mobile Learning. In this chapter we examine this new area of online learning that shows considerable promise, often in unlikely areas of endeavor.

Chapter 8 Review of Traditional and Online Laboratories. This chapter studies the various forms of labs, ranging from traditional to home experimenter kits to virtual and remote laboratories (with the latter two covered in considerably more depth in chapters 8, 9 and 10). Labs are a critical part of the engineering learning experience and provide access to hands-on education and training.

Chapter 9 Virtual Laboratories. Here we will discuss the fast growing field of simulation software in some detail with real examples of successful implementations.

Chapter 10 Remote Laboratory Applications. This chapter describes an extensive range of implementations and lays the foundation for the following chapter.

Chapter 11 Remote Laboratory Approaches. This chapter builds on the previous one by drawing out the common themes for lab architecture and the optimal approach to building a successful experience.

Chapter 12 Virtual Teams and Collaborative Learning. This is arguably one of the greatest impacts on online education in the past few decades: the use of virtual teams and collaboration to achieve great learning outcomes.

Chapter 13 Assessment and Evaluation of Students and Online Learning Programs. This chapter considers the assessment of both students and the effectiveness of online programs. Remote assessment of students is examined, as is the issue of the quality of the online learning programs.

Chapter 14 Management of Online Learning. Here we detail techniques on how to provide an outstanding engineering online learning course.

Chapter 15 Marketing of Online Learning. This chapter notes that there is a chasm between creating good training and good attendance at your online course.

Chapter 16 Applications. This chapter reviews, in detail, real examples of online learning technology applied holistically to engineering education and training.

Chapter 17 Tying it All Together. The concluding section pulls all the issues and concepts discussed in the book together.

The appendices contain explanations and discussions of claims made in the text, operational details of typical software packages used and suggested further reading on the subject. They include:

Appendix A Self-Appraisal for Distance Learning Preferences
Appendix B A Typical Learning Management System
Appendix C A Typical Web Conferencing Package
Appendix D A Typical Remote Labs Software Package
Appendix E A Typical Proctoring Software Package

We hope you will enjoy the book and find it useful. I, Steve Mackay, take full responsibility for the contents of this book. As this is a living book, please let us know of any brickbats or suggestions for improvements. We shall implement any necessary corrections or suggested improvements immediately.

SM and DF