DELIVERING ENGINEERING EDUCATION VIA DISTANCE LEARNING
Thomas K. Miller III, Ph.D.
Professor and Assistant Dean for Educational Technology
College of Engineering
North Carolina State University
Harold A. Kurstedt, Ph.D.
Joel S. Greenstein, Ph.D.
The workshop chair, Prof. Thomas Miller, summarized the plan for the workshop. The desired outcome of the workshop would consist of four "products":
A Framework for Distance Education
Prof. Miller prefers to view the subject of the workshop as distance education rather than distance learning because he sees many facets of the educational process that can involve a "distance" component, including:
When these different aspects are taken into account, particularly in how they interact with one another, the bottom line is that education is a process. The complexity of the process must be kept in mind.
To provide a framework for categorizing and discussing different forms of distance education, Prof. Miller uses a 2x2 matrix of the possibilities for "distance" as temporal distance, spatial distance, or both (Figure 1). Traditional teaching falls in the lower left cell of this matrix. Each of the remaining cells represents a form of distance education with its own demands and opportunities. The two upper cells represent the situations we typically consider as distance teaching/learning contexts.
There were two workshop sessions; the afternoon session built on the groundwork accomplished in the morning session. Eight participants in the first session had come prepared with a "practice" in distance education that they were interested in sharing with the group; two more were added by the afternoon participants. Several of these participants noted, however, that they did not consider their practices to be "best practices" in the sense of being the best way to accomplish a given end.
The plan for this workshop was to begin by focusing on the question:
Participants would then break into small groups to discuss the best practices already submitted, which would then be presented to the entire group in a "round-robin" sharing of ideas. The participants in the afternoon session would review the two lists from the morning session, add items that had not been included, and then vote on and rank the set of issues in order of importance.
List of Issues, Needs, and Concerns
The silent generation of "issues, needs, and concerns," followed by the round-robin presentation, produced 68 items. A period of clarifying discussion and combining of similar ideas reduced the number of items. The participants in the afternoon session added a further 11 items during their round-robin session and produced some additional combining of closely related ideas. Table 1 (following this summary) is the final listing of 71 "issues, needs, and concerns," categorized under five headings worked out by participants. The voting scores for the items (right-hand columns) are explained below under "Voting and Ranking."
Voting and Ranking of Issues
As the next step, participants were each given cards on which to write the nine issues to which they gave the highest preference. They were then asked to rank those issues in order of preference from 9 (highest preference) to 1 (lowest preference).
The preference points for each item were totaled. The facilitators then reported the results for each item, giving both the total of preference points and the number of participants who had voted for an item. These results are shown in the last two columns in Table 1.
Surfacing of High-Preference Items
Participants were next asked to consider where a line could be drawn distinguishing the issues with highest preference from those that received some preference votes but were not as generally preferred. The participants agreed to draw the line for high-preference items at 15 or more preference points, with 3 or more participants voting for that item. Following some additional linking of related items, the resulting 11 high-preference items are listed in Table 2 (at end).
Linkages Between High-Preference Items and Current Practices
The participants were then asked to consider collectively which of the ten current practices identified earlier addressed each of the high-preference items. (See following for description of these practices.) The results of this linkage are displayed in the matrix in Table 2, suggesting the likely applicability or relevance of individual practices to the specified issues.
After the step of combining and clarifying their list of issues, needs, and concerns, the workshop participants broke into groups for brief discussion of the ten current practices, which were then presented to the entire group. The ten practices are described here (A-J below). The subsection letters correspond to those used in Table 2, which shows how the participants matched the current practices to their high-preference issues.
A. Control of World Wide Web Content
Presented by Prof. John R. Williams, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MIT has begun putting course materials on World Wide Web sites for access by students on and off campus. Prof. Williams addressed questions relating to how to provide organized support for creating and maintaining Website course materials. It is particularly important to avoid the cost of redoing a Web-based course each time the course is given, he said.
At present, Prof. Williams is aware of two approaches to developing Web-based courses:
1) pay an expert group (an on-campus unit or outside contractor) to put the course up on whatever medium is most appropriate; or
2) create a "wrapper," or template, for Web courses. This template includes components to handle registration and other administrative matters, homework submission, and other cross-cutting elements of a course. The specific content of a course is then added to the template.
The first approach becomes very expensive to implement for multiple courses and subject areas. The second approach has the potential to be more cost-effective and to allow teachers to focus on the content of the course. However, the quality of the template becomes crucial; it has to spare as much redundancy as possible without shoe-horning diverse courses into a constraining format.
To date at MIT, the usual practice for maintaining sites, once they are developed, has been to hace a graduate student maintain and update the materials. It is an open question whether this is the best way to protect the investment made in creating Web courses. Prof. Williams concluded by saying that he believes "serious money" is needed to find and demonstrate good answers to the issues raised by Web-based courses.
A third issue that Prof. Williams addressed was Website security and security of student submissions (homework, problem sets, etc.). He noted that MIT has had success in using Lotus Notes to provide appropriate levels of security.
B. Two Issues in Incorporating Distance Learning in an Engineering Program
Presented by Prof. Gregory R. Miller, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of
Prof. Miller presented his views on two issues relating to implementing distance learning in an engineering program. The first issue is whether to favor a content-driven, "bottom-up" (i.e., course-by-course) approach to building distance learning into the program or a "top-down" approach, in which a high-level decision to "go on the Web" (or whatever) is implemented in a controlled way. The second issue concerns the accepted dichotomy between distance learning and classroom learning.
On the first issue, Prof. Miller favors the bottom-up approach. There is a lot of experimentation and creativity going into the diversity of course-level implementation efforts. A top-down approach might put too tight a noose around this diversity and stifle the innovation. Huge investments "from the top" in specified directions do not make sense at this time, he said, because the field and the state of practice are changing too rapidly. Prof. Miller favors an approach of looking for what is being done that is good and can be used more widely.
On the second issue, Prof. Miller has found that combining traditional "classroom learning" with distance learning approaches works well. The two kinds of approaches should not be viewed as mutually exclusive alternatives. He suggests interspersing some form of face-to-face meeting with the distance-learning sessions.
C. Using an On-Campus Data Acquisition System as Data Resource
Presented by Prof. Dale W. Kirmse, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, University of
Prof. Kirmse described the use of data acquired from the operational monitoring (conventional SCADA systems) of campus utility systems as a real-world data stream for use in laboratory projects. Real-time operating data from the university's energy management system, cogeneration unit, boilers, water chillers, and wastewater treatment unit are captured on data servers in the support facility for the computer-aided process improvement laboratory. Students use interactive workstations to retrieve data from the databases and then apply software tools for analysis, developing process models, simulation, and critical evaluation of the utility processes.
The long-term plan for the project was described by Prof. Kirmse in "The Computer/Aided Process Improvement Laboratory," Succeed, Spring 1994, pp. 12-14. Additional information is available on a Website: http://gatorpowr.che.ufl.edu.
D. Distance Learning Administration Unit
Presented by Prof. Paul J. Componation, University of Alabama, Huntsville
Prof. Componation described an administrative unit set up by the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Alabama. This unit serves as a centralized source of administrative support and resources for distance education projects. The initial pot of money with which the unit was started has become self-sustaining, as courses and materials developed with the support of the unit have contributed a revenue stream back to it.
This unit, originally set up for one department, has begun to provide similar infrastructure support services for distance education projects in other departments. However, Prof. Componation believes that at some point it will make sense for separate units to spin off, as the distance-education project base grows, rather than moving toward one campus-wide, centralized administrative support unit. He characterized the student population (on and off campus) served by the university's distance education program as having an average age of 37 and a great deal of work experience, which makes these students very demanding of the realism and applicability of courses. The administrative unit provides an institutional base of practices and resources for helping faculty members to get distance education courses in shape to satisfy this demanding clientele.
E. TV and Video-Conferencing Technology Options
Presented by Prof. Ronald J. Roedel, Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Arizona State
Prof. Roedel explained that his interest was in discussing and comparing the experience at Arizona State with TV and video conferencing with others who had worked with this medium, rather than offering a specific best practice. As he summarized what had come out of the small-group discussion, the "state of practice" in this area appears to include three basic approaches.
One approach is exemplified by the picture-tel link used by Worcester Polytechnic Institute to communicate to an offsite education center. This approach is expensive but allows real-time interaction with the students at the distant site during the session.
The second approach is to use closed-circuit TV, as is being done at Arizona State, the University of South Carolina, and the National Technological University. This approach has video and audio going out in real time (synchronous mode, to use Prof. Thomas Miller's framework), but is noninteractive, at least in real time.
The third current approach is to send videotapes to a distant site where students come together to watch and participate among themselves. Interactions with the instructor and among the onsite and offsite students are possible by telephone and electronic mail, although such interactions are asynchronous. Prof. Roedel cited the University of Massachusetts and the National Technological University as examples where this approach has been used.
Prof. Roedel added that there were trade-offs in cost versus degree of real-time interaction and participation among these approaches. They range from highly interactive to little or no interaction, and Prof. Roedel personally places a lot of value on the interaction. Another option that may emerge is the use of pay-per-view technology through local cable companies.
F. Experience with Distance Teaching a Course in Rapid Prototyping
Presented by Prof. Ortwin Ohtmer, California State University at Long Beach
Prof. Ohtmer described his experience with distance teaching of a course in rapid product development. (CSULB is a member of the Southern California Coalition for Education in Manufacturing Engineering, or SCCEME, which had an exhibit at the conference.) An important goal of the course Prof. Ohtmer taught was to demonstrate to students the changing world of manufacturing.
The course was designed to provide synchronous interaction with students at the distant sites through use of closed-circuit television cameras with microphones at each site. When the course was first presented, variations in the equipment at different sites made a "disaster" of the attempts at interaction with the distant sites. Prof. Ohtmer found that the lack of interaction with the distant students deprived him of the feedback he needed as teacher, to know whether students were understanding or needed more help with a point. When the course was taught again using essentially the same method but with the same equipment at all sites, Prof. Ohtmer said it was highly successful. He added that the availability of "downloadable blackboards," so that students could receive an immediate copy of the teacher's notes without copying them during the class, allowed students to be more active in the session.
The moral of the story is that the technology base required to support the more challenging opportunities in distance education becomes a critical element in educational success. The technical support personnel to ensure that the equipment is up and running, and even graduate assistants to help in monitoring the responses of students at the distant sites, are critical to successful interactive distance learning. In summary, reliable equipment and the expert personnel to operate it are essential factors, but they add to the costs that must be covered.
An important opportunity demonstrated by the course, according to Prof. Ohtmer, is that of sharing a cutting-edge laboratory at a number of sites. This could enable individual schools in a coalition to specialize, having cutting-edge facilities in complementary areas rather duplicating facilities. In Prof. Ohtmer's course, for instance, all the students had access to state-of-the-art modeling technology at one site.
G. Facilitating Interaction with Hypernews
Presented by Ms. Natalie M. Acuna, Program Manager, Worcester Polytechnic
Ms. Acuna described the use of Hypernews as an asynchronous interactive forum to complement distance-teaching. It can be used for "many-many" discussions (i.e. discussions among multiple students, with or without the instructor) and "one-many" communications. For example, students in her courses were required to prepare a "journal" of at least one page a week and post it on the internet in Hypernews. The instructor could respond privately (one-to-one) via email to the student with comments, as well as participating in the discussions. The Website can be visited at: http://grolsch.wpi.edu/hypernews/get/isg501.html
Ms. Acuna noted that this method for distance interaction does entail some special responsibilities on the part of the instructor. Means of protecting students' work must be provided. She also found that students needed to have individual feedback on their submissions when they were being asked to contribute a lot.
H. Televised Instruction and Intel Proshare
Presented by Prof. Minoru Taya, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, University of
The University of Washington has been running a program called Televised Instruction in Engineering (TIE) since the mid-1980s. The target audience is primarily engineers working for local companies, including Boeing. The TIE courses, which are mostly graduate-level courses in the College of Engineering, traditionally have relied on live or taped video viewing of class lectures. The distant students have used telephone or electronic mail (internet) to ask technical questions. Homework is sent in by express mail with at least a one-day time lag.
To improve the interactions between instructors and students, particularly those students outside the Greater Seattle area for whom campus visits are difficult, Prof. Taya is trying to complement the existing TIE program with two-way communication via PCs equipped with Intel Proshare. Each PC has an attached video camera. The screen is divided to provide a live picture of the user at the other end and a "blackboard" area for displaying equations, figures, and keyboard-entered writing. PCs with Proshare are being installed in faculty offices, in a teaching assistants' office, and at various company sites accessible to the distant students. They will be used as part of the NSF-sponsored Combined Research and Curriculum Program on Electronic Packaging and Materials.
Prof. Taya noted that adapting the PC with Proshare technology to teaching a lab course off campus will be a challenge. Their current thinking is that distant students will come on campus to do the laboratory assignments on weekends or perhaps during the summer. Developing software for a virtual lab is another option, but Prof. Taya is concerned about eliminating the real hands-on experience for the student.
I. Using the Internet Multicast Backbone for Distance Teaching
Presented by Prof. Thomas K. Miller III, Assistant Dean for Educational
Technology, College of Engineering, North Carolina State University
Prof. Miller described an experiment in distance teaching via internet-conveyed, many-to-many multicasting using a multicast backbone (MBone). He noted that MBone allows for synchronous distance-teaching (same time, different locations) rather than the asynchronous mode of Web-based conference tools. The project was set up with some specific metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach. Based on prior research, they did not expect to see a significant difference in course performance; the question posed was whether the technology would enhance or perhaps hinder the student experience.
The MBone requires considerably less bandwidth than the state's broadcast-quality video network (for which only two channels are available; as a result, the video quality was not particularly high). However, the MBone's shared electronic whiteboard facility was used for graphics and materials where high resolution was needed, and thus provided the quality needed for those materials while reducing the overall bandwidth requirement. Prof. Miller noted that the video image was important primarily to give a sense of real-time presence. Having high-quality audio, however, was very important to success.
In describing the experiment's results, Prof. Miller said that graduate-level students who had previously taken courses by viewing a videotape at their distant sites greatly preferred the "live" environment of the MBone multicast. An interesting result was that students on campus (at the lecture site) appreciated having the active participation from the off-campus students, who contributed a working engineer's perspective. The instructors found that total course interactions with synchronous students entailed about the same amount of work, whether the students were on campus or at the distant sites. Far more effort was required to work with a third group of students who continued to take the course by the asynchronous, videotape route. The videotape students interacted by telephone or electronic mail rather than in the class sessions. Several other participants agreed that the workload on teachers from asynchronous interactions could be overwhelming. Prof. Miller also remarked that there were still some problems with reliability of the technology.
J. Delivery Technologies in the APOGEE and UCEE Programs at USC
Presented by Prof. Jed S. Lyons, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University
of South Carolina
Prof. Lyons described the current practice for delivering distance education in the APOGEE and UCEE programs. Teaching sessions (lectures) are delivered by distributing videotapes to students. For laboratory work, Prof. Lyons described the benefits for distant students of being able to link into a UNIX server on campus to use the Finite Element Analysis modeling software.
Many facets of the education process can involve a remote or "distance"
component, including student-teacher interactions, laboratories, and mentoring.
Education is a complex process. Using today's technology, the education process
can take place anytime, anywhere.
The most significant issues, needs, and concerns identified by workshop
participants dealt with:
Table 1. Issues, Needs, and Concerns in Delivering Engineering Education at a Distance -- and Perceived Importance
|1.||a. Delivering laboratory materials
b. Cost-effective methods for laboratory courses
c. Laboratory tours
d. Virtual laboratories
e. Remotely operated laboratories
|2.||Technology selection models||18||3|
|3.||Future delivery technology: [what will it be and] how to plan for it?||16||2|
|4.||Lack of software standards [and the problem of updating in response to] version changes||15||3|
|5.||Hardware and software interoperability standards are needed.||13||3|
|6.||Internet integration [integrating engineering education products with the Internet]||1||1|
|7.||Time delay in reception|
|8.||Application of built-in high-end video|
|9.||Equipment reliability and availability|
|10.||Importance of electronic web boards [also called "white boards"]|
|11.||Inexpensive, lifelike video is needed.|
|12.||Typing is inefficient [as a mode of input and response for students and instructors]|
|II. Teaching and Learning Issues|
|13.||[How to] overcome loss of face-to-face contact [in both] student-advisor and team [interactions]||30||5|
|14.||Developing student communication skills [students' skills in group oral presentations, etc.]||25||4|
|15.||Facilitating learner interactions with the instructor/mentor||25||4|
|16.||[Dealing with differing] student learning styles [when interacting] with technology||19||5|
|17.||[How to promote] active learning at a distance||17||2|
|18.||Need for explicit models of learning and structure of knowledge||9||2|
|19.||Communication skills [how to deal with communication skill differences of students]||8||1|
|20.||Experiential versus reflective learning||8||1|
|21.||Student interaction [how to provide for interaction among students?]||5||1|
|22.||[How to handle] language barriers [particularly when providing distance education to] other countries||1||1|
|23.||[How to move from an emphasis on] independent to [more opportunities for] collaborative learning|
|III. Faculty Issues|
|24.||Faculty reward system||30||6|
|25.||Faculty buy-in [to distance education]||16||4|
|26.||Training the teacher [training the engineering educator to use distance education technology, courseware, etc., effectively]||16||3|
|27.||Course development support||16||2|
|28.||Increased course development time||13||4|
|29.||[Effect of distance education on] graduate student pipeline||11||3|
|30.||Changing faculty roles||11||3|
|31.||Collaborative efforts for [course] material development||11||3|
|32.||Concerns about intellectual property||7||2|
|33.||Restructure courses for distance delivery||5||2|
|34.||Relation [of faculty development of courseware] to traditional publishing|
|IV. Institutional Issues|
|35.||Budget restructuring problem [current budget structure does not provide for cost of maintaining and upgrading distance-learning courseware or technology (life-cycle costs) after it is initially developed or acquired]||15||3|
|36.||Effect of technology cost on the pricing of education||14||3|
|38.||Competition with industry and other education providers||9||2|
|39.||a. Potential changes in university structure
b. Confrontations with unions [over distance education practices]
c. Distance learning [could lead to] downsizing in engineering education
|40.||How to institutionalize distance learning practices||6||2|
|41.||Maintenance of flexibility in the face of rapid changes||5||1|
|43.||Course duplication across universities||4||1|
|44.||Course advertising, especially at remote locations||3||1|
|46.||Quarter versus semester systems|
|47.||Increased student-faculty ratio costs|
|48.||Lack of boundaries|
|49.||Lack of course similarity among different colleges|
|V. Process Issues|
|50.||Hands-on experimentation at different locations||24||3|
|51.||Demand for student-centered delivery (i.e., when and where student wants it)||13||2|
|52.||Getting students together sometime--is it needed?||7||1|
|53.||Just-in-time distance learning for industrial audiences||4||2|
|54.||One cutting-edge laboratory, different locations [does distance education increase opportunities to have a cutting-edge laboratory because it can be used in multiple learning sites?]|
|55.||Fairness, e.g., timing, fees|
|56.||What is unique about distance learning?|
|57.||National Engineering Education Delivery System (NEEDS)|
|VI. Demographic Issues|
|58.||Make available collaborative opportunities among diverse people||9||1|
|59.||Urban versus rural; access to sites||9||1|
|60.||Getting industry students||7||1|
|61.||Distance site support||7||1|
|62.||National Technological University--where and how does it fit in?||4||1|
|63.||International distance learning via satellite||3||1|
|64.||Decreasing student homogeneity [and issues it raises for reaching a more diverse engineering student population]|
|65.||High undergraduate attrition rate for mature students|
|66.||Serving the existing workforce|
|VII. Quality Issues|
|67.||a.Assessment at a distance, assigning grades and exams
b. Honesty issues related to homework and hand-ins
c. Exam administration
|68.||Maintaining quality and standards||18||2|
|69.||Getting good content||6||1|
|70.||Second-class student syndrome||1||1|
|71.||Assessment and evaluation|
a Numbering is provided for ease of reference. See note "c" for explanation of ordering within categories.
b Items divided into lettered subitems represent sets of related, initial suggestions that were combined following discussion. Brackets indicate editorial additions to clarify context of an item.
c Within each category, items are listed in order of vote preference (implying
perceived importance) -- first by total points voted, then by number of persons
voting for that item.
Table 2. Applicability of Identified Current Practices to Identified High-Preference Issues
| Current Practices
|1/50. Laboratory & hands-on experience||X||X||X|
|24/25. Faculty reward system & buy-in||X|
|13. Loss of face-to-face contact||X||X||X||X||X|
|67. Assessment at a distance|
|14. Student communication skills||X||X||X|
|15. Instructor/learner interactions||X||X||X||X||X|
|16. Learning styles and technology|
|2. Technology selection models||X||X||X||X||X||X
||68. Maintaining quality & standards
||26. Training the teacher
||35. Budget restructuring problem
High-Preference Issues (numbers refer to listing in Table 1)
Delivering laboratory materials; b. cost-effective methods for laboratory|
courses; c. Laboratory tours; d. virtual laboratories; e. remotely operated
Hands-on experimentation at different locations
Faculty reward system
Faculty buy-in [to distance education]
[How to] overcome loss of face-to-face contact [in both] student-advisor and
a. Assessment at a distance, assigning grades and exams; b. honesty issues
Developing student communication skills [students' skills in group oral
Facilitating learner interactions with the instructor/mentor
[Dealing with differing] student learning styles [when interacting] with
Technology selection models
Maintaining quality and standards
Training the teacher [training the engineering educator to use distance
Budget restructuring problem [current budget structure does not provide for