Online Instruction and Distance Learning
Editor’s Note: This updated article is from Happy’s series of 25 essential skills for engineers, which were originally published several years ago by I-Connect007. It provides important information and serves as a useful reference, and this skill remains essential for today’s engineers.
Online courses have become increasingly available and popular. For this to be effective, specific requirements must be met for courses taken or produced over the internet in order to provide the user with a positive experience.
Today's fast-paced, global, and competitive environment requires constant innovation, skills improvements, upskilling, and personal learning. Distance learning is the only efficient, scalable, and sustainable way to build and protect the value of our workforces. Face-to-face learning is still the most effective, but time, money, geography, health, and availability make this tougher the older you get.
Why is this Important?
Globalized manufacturing has affected jobs in the United States. Globalized learning is now possible because the rest of the world can gain access to the best courses from Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Harvard, Princeton, and many more!
As many as 12.2 million people took online courses from various universities and technical companies as of 2007. Nearly half were not from the U.S., even though these courses were taught in English. Today, the estimate is more than 25 million, with two-thirds of learners outside the United States. There are 21,200 college-level programs designed to be completed solely through distance education. Sixty-six percent of the 4,160 two-year and four-year Title IV degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the nation offered college-level distance education courses with degrees or certificates.
Table 1: This table shows non-English speaking countries where the technical people all speak English.
If you are wondering why Taiwan is upfront, it is because I have firsthand knowledge about Taiwan having lived there for many years. Every young student learns to read English. It costs more to learn to pronounce and speak English. Taiwan’s government had to pass a law to keep English from being taught in kindergarten because English was perceived to be so important. This is essential for technical people because they use textbooks from the U.S./U.K. printed in English. Even while doing something as mundane as bowling, high school students would keep score and compete to see who would get to practice English with my two boys.
If you are concerned about your job and your future but are not motivated to accumulate additional knowledge and skills, remember—there are millions of foreigners that want your job! My motivation for this series of chapters is to alert you to some of the skills that I value as an engineering manager and former CTO of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers. However, I am not teaching these skills. That is still something you have to do.
In the document “Distance Learning: Enabling the Race to the Top”  sent to members of Congress and the Office of Economics for the White House in November 2009, the United States Distance Learning Association said, “In the current Knowledge Economy and Conceptual Age, distance learning arguably also presents our richest opportunities for new business and product innovation.”
Major non-English programs are from:
- China (the largest with millions enrolled)
- India (second-largest with most in English)
- European Union
- Latin America
Most of us are the result of a traditional learning process because of all the years spent in school. Students are taught and lectured to by teachers, professors, or other experts. Even if you moved up to the internet age by viewing webinars, there is still a live instructor lecturing to students. Online learning and distance learning are the next evolutional steps in learning (Figure 1). By using learning theory and experimentation, classes can now be created and stored for use anytime, anywhere. This is a science that is more than pre-recorded webinars or audio track on PowerPoint slides. Sociology is applied to the user on how to keep their attention and measure if they are actually learning anything.
The U.S. started distance learning (e-learning) after the Vietnam conflict. The military realized the need for continuing education for soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Today, more than 4.6 million hours of distributed learning takes place in the U.S. military every year, whether on ships, foreign bases, or in barracks. The United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) was formed as a nonprofit organization in 1987. They support research, development, and dissemination of best practices across pre-K and K–12, home, higher, and continuing education; corporate, military, and government training; telemedicine, and others.
Retooling (upscaling) will require high-tech new skills and help/collaboration from industries and universities. A priority is that distance learning must also lead to a meaningful credential, whether it is a certificate of completion, certification, or degree. Employers must be active partners. Since 1998, some industries have made great strides in collaborating to develop and provide education and training to their entire industry through industry-based online learning initiatives. Each initiative:
- Targets both incumbent workers and those new to the industry
- Partners with carefully selected high-performing online education training providers led by a broad-based company coalition
- Provides curriculum content co-developed by industry and educational experts
- Reaches participants nationally and internationally
- Manages digital resources using the internet and new learning technologies
Managing Digital Resources
The management of digital resources is an important part of e-learning. Numerous open-source and proprietary software tools are available to assist in the e-learning development process. A few to consider:
- Plone CMS
- Microsoft CMS
- Eedo Force Ten LCMS
- MERLOT Learning
- Nutshell CRM
Figure 1: Learning has evolved over time, and the internet has enabled the emergence and rapid advancement of online learning.
These can be grouped by their action potential into six categories (Figure 2):
- Access resources.
- Declare or state presence (i.e., online/offline status or physical proximity through GPS).
- Expression through tools such as YouTube, podcasts, or profile features of most social networking sites.
- Creation of new content and resources through blogs, Wikipedia pages, and social bookmarking.
- Interaction with others through asynchronous and synchronous tools, such as discussion forums, Twitter, Skype, etc.
- Aggregation of resources and relationships through Facebook, etc.
Figure 2: Affordances of emerging technologies .
Planning Tools and Inter-Team Communication
Developing online activities and resources requires consideration and planning. A complete online learning development team would consist of the six individuals in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Online learning development team .
Creating and Finding Content
Tools for creating content for online learning have significantly improved over the last few years. Articulate Presenter, Audacity, Engage, Flash, Jing, and Camtasia are tools that new users can easily master in a short time. Online learning resources are available from MIT’s OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) initiative, Connexion, OpenLearn, and many more.
Planning and Fostering Interaction
Supporting online learning, like developing online courses, requires a team-based approach consisting of the six individuals in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Online teaching support team .
Self-Paced Online Courses (SPOC)
It seems every university has some courses available online. Many of these are available through commercial companies that specialize in distance learning. That is not quite true—there are some universities or departments that hold out that all courses have to be face-to-face. Unfortunately, that is not supported by research. However, there is a portion of the population that does not have the discipline, disposition, or electronics know-how to use the internet.
According to an article on massive open online courses (MOOCs) , the following are some criticisms of e-learning:
- Relying on user-generated content can create a chaotic learning environment.
- Digital literacy is necessary to make use of online materials.
- The time and effort required from participants may exceed what students are willing to commit to a free/low-cost online course.
- Once the course is released, the content will be reshaped and reinterpreted by the massive student body, making the course trajectory difficult for instructors to control.
- Participants must self-regulate and set their own goals.
- Language and translation barriers.
Creating an online learning course requires more work than a face-to-face or webinar course. An additional 50 hours have to go into internet platform software and features. Moreover, only about 10% of the students who sign up typically complete the course; 30% attend partially for knowledge only; 20% explore the topic rather than wanting to complete the course; 20% drop because the course required too much time or was too difficult/basic; 10% drop because of poor course design, clunky technology (software), or abuse on discussion boards; 5% cite hidden costs like expensive textbooks authored by the instructor; and 5% were “just shopping around” .
What is interesting about the research into online learning is the number of users who are not interested in getting a degree or completing the course, as stated in the statistics above. If you are interested in the conditions for online courses, you can look at the Student Handbook for Self-Paced Online Courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
There is even a free college course from Open College at Kaplan University (now Purdue University Global) called “HEO547: Effective Online Instruction—Principles and Practice” . This self-paced online course consists of four modules:
- E-learning design and practices
- Web 2.0
- Bridging theory and practice
- Management and design
To finish writing this section, I enrolled in this free course. I completed the course in 20 days, even though the live seminars are spaced over a 10-week span. Only two of the live seminars were conducted after I enrolled, but the series cycles again, and I can join them any time I wish. I can also go back to any part of the lectures and courses to review materials in the future. What I found interesting were the textbooks and other materials I received even though the course was free! Like any college course, there was a lot of reading, assignments, discussions, and quizzes involved.
The courses ended with a project assignment. If I elected to pay a fee, I could get university credits for the course. I encourage you to sign up for one of the many free courses to get a better idea of how distance learning works. It is clear that a distance-learning course has a lot more up-front time for the instructor than a normal face-to-face course, but once accomplished, it becomes available to anyone around the world.
Figure 5: Distance learning has existed with face-to-face learning and open education programs. MOOCs have recently come along and continue to evolve .
Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs)
DOCCs recognize that the pursuit of knowledge may be better achieved by not using a centralized singular syllabus. Expertise is distributed throughout all the participants and does not reside with just one or two instructors.
Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)
A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the internet. In addition to traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, quizzes, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive user forums to support community interactions among students, professors, and teaching assistants. MOOCs were first introduced in 2008 and emerged as a popular mode of learning by 2012 (Figure 5). MOOCs are still evolving (Figure 6), and Table 2 shows a number of early MOOC providers out of the nearly 76 institutions today.
Figure 6: MOOC is an evolving open-access method of distance learning. Every letter is negotiable. It has two variants—x-MOOC and c-MOOC .
Table 2: Partial List of Providers for Distance Learning with University/Industry Participation .
E-learning (another name for distance learning) has become so pervasive at universities and colleges that many now offer full graduate engineering degrees. If you want to develop your own e-learning course, most of the commercial sites in Table 2 have an affiliate program” that will help you to create the course and market it for you. For example, Udemy has 20,000 instructors supplying 11 million students in 190 countries. The instructors average $8,000 in income for their classes. If you want to learn more, check out some of the free materials listed in the references [2, 6, & 7].
The generations currently in high school and college have grown up with digital devices, video games, mobile phones, and social networking. This has affected them and changed the nature of how they learn. To continue their education in electronics manufacturing (and specifically, printed circuit fabrication and surface mounted assembly), training and education need to be adjusted to this new generation of learners. For someone as old as me, the challenge is to adapt my style of teaching to these new digital learners.
- Flores, J.G. “Distance Learning: Enabling the Race to the Top.” USDLA, November 16, 2009.
- Siemens, G., & Tittenberger, P. “Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning.” March 2009, University of Manitoba Press.
- Lwin, T. “Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs),” The Global New Light of Myanmar, March 8, 2017.
- Open College at Kaplan University. “HE547: Effective Online Instruction–Principle and Practice.” (Now Purdue University Global)
- Massive open online course (MOOC), MOOC.org
- Veletsianos, G., Emerging Technologies in Distance Education, AU Press, July 2010.
- Anderson, T., Theory and Practice of Online Learning, AU Press, May 2008.