Engineering education goes the distance

Aug. 10, 2006
Distance education for engineers has become a hot button with the evolution of the Internet.

Wayne P. Pferdehirt
Director, Engineering Distance Degree Programs
Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison

But it has actually been around for a long time. For example, at the University of Wisconsin, it began with printed correspondence in the late 1800s. A shop-floor education program and the first educational radio station were added in the early 1900s.

In the mid-1900s, distance education served hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. Armed Forces through correspondence. The 1960s saw audio and audio-graphic conferencing, while the '70s and '80s ushered in videotape and satellite.

Today, distance education continues to evolve with the Internet. But institutions engaged in distance learning still emphasize work-related, problem-solving instruction. We know such programs are effective, and distance education is often the best and only way to deliver them.

The rapid pace of innovation and its impact on the learning process is an ongoing challenge. Faculty today must engage students more immediately and consistently, and students need to collaborate with each other. Fortunately, the technology has kept up with these trends. Modern, Internet-based platforms truly allow anytimeanywhere instruction. Design engineers with companies including Motorola and Harley-Davidson participate in my university's programs from Europe and the Far East, for example. One such program is the University's Master of Engineering in Professional Practice. It focuses on problem solving and incorporates both the tools of engineering and the content. Students prepare and submit homework in software commonly used by engineers. Project-management assignments are done in MS Project, engineering analysis in Matlab, and statistics in Minitab. Instructors review the homework and return the files with comments.

Another program is the University's Master of Engineering in Engine Systems. Students access (through a VPN) a sophisticated engine simulation located on a College of Engineering server.

The Internet, plus a sophisticated document-management system, makes this form of education effective and efficient. Connecting education to work is a challenge to students, faculty, and to the support staff and systems. Nevertheless, it provides a level of motivation and retention that makes education exciting.

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