The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) has been providing high quality live, interactive online education and training for over 15 years. EIT’s offerings span the two education sectors, from vocational diplomas through to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. These qualifications are accredited by the Australian Government, and some of these programs are also recognized under three international engineering accords. EIT also offers practical professional development short courses to help engineering professionals gain specialist skills. At any one time, EIT has approximately 2000 students and reaches them in over 150 countries.
This wisdom, synthesized into six truisms for driving excellence in online education, can be applied to all areas of education and training, not just to students in STEM.
1. Go back to basics to engage remote learners
Teachers must use strategies to increase their presence in the virtual classroom and ensure the learning environment is dynamic and engaging. This should include a warm welcome, an introduction (using a webcam), strong interaction, and concluding each session on a high note. These simple strategies have been measured and do improve student satisfaction and learning outcomes.
To maintain engagement throughout the class, teachers must build high levels of interactivity into each session. They should consider including all the options: learner-teacher, learner-learner, learner-content, learner-interface (such as with a computer) and learner-individual (time out with the student doing their ‘own thing’).
To overcome the psychological and physical distance between the learners and the teacher, immediacy is the key. A teacher should field and drive questions, use student names, provide feedback instantly and allow the odd digression into issues of personal interest.
2. Inflexible is better
Synchronous online learning via web-conferencing creates a ‘classroom’ in which students and the teacher gather in real-time. EIT’s unique online delivery methodology makes live and interactive tutorials, an international pool of expert lecturers, dedicated learning support officers, and state-of-the-art technologies such as hands-on workshops, remote laboratories, and simulation software.
As a model of online learning, it is less flexible, but the benefits outweigh this limitation. It ensures students remain engaged in the learning process, it facilitates interaction and questions, it connects remote learners with each other, and it reduces the notorious rates of attrition evident in asynchronous online courses. Therefore, students are encouraged to advance their technical knowledge and remain engaged in their studies while forming global networks and balancing life and work commitments.
3. Go mobile
The Internet of Things has revolutionized many things, including mobile learning for engineers and scientists. We once had a student attending a session on the train between London and Glasgow, while his teacher presented between the vines in the Swan Valley, during a staff Christmas lunch!
There are many ways in which a phone or mobile device becomes your learning tool; it can be used:
• For communication.
• For assessment.
• For reading data in the environment.
• For undertaking written assignments.
• For social networking.
• For the collection of data.
• For simulation.
• For recording lab experiments (with the camera).
• As a remote control.
4. Virtually ‘physical’ is best with remote online labs
Experiential learning — or hands-on education — is one of the most optimal ways of gaining engineering expertise. Therefore, online learning must accommodate it. The ongoing virtualization of instruments (such as oscilloscopes and signal generators that are controlled and viewed from PCs or tablets) is the impetus for using remote labs. For example, it is common for mining trucks and plant equipment to be controlled remotely; this illustrates that the virtualization of work and equipment is growing apace.
EIT’s remote labs feature physical equipment and sensors equivalent to the traditional university engineering lab. The practicals are interactive, controllable, variable, and viewable over webcams in real-time, with examples including; data communication and protocols, scientific instrumentation, physical experimentation, the control and observation of circuits, systems and machinery, and robotic automation. Students can see the immediate results of their experimentations.
Similarly, EIT’s virtual labs consist of simulation software for a multitude of engineering applications, including modelling and analysis, science education, programming, power network design, construct models, design and drafting, project management, industrial process control, and virtual plant field operations.
Some traditional teachers of engineering remain sceptical; they suggest that remote labs lack authentic, hands-on work. Despite this, learners find a well-constructed remote lab (with a simple interface) useful and equivalent to that of a traditional lab.
EIT Master of Engineering (Industrial Automation) graduate Mildred Nanono found this to be the case.
“EIT’s use of state-of-the-art technology was very, very instrumental and very beneficial. The simulations felt real. It felt like I was physically in the lab.”
Here are some pointers to constructing successful remote labs:
• Build them with a clear understanding that there will be multiple users operating the labs remotely. Using this as a guiding principle will ensure operating glitches are avoided later.
• Employ a scheduling system for the lab users - this can assist with system overload.
• Reduce system response times – they should remain below 150 milliseconds.
• Aim for ‘reality’ - with an easy-to-use graphical user interface.
• Use good lighting.
• Ensure teachers are well-trained and supportive.
• Encourage students to reuse labs to improve their results.
• Use lab work as part of a student’s final grade.
Here are some design principles for the Graphical User Interface (GUI) for remote labs:
• Keep it simple and intuitive.
• Aim for authenticity.
• Ensure multiple users can work together.
• Enable a student to interface with a standard computer (preferably within a browser) with minimal software add-ons.
• Ensure the GUI displays key information swiftly.
• Use plain English.
• Have a quick exit option from unwanted menu selections.
• Standardize interfaces and make them consistent.
• Do not make the steps, within the GUI, necessary to remember.
• Simplify and clarify error messages.
Overall design considerations:
• Experiment type: how will the architecture impact the experiment; multiple users and queuing issues?
• Scalability: how will the system cope when the number of users peaks?
• Maintainability: does it integrate easily into the overall IT services/systems?
• Security: has this been a key part of the design and are secure communication protocols supported?
• Dependence on protocols: does the architecture require a specific protocol?
5. Do it in Teams
One of the greatest advances in education over the past decade has been the implementation of collaborative learning or learning in teams. Capstone projects that are undertaken in groups are regarded highly by engineering regulators.
Successful learning can occur when activities are:
• Performed in a group collaboratively.
• Undertaken in a project setting.
• Based on authentic real work activities.
This can be achieved successfully in the virtual world. Instead of meeting face-to-face, the teams can remain geographically scattered, using telecommunications-based technologies to communicate. Virtual collaborative learning will occur when two or more people work together on an educational project using computers (and the internet) as the interface.
Some advantages of working in teams include:
• An increased understanding and better retention of course materials compared with a classroom-based session.
• An appreciation of the opinions and analyses of others.
• A higher level of critical thinking, analysis, and assessment when working together on a problem involving conflict resolution.
• A higher motivation for learning when part of a group.
• A lower rate of attrition in online learning.
Some disadvantages include:
• Unequal contributions from different members.
• Team instability in the early part of the term, as class enrolment can fluctuate.
• Leadership issues.
Typical activities in a virtual collaborative group:
• Analysing case studies.
• Working on an engineering design.
• Undertaking discussion/debates with synchronous/asynchronous tools.
• Creating and maintaining communities of practice.
Some suggestions for facilitating a virtual team include:
• Focus on specific cases - where there is a possibility of achieving real results.
• Create teams where members have a range of skill sets.
• Simplify projects.
• Ensure communication tools are effective.
• Divide the workload up equally.
• Quieten dictatorial team leaders.
• Ensure all members participate fully.
6. Testing the often untestable
One of the elephants in the room, with online education, is the authentication of students. Who is actually doing the work? Are they enjoying unreasonably high levels of outside support?
Online proctoring software offers a solution; it allows for the remote testing of a student’s knowledge. It ensures the student is properly invigilated, and it can authenticate them. However, a student must accept and embrace this solution and be well-prepared for the proctoring operation before sitting for a test.
For example, EIT’s exams are authenticated by IRIS Invigilation (IRIS). This software program helps provide educators assurance of assessment integrity during online and remote assessment. IRIS records audio, video, and computer screen activity for the duration of a test/exam. It analyses this information using machine learning and automatically flags potential academic dishonesty displaying the data in an easy to use reporting dashboard.
The following issues need to be dealt with in an online examination environment:
• Security: testing on concepts (rather than requesting regurgitated content) heightens academic integrity.
• Interactivity: live, face-to-face tests (e.g., orals) are preferable to online ones.
• Equity: all random questions should be targeted at a similar level.
• Hands-on labs: physical demonstrations can be assessed using screen-capturing software.
• Teamwork: needs to be assessed as it is a key activity of engineers and scientists.
Remember that when the technology ‘disappears’ and the student makes seamless contact with their teacher and their peers, you have arrived at a good place with online education.
With changes happening across the world, thanks to globalization and the fourth industrial revolution, the future of employment will inevitably evolve as the internet of things and the internet of systems exponentially infiltrate workplaces. It is imperative that engineers and technicians who are working in the industry stay on top of these changes through continuous professional development.
EIT offers three-month short courses that deliver specialist skills to engineers and technicians that can be immediately implemented into the workplace. These courses focus in on topics such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, IEC 61850 based Substation Automation, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) & SCADA Systems, Power Distribution, Fundamental E&I Engineering for Oil and Gas Facilities, Gas Turbine Engineering, Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning, and Project Management for Engineers & Technicians.