It's a familiar scenario. You're an engineer working in the industry, and are currently enrolled as a graduate student pursuing a Master of Science in Engineering degree. You've just gotten home from work, and need to take a few minutes to prepare for your next lecture class.
The routine has become almost second nature: you pull out your textbooks, gather your notes and homework, put on your bathrobe and sit down in front of your computer. After logging into your school's website, you pull up the latest streaming lecture and watch a university professor instructs you from a small window in the corner as his slides and drawings fill the screen. At the end of the session you type up and submit your answers to the latest homework, then maybe instant message your professor a question, or post in an online forum discussion about one of the day's topics. The full graduate school experience, without ever having to set foot in a lecture hall.
It may sound like something out of a late night commercial or clichéd futurist novel, but it's actually the new online Master of Science in Engineering program at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering (although the bathrobe may be a bit unprofessional). Enrollment is now open for the School's first entirely internet-based courses of study, which it claims are the full equivalent of their regular graduate programs. Fully accredited and advertised as featuring the same material and experience as regular students, UCLA hopes to provide an option for working engineers to attain an M.S. in Engineering. While most of the six initial areas of areas of study are in the computer sciences, they also include Mechanics of Structures as well as Manufacturing and Design, both of which are highly sought by practicing engineers.
There have been other steps into the online world by universities, but few as complete as what UCLA is attempting. In 2002, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology famously put their entire courseware online free for anyone interested, and other universities have experimented with online based degree-granting programs.
Yet distance learning programs are not without their critics. One outspoken skeptic is Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R - MI), who has argued for higher standard in distance education. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education he maintained that "The sciences are known for requiring students to think things through. And they benefit tremendously from working together. If you're taking a distance-learning course, and you're all by yourself, you're missing out on that interaction. So I just would like to see concrete evidence that they're equivalent. "Rep. Ehlers has resisted giving allowing full financial aid to students if they are enrolled in dubious online programs, and has sought new standards for evaluating distance learning programs.
One of the main focuses of the UCLA program is combating that lack of interactivity Rep. Ehlers is describing. "Other online programs have videos of the classroom lectures. They're shot from the back and you don't really feel like you're part of the experience" said Dr. Stephen Jacobsen, Dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and head administrator of the online program. "Our program is tailored in the sense that regular faculty set aside time to construct material for our online students."
One of the biggest obstacles to building support for distance learning is the stigma it often carries of online students as neglected, and receiving a watered-down education. But Dean Jacobsen says that they are attempting to create an equivalent online experience. "It's the regular curriculum, the materials the same. The course offers the same materials as seen in the on campus environment." Through the use of the aforementioned tailored lectures and instructors willing to help students online, Dr. Jacobsen hopes to capture the sense of involvement the classroom brings. Indeed many of these online technologies, from lecture notes posted on class websites to online class forums are already being used to supplement the experience of full and part-time students. So an entire course built upon these tools is not as far removed from the regular student experience as one might think. Dr. Jacobsen noted that "Younger engineers and students seem to be much more comfortable with doing things through the computer than in previous years."
While all these attempts to personalize the student experience are welcome additions to the online education field, what ultimately draws students to online programs is the flexible schedule. With the freedom to complete their work and watch lectures at any time, it is much easier for the working engineer to meet the requirements. This flexibility can lead to problems of discipline however, and many universities that have experimented with online degrees have had problems with dropouts and students falling behind, particularly in undergraduate online degrees. Ultimately it's a question of self-discipline, and the student has to admit that if they want a full degree they're going to have to put in the same amount of work as a regular student.
Yet Dr. Jacobsen foresees no real problem in student dedication. "There's no doubt it takes self-motivation, but it takes even more motivation to get off from work and navigate the freeways of L.A. to get here and take a class part time. This program is about reaching out to the working engineer who would enroll normally if they could schedule it." And those engineers, having seen firsthand the competitive edge further education can bring to the workplace, may be the most motivated of all.