In just the last few months, online engineering classes went from those offered by a single FEA company to at least a dozen spanning a wider variety of disciplines. There are classes in solid modeling from CAD Potential Inc., Westminster, Colo., finite-element classes from Algor Inc., Pittsburgh, NC-toolpath instructions from Surfware Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., and several more in the design area from Autodesk's Point A Web site. These few are just a snapshot. It's not farfetched to expect every company with technical products to eventually offer canned classes 24/7, as they say, to those interested and ready for a technology upgrade.
There is also more variety in how these classes are structured. For instance, if you already have engineering software from companies such as MSC.Working Knowledge, you can download lessons in Adobe PDF format at no cost. Viewers for the files, also available at no cost, let users easily read and print instructions. The format provides scripted lessons that users work through step by step.
The best instructions, however, provide visual and audio elements. "A good training system," says Dave Sanchez, an Autodesk spokesman, "should include live instruction over the Web, self-paced exercises to try what the instructor presents, peer-to-peer discussions, and coaching on problems." A few online sites provide these without the drawbacks of traditional classroom methods.
Autodesk , San Rafael, Calif., recently entered the online lecture hall with a dozen or so classes for their design software. They cover topics such as Auto-CAD 2000, Mechanical Desktop, and Inventor for a fee. The company has been working to host them with Head-light.com, a sort of online university that has developed the Web technology to present instructions in a reasonably stimulating manner. "We plan to offer classes from other design companies as well," says Carrie Bustillios, a spokesperson for Autodesk e-Learning Seminars, a recent initiative launched by the software developer.
Headlight.com boasts of having about 1,700 courses in over 39 subject areas ranging from Windows NT to marketing, and OSHA classes. Their Design category shows, for example, Web classes for DesignCAD 97 (4 to 6 hr for $29.95), 3D modeling with AutoCAD 2000 (18 hr, $19.95) and several on Visual Basic. Students can stop and restart classes at their convenience.
Algor's FEA classes (www.algor.com) have been online since late last year. The company is serious enough about this work to build a video studio and equip it with the latest Internet technology. For example, viewers can see results from an FEA run on a giant meshed model while the instructor points out areas of interest, potential problems, and how to solve them.
Users need only Windows Media Player, a fixture in Windows 95, 98, and NT, to attend Algor's classes. Live session are presented on Tuesdays, 10 a.m. EST. Presentations are recorded and can be played back anytime and at no cost. The company has also been using their studio to train new FEA users in closed sessions and for customized training. Students ask questions over the phone to complete the interactive experience.
Web-based training is still in its infancy. The technology is acceptable when run over 56k-baud modems, but much better over faster lines. The available classes are decidedly few when one considers the wide range of technical software available. But it's not hard to imagine that future software purchases could be made or broken based on the quality of a developer's Web-based instructions.