Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Role of Engineering Educators in the Age of MOOCs

The traditional lecture format has significant limitations and leads to a high level of inefficiency in the learning process. Unfortunately, in the past, we could not come up with a better alternative. So the education process primarily relied on lectures as the medium for disseminating the knowledge. However, that changed with the advent of the Web. Increasingly, Internet and social media are providing new ways to revolutionize the learning process.

Delivering lectures in classes containing large number of students is always hard. The delivery might too slow paced for some students. Others might think that the instructor is going too fast. If a student is distracted for few minutes, he/she may find it hard to follow the rest of lecture. Reducing the class size and creating interactive lectures has been difficult due to resource constraints.

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have potential to fundamentally change the learning process. MOOCs, at least in theory, can enable class sizes of “one”. Students can watch videos of lectures at their own pace and replay portions that contain unfamiliar content and fast forward familiar content. The advent of MOOCs is prompting us to rethink the traditional education model.

A change in the learning process will also require significant changes at the educational institutions. Some educators feel threatened by MOOCs and argue that computers and videos on Internet cannot replace human educators. We all will be better served if the conversation focused on how to take inspiration from MOOC movement and significantly improve the efficiency and outcomes of the learning process at universities. A step towards this goal would be to list all the functions performed by the university faculty and figure out how to improve the execution of these functions. My personal experience indicates that the main functions performed by engineering faculty include the following:
  1. Creating new knowledge
  2. Designing curriculum
  3. Selecting and/or generating instructional material
  4. Delivering the instructional material
  5. Individualized tutoring to clarify concepts/doubts
  6. Ensuring that students have mastered the content
  7. Challenging students through projects/competitions
  8. Inspiring and motivating students to reach their potential 
  9. Imparting non-technical skills (e.g., writing, presentation, project management)
  10. Mediating and resolving conflicts in group projects
  11. Helping students in being connected to the professional network and finding jobs
The first generation MOOCs are mainly targeting items (3), (4), and (6) in the list above. I anticipate that MOOCs will also play a role in item (2) in the future.

There are many questions about effectiveness of MOOCs and their long term financial viability. Most likely the concept of MOOCs will undergo significant changes as MOOCs are widely used and go through rigorous evaluations. But it is clear that the information technology will fundamentally change the education process and will hopefully replace traditional lectures with a much more effective knowledge delivery mechanism.

Rather then focusing on MOOCs in their current form, I am interested is exploring how the education revolution fueled by the advent of MOOCs will change the role of human educators. As the above list indicates, human educators will have several important roles to play in the education process. My experiences are confined to engineering education. So I am interested in exploring how we can enhance the learning process in the engineering education.

The increasing use of information technology will reduce the burden on faculty to deliver lectures to large classes. Hopefully, this will enable human educators to focus their energy on activities that enrich learning experiences for students. I see the following possibilities:
  • Engineering students can learn a lot by participating in competitions. Faculty advisers can play a major role in mentoring and coaching teams participating in competitions. Faculty advisers will also need to make sure that all members of the team are learning the engineering principles and skills as a result of participation in the competitions.  Currently, very few engineering students participate in competitions due to resource constraints. We should encourage majority of engineering students to participate in competitions.               
  • Engineering students learn a lot by participating in research projects. This allows them to create new knowledge or new products.  Mentoring students and guiding them through challenging research and design projects is an important role for the engineering faculty. Most faculty members already perform this role for their graduate students. We should start providing significant research and/or design experience for every undergraduate student. We should create an environment where every engineering undergraduate student creates something new before graduation!
  • Non-technical skills are extremely important for the professional success. However, acquiring these skills requires significant amount of practice and working with a dedicated mentor. Faculty members should mentor undergraduate students to ensure that they learn presentation, writing, communication, project management, and team work skills.  This will require that students have an opportunity to practice these skills with their faculty mentors in individual sessions.  
  • Many engineering students do not fully understand what practicing engineers do. Unlike medicine, many engineering students graduate without doing engineering internships.  Professional networks are very useful in providing students useful information and context about the profession and help them make informed career choices. Faculty members will have to play a major role in developing the right kind of professional networks and connecting their students to these networks.  This will require engineering faculty to be connected with practicing engineers in the local communities.         
The list above is just a start to get the discussion going. There are many other functions and roles for engineering educators that will become clearer as we start embracing new education approaches. Historically, the majority of engineering faculty members have focused on delivering traditional lectures. Many of them may not feel comfortable in new roles or functions. So we will need to make sure that engineering faculty members quickly acquire the right skills to be productive in the information age. I am really excited about being in the middle of new education revolution.


  1. Excellent article that should encourage educators to think about cost effective Engineering education for the new generation. I doubt STEM focused parents would like to pay for new college stadiums, but would be happy to pay premium for an institution that is setting new standards for Engineering Education through MOOCs, mentoring and sponsorship with industry partners like Google, IBM, Microsoft etc.

  2. The article is quite interesting and thought-provoking. I have couple of comments to put forth for discussion:

    1. About MOOCs, your article expresses that a some educators "feel threatened by MOOCs". I think, it is not that the people feel threatened but rather they are concerned about the applicability of MOOCs in all aspects of education. In case of engineering, you have already listed the aspects of education and have pointed out that MOOCs is applicable to few of them in its current avatar. Many people may think you are being presumptuous about people who are critiquing (in an academic way) MOOCs. It is, in my opinion very much needed to critique a new technology to estimate its scope and limitations. This can prevent making hasty and uninformed decisions about replacing what works with something fancy sounding. We can not discount people by saying that they are threatened.

    2. In MOOCs your suggestions say "Currently, very few engineering students participate in competitions die to resource constraints. We should encourage majority of engineering students to participate in competitions." Just to add, MOOCs can be used to build a knowledge base for instructors to create low cost but all encompassing hands on exercises.

  3. By the way, some of the other weaknesses of MOOCs, which people have complained about are:
    * Their financial sustainability outside of a university is an open question. Within a university, supplementary distance education technologies, similar to what UMD's ENPM program uses, may have an advantage over MOOCs because the supplementary Web-enabled content (UMD's BlackBoard, Canvas) piggy-backs on traditional course structure, rather than being a completely standalone method of teaching.
    * Testing and ensuring that students have actually learned the material is still a major challenge as far as I know. This is mainly because it is very challenging to verify the identity of the test taker or project performer. In other words, without proctored, in-person testing, universities are generally reluctant to give course credit toward any degree.
    * According to statistics, the vast majority of students who participate in MOOCs are professionals or graduate students looking to sharpen skills or simply check out new ideas. There is usually only a tiny percentage of undergrads or High School students.
    * The course drop-out rate is extremely high: 90% according to one estimate.

  4. Very thought-provoking article. One point that is missing though, is while MOOCs are primarily designed for undergrad studies, it is quite possible that grad education can also benefit from it, if for example a stalwart in some rather niche area posts lecture notes on that topic. Moreover, educators should take up the responsibility of teaching the soft skills of project management and networking to grad students as well, particularly those who come directly from college.

  5. Excellent article. I want to add one more point.

    In classroom education model, the instructor can get visual feedback from the students whether they are actually following the lecture and can reshape his/her style of delivering lectures accordingly. MOOCS cannot enjoy this advantage. That may be one reason for high drop-out rate in MOOCS.

    I think, social interaction among students in a classroom environment is important to keep them motivated. MOOCS can be used as a complement knowledge base for classroom lectures. In fact lots of students use MOOCS as a supplementary source of information for their classroom courses.

  6. Interesting article. I see MOOCS as a complimentary addition to the pedagogical recipe, but not as a replacement. Some flavors like group solving, spontaneous electrifying debates that some times result in new research directions are privileges enjoyed only in a physical classroom setting where social exchanges can happen more naturally in real-time.

  7. NICE BLOG!!! Engineering course is one of the most excellent choices for students from science background, in conditions of scope as well as bright career. It is a vast field that put forward numerous streams and specialty choices. Thanks for sharing a nice information.
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  8. Good points, and I largely agree. One additional point I'd like to make is that the MOOCs and online lectures (i.e., the "fact delivery") if done well, can free up class time to focus on all the non-fact stuff. Whether is team work, communication skills development, or simply more interactive discussion - classes can become more engaging and offer broader learning opportunities. And so I'll predict that class attendance will increase as more lectures go online (at least for the good teachers, who use class time effectively to go beyond fact delivery).