“Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”

– Malcolm S. Forbes

Chapter contents

17.1    Introduction

17.2    New Technologies and Their Impact

17.3    Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

17.4    What Works Now for Online Learning

17.5    Risky Predictions

17.6    Conclusion

17.1 Introduction

In this chapter, we will tie together the strands from earlier discussions, look at some recent events in online education and training in engineering and make some tentative predictions of where we will be heading in the near future.

Initially, new technologies are examined, followed by a limited assessment of MOOCs. What is shown to work for online education is then reviewed. The chapter is concluded with a few tentative predictions for the future.

17.2 New technologies and their impact

From Web 1.0 to Web 4.0

The suggestion is made that the evolution of the change in the web will have four phases:1

• Web 1.0 (2000): An information web, characterized by limited interactivity and focusing mainly on reading content with millions of users.

• Web 2.0 (2010): A social / collaborative web characterized by read-write-communicate with billions of users and millions of authors with excellent interactivity (blogs, wikis etc.).

• Web 3.0 (2020): The semantic / mobile web where everything is in a common interchangeable format so that machines can process the data.

• Web 4.0 (2030): An intelligent / self-learning web which is customized to individual users and serves as a personalized universal knowledge base.

The great leveler: not death this time, but the internet

As can be seen in the media and our earlier discussions, the internet is the great leveler. Traditional bricks and mortar businesses ranging from bookshops, DVD libraries to consumer apparel have found the past few years extraordinarily difficult with diminishing sales and profitability. Surely one of the enjoyments in life is to browse bookstores in locations as varied as Bismarck in North Dakota (Barnes and Noble) to London (Foyles).

The same leveling impact will be seen eventually with universities and colleges, where institutions offering high quality courses online will tend to dominate the market no matter where they are. The casualties will be the traditional local college offering a mediocre education. Naturally, these colleges will persist for longer than perhaps a private corner side bookstore, as they enjoy government subsidies and patronage. But eventually they will succumb. It should be noted that the high quality prestigious universities in each region of the world are unlikely to be dramatically affected by this change as prestige and status will probably sustain their model.

Higher education will be slow to respond

A recent survey by the well-known Pew Research Center, indicated that 40% in the survey group felt that universities would not necessarily be transformed by technology.2 The prestigious universities such as Harvard, Yale and MIT would continue with similar processes for lecturing and examining as today. Mass-attended courses at public universities would, however, be taking the online route.

There was widespread agreement that while life-long learning would be a standard form, there was some doubt about whether people would want to attend for career or vocational type training. Due to the widespread availability of content available on the internet (and easily sourced through search tools such as Google), the emphasis would be on being a learner, digital literacy and being able to collaborate more effectively.

The disturbing suggestion was that universities are unable to adjust to these changes as they have a lucrative monopoly at present being able to charge increasingly amounts for education without any significant barriers.

Games and engineering and scientific education

As anyone who has observed a teenager playing a computer game knows, gaming has that incredible power to motivate and is likely to have a significant impact in the future. In an engineering context, games have similar features to problem solving activities such as construction of the problem context, multiple paths to a specific goal, collaboration with other players and an element of chance.3

Most computer gaming technology is still in the early stages of development for educational applications. Brigham Young University has set up the Y Science Laboratories. An example is a virtual chemistry lab, where thousands of test tubes containing solutions were photographed. A simulated lab was then created where students could mix chemicals and observe the resulting chemical reactions. Similarly, the physics lab contains simulations of quantum physics, gas properties, calorimetry, mechanics, optics and so on.

Stevens Institute of Technology set up a virtual lab environment that had three main (game-based) components:

• A virtual lab facility where students obtain lab instructions and allocate the tasks to each other.

• A virtual lab that connects to a remote lab with real equipment.

• A virtual lab that allows the students to simulate experimental procedures that go well beyond that possible with standard physical hardware.

The students are thus able to repeat or extend their experiments as they need.

A post course survey indicated that these labs helped the students improve their knowledge gained during lectures and the students were satisfied with this approach.

A few suggestions were provided on adding online games to remote labs to appeal more to the current generation who are somewhat disinterested in science and engineering.4 Games should encourage the state of flow that is a state of complete pleasurable involvement in an activity. Some features of successful games include challenge and risk; another author suggested fantasy, curiosity, challenge and control.

Remote engineering as a career

A growing career is that of remote engineering where engineering professionals work in teams monitoring, diagnosing, maintaining and repairing remotely distributed equipment.5 Working with remote labs and use of web conferencing tools can assist in the education of these personnel where there is an emphasis on working virtually, accessing information from suppliers, customers and manufacturers and good customer communications skills.


Figure 17.1: Remote engineering

Remote labs help with employment

It was pointed out that construction of the European Remote Radio Laboratory was to provide access to expensive high technology radio communications equipment through remote labs.6 This would thus help with the employment prospects of students because of their extensive experience in working with this equipment, something they would not have gained at a (traditional cash-strapped) university.

The rapid growth in the telecommunications industry has brought a boom in opportunities for jobs (for example, in rf specialists).7 However, the lack of specialized, expensive lab equipment has made the provision of appropriate practical training in the specialist areas hard to achieve (e.g. rf measurement devices). A survey conducted in Europe by Atilim University suggested that there is a particularly acute shortage of high-end devices for electrical engineering training against a need for more basic instrumentation at the technical college end. Hence, this represents a great opportunity to apply online learning together with remote labs for this high end equipment.

17.3 Massive open online courses (MOOCS)

The beginnings

MOOCs have been considered in an earlier chapter but there is considerable discussion at present on their impact on (higher) education, and thus they will be examined further here. Perhaps rather chaotic but an interesting application of networked learning, MOOCs are a gathering of people willing to exchange knowledge and collaboratively study a subject.8 They initially started out as web-based courses but are now also delivered through mobile devices. The five most commonly used media tools are wikis, discussion groups, microblogging (e.g. Twitter), social bookmarking and virtual classrooms (e.g. Elluminate). The main benefits are ease of connection, minimal cost, flexibility of tools, quick launch of a program and, most importantly, the fact that they are an informal learning environment where you think about your own learning.

The disadvantages are that they appear to be chaotic, they require self-motivation, and they require effort from participants to make them worthwhile. Learning quality and content are still somewhat uncertain the time of writing (March 2014).

A well known MOOC was MobiMOOC, running over six weeks commencing in early April 2011 with six facilitators presenting on topics ranging from “Introduction to mLearning” to “Mlearning in K-12” settings. In summary, MOOCs can have a powerful impact on your learning experience but do have a high drop out rate (for unaccredited courses) and some peevish comments from participants about their free-wheeling nature. Can we apply this model to engineering and scientific learning? Surely–but it is going to be more likely for the highly motivated learner rather than someone who wants a carefully structured and measurable environment.


In 2011 and 2012, there was a significant uptake in online course activity with very large (mainly free) courses, often referred to as MOOCs.9 For example, Sebastian Thrun, previously from Stanford University, launched Building a Search Engine, though Udacity, a for-profit startup, which opened registration in January 23, 2012 with more than 90,000 students registered. Many students have embraced this model as they are taught by prestigious professors that offer them an opportunity to achieve sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs for free. Stanford University plans to open more than 13 courses (in 2012) ranging from Anatomy and Cryptography to Natural Language Processing. While the course fees have been minimal, a possible model to monetize the courses is to provide names to recruiters looking for a particular candidate.

Other universities moving into the market include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University (edX). The question obviously is what sort of accreditation is provided for the programs that are provided by these venerable institutions.

12 universities in the UK (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick and the Open University) have also banded together to launch FutureLearn offering free online courses in competition to Coursera and edX.10

A key issue is to identify who actually takes these MOOCs and what motivates them.11 The suggestion from initial surveys at Coursera (for the Machine Learning course) is that they are mainly professionals working in the industry (41%) and that 9% were professionals working in non-software areas. Approximately 70% were either curious about the topic or wanted to sharpen their skills and about 74% were resident outside the USA. A small 20% wanted to position themselves for a better job. Similarly, Udacity reported (rather obliquely for their Artificial Intelligence course) that over 75% wanted to sharpen their skills for current or future employment.

Disappointingly, MOOCs are not necessarily about making education free to anyone in the world who needs it.12 A recent survey from the university of Pennsylvania (who contribute 20% of Coursera enrollment) has confirmed that 80% of those undertaking a MOOC had already achieved a bachelor degree (and were young, well educated and male).

Experiences with the other consortia, such as FutureLearn, echo these results of MOOCs generally delivering learning for its own sake rather than up or reskilling young students (the original target market).13 For the first six courses (with numbers of 10,000), 60% actually visited the course when it started. Of these, 82% had a higher qualification and 11% were aged 25 or under.

Coursera recently announced that they had entered into an agreement with Antioch University to provide several of the courses it had created with university partners for credit as part of a bachelor degree program.14Antioch believed that this would reduce the overall cost of their degree program. Coursera would pay their university partners a fee of between 6% and 15% of overall revenue for the courses. Antioch University would add value by providing a study adviser to discuss the materials and to provide additional resources to the students. The advantage is to provide a high–quality course from a top university at a low cost, and for the university who developed the course to receive payment (and presumably for their faculty members who did the upfront work).

In September 2012, edX came to an agreement with Pearson VUE to provide a proctored final exam at any Pearson test center in over 110 countries.15 This will provide additional integrity in assessing student’s knowledge in a topic and considerably strengthen edX’s offerings as equivalent to that from a traditional university.

The concern that MOOCs will quickly replace traditional universities was countered by the comment that courses with tens of thousands of students, (star) instructors will not be able to give personalized attention to each student using live synchronous interaction.16 However, it should be admitted that most online courses are still asynchronous providing limited interactivity anyway.

Another possibility is that MOOCs may replace the traditional branch campuses many universities have set up in different countries. The suggestion is that branch campuses in faraway countries are often infrastructure-intensive with some degree of financial and reputational risk and thus susceptible to competition from a competing MOOC solution.

However, it is likely that credit for MOOC courses will be given by different universities using a prior learning assessment process. In order to accelerate this process, MOOC courses would naturally need to be assessed using properly constructed examination processes (similar to Cisco and Microsoft certifications).

In a recent report, Moodys suggests that MOOCs will help to improve the image of online education.17However, they predict that only institutions with the strongest brand identities will experience a positive impact from MOOCs. Although, regional colleges and universities may be able to outsource generic courses, they will lose market share. In particular, for-profit online colleges will be seriously impacted by MOOCs. The only way forward for these types of institutions is to quickly develop well-known brands on a global basis to compete effectively or fail.

Many of the elite universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard are not particularly worried about the potential competition.18 They will continue to attract the top applicants and will continue to flourish. However, the picture is unlikely to be that good for the average universities that have been providing mediocre lectures with high fees. The challenge with MOOC courses at present is the lack of an accredited qualification. This may be one of the reasons for the high drop out rate. Even the most enthusiastic learner wants to know that her labors are rewarded with a widely recognized qualification. The other challenge is the testing process that is still open to cheating and plagiarism.

The weakness for students with the MOOC model are the high drop out rate (90% to 95%) perhaps driven by the pedagogical model and lack of a widely accepted qualification. One remark is that the MOOC model is simply about videotaping lectures and placing them online.19 Yet the key underlying challenge is grading the assignments and tests and scaling this for the large numbers.20 At present, peer mentoring and peer grading is being done but this wouldn’t be acceptable under a more rigorous academic system. The software that is required to deal with this is machine-instruction with automated tests/assignments/quizzes/project work/learning analytics but these don’t exist in a commercial sense.

It was suggested that MOOCs will not solve the problem of expensive education buy lowering the cost and widening access of education.21 It is simply not possible to provide a course to large numbers by relying only on good resources, peer support and assessment. Education is about learning concepts and skills which are hard to gain through normal interaction with the world but require personalized motivation, tuition and interaction from individuals who are highly skilled. Hence, technology on its own is not the panacea to the problem. It is unquestionable that there are a considerable number of higher degree courses that follow the one-way lecture model with very little academic support and proper formative feedback. But highly interactive outstanding practitioners (whether working through an online or face-to-face medium) are a key part of all education endeavours and these represent a cost which someone has to bear.

The challenge for the organizations creating MOOCs is to make the model work and thus justify their investments. Some suggestions for the way forward here include charging for the graduation certificate (e.g. Udacity charges $89 for an examination process run by Pearson VUE). The second model is to charge would-be employers a fee for locating outstanding job candidates from the deluge of graduates. The third option is to license the materials to universities where they provide a mix of MOOC-based materials and their own tutorial and examination processes.

The American Council on Education announced in February 2013 that they were going to recognize five Coursera offerings.22 This meant that all the students would need to do is to pay a small fee to take an identity-verified proctored exam and obtain a transcript that would be acceptable for one of 2,000 colleges.

A prediction is that universities will increasingly combine their offering with an online shared model with other institutions and MOOCs.

17.4 What works now for online learning

If you're like us, after reading this book you're probably wondering about a quick recipe for the best approach to putting together an outstanding online program for engineers, technologists, technicians and scientists would consist of. Believe me, we have spent years pondering this very real question and there is inevitably no perfect solution. In essence, we would suggest a blended approach:

• The student is provided with weekly reading materials and a recorded video of a lecture (preferably broken down into 10-minute chunks).

• The student then has to work through a preparatory online quiz that counts towards the final grade with a short window in which to undertake it. Optionally, allow for two attempts and the best grade would count towards the final grade.

• There are rigid but regular deadlines for submission of assignment or homework (e.g. midnight on Sunday night).

• There is also an asynchronous text chat session with questions from the instructor that have to be discussed and answered by the class.

• Simulations (such as tuning a PID loop) and remote labs are built into the weekly course to make the course more practical “hands-on” and context specific to engineering with lab sessions that are so stimulating that they create “flow” for the student. The labs should include a low-cost electronics kit and data acquisition board that can be connected to the student’s PC that provides a set of virtual instruments.

• Regular weekly synchronous web and videoconference sessions that are highly interactive, stimulating and focus on the core elements of the course forming a genuine tutorial (and do not use too many PowerPoint slides but more the “traditional whiteboard”).

It is vital that the student builds up a habit of when she studies in a preferred working place. It is important that the instructor responds quickly to any requests for information from the student. Overall, it is vital that the instructor is outstanding–probably, as has been discussed earlier, even more interactive and able than in the equivalent classroom session.

17.5 Risky predictions

Making predictions of the future for online education and training is a risky and hazardous business. However, based on the discussions in this book and current activities evidenced in the world today, one can make a few shrewd guesses. Naturally, one has to avoid taking in too much anecdotal commentary, as this is often fatally flawed, subjective personal opinion (and indeed, disconnected from reality). With the plethora of developments in education and training, we are really interested in engineering, technology and the sciences in this discussion.

Safe predictions

Online education and training is growing fast; even students at residential universities are demanding and accessing traditional lectures through online means away from the physical university campus. This will accelerate and increasingly be driven by the rapid technological change occurring in industry.

Initial observations regarding the way online learning is developing in the future would be the obvious ones of increased numbers of participants, decreases in costs, improved quality and more learner-centric and collaborative with one’s peers (with the instructor more of a mentor, and operating as a “guide on the side”).23

Naturally, mobile online learning would grow with the increased use of sophisticated mobile phones and wireless broadband (e.g. 3G and 4G); there would be more extensive visualization (e.g. 3D) and real world experiences with hands-on activities becoming standard. Finally, there will be greater commercialization of education and closer relationships between traditional universities, colleges and schools and business.

Riskier predictions

A number of predictions or observations about the future can be made (with an inevitable degree of uncertainty):242526

• With the increasing availability of knowledge on the internet and increasing “massification” of education, the workforce is increasingly educated and “savvy” about what they require. A traditional college and university education will have to offer considerably more than mere content (contained in a lecture and assignment model). Informal learning will increasingly be a recognized part of the learning process. This will mean institutions who do not provide value will suffer.

• Companies will be increasingly knowledge-based learning organizations (especially in the Western world). There will an increasing emphasis on people as a company’s most important asset with improved systems to automate recording of an employee’s skills and knowledge.

• The skills and knowledge (talent) that companies require from employees (based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be increasingly in short supply, perhaps due to schools under-delivering in these areas.

• The consistently increasingly annual increase in student fees in higher education will stall as private providers (and free providers) increasingly optimize the web-based alternatives to make them workable. Many smaller universities and colleges will either have to specialize in niche areas or fail. Private providers will also find competition increasingly more challenging.

• Many so-called second choice countries for education such as in Asia (e.g. China, India and Singapore) will compete with the USA/UK and Australia in attracting international students in engineering and in providing an extraordinarily high quality education.

• Traditional corporate training in classrooms is a dying beast. Organizational training departments will continue to contract; as companies increasingly outsource this work or purchase training from outside the organization. Companies are not prepared to spend large amounts on training their workforce due to other financial pressures. Restructuring in the corporate environment is changing the duration of jobs and companies will increasingly insist on new employees being immediately job-ready for work.

• The training department will increasingly focus on the outputs of training in terms of performance improvement rather than training for training’s sake. Systems for measurement of using training to produce measurable results will be increasingly used.

• Governments, being cash strapped, are increasingly looking for cheaper alternatives in education and training and opening up the market to private providers. These will thus increasingly compete with public universities, colleges and training providers.

• As private providers increasingly provide education, being profit-driven, there will be ongoing major (perhaps) problems with quality of delivery and government regulatory authorities will find this challenging (and expensive) to police and eventually the “accreditation genie will escape the bottle” with global high quality reasonably priced institutions providing their own employer approved forms of accreditation.

• There are problems and concerns with delivering engineering education and training through online means with a blended approach currently the only acceptable form. However, as jobs become increasingly virtual (with the computer as the intermediary), online engineering degrees will become acceptable and highly regarded. They will be provided by global institutions that will increasingly provide their own forms of accreditation.

• Education and training will increasingly become an international business with students from different countries and university individual course qualifications from other countries’ institutions being accepted by universities.

• Remote labs will continue to struggle to gain traction due to the problems alluded to earlier. However, the requirement for practical experiential type labs will be a combination of simulations (or virtual labs), remote labs, mobile experimenter kits, work-based labs and on occasion visits to an on-campus lab for access to more sophisticated equipment and face-to-face contact between students and instructors.

• There will be an increasing divide between prestigious institutions offering theoretical engineering education and others (mainly private providers) focusing increasingly on what industry wants.

• The split between vocational and higher education will disappear with a seamless path from post school (or vocational trade school) to engineering degree. This will be accelerated by the easy access to online education and training.

• Free courses such as MOOCs (mainly theoretical ones such as maths and physics) will be increasingly offered on the internet and will be indistinguishable from highly priced university qualifications. A small fee will be charged for certification of knowledge (perhaps using proctoring software at the student’s home). The challenge with free courses in motivating students to study and complete them will be dealt with by live video/web conferencing tutorial sessions conducted by experienced tutors (perhaps sourced from the local university).

• The traditional model of online learning is being replaced by shorter chunks of material of a few minutes. Freely available tools from companies such as YouTube, Google, LinkedIn and Facebook are becoming an intrinsic part of the learning process. The widely available video ranging from your mobile, tablet or computer is rapidly becoming the key element in learning and is replacing Flash. There is a slow movement to HTML5. Mobile Learning is slowly taking a strong position. The use of Social Networking (Facebook and LinkedIn) is of some interest in engineering education but it is hard to predict the impact.

17.6 Conclusion

An old Confucian curse remarked: May you live in interesting times! This is undoubtedly a time of online education in the engineering, technology and scientific areas, with rapid change in learning technologies. However, as we hope to have shown in this book, there are enormous opportunities opening up to improve the quality of education and training, which we hope you will harness in your work.

However, at the end of the day, one has to always bear in mind that no matter how sophisticated the technology employed, we have to remember that outstanding teaching is as critical in the learning process as before online technology arrived.

Key points and applications

Chapter 17

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Tying it all Together.

1.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are rapidly growing with millions of students attending free online courses.

2.  Some of the larger MOOCs include: Udacity (for profit), Coursera (for profit), EdX, FutureLearn (UK-based)

3.  There is a high drop out rate from MOOCs (90% to 95%) but this may not be a problem.

4.  Fairly safe predictions for the future of online learning include:

• Increased participants.

• Decreased costs.

• Improved quality.

• Move towards learner-centricity.

• Increase of mobile online learning.

• Greater commercialisation of education.

5.  Less certain predictions include:

• Online education will continue to grow strongly–even for residential universities

• Students will increasingly demand value from institutions in their education.

• Companies will be increasingly knowledge-based and be looking for extraordinary levels of talent.

• Science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates will be in short supply.

• Universities and colleges will be unable to demand increasing levels of fees.

• Asia will be increasingly popular and compete vigorously with Western institutions for students.

• Traditional corporate training funded by companies will decrease; employees must be job-ready to retain or gain a job.

• Governments will increasingly look for cheaper alternatives to traditional education and training and look to private providers to fill this gap.

• Education regulation will be increasingly challenging in maintaining standards with private (and to a lesser extent) government providers.

• Education and training will be increasingly internationalized.

• Remote and virtual labs will be increasingly embraced.