When Brian Bernard, controls engineer for Amesbury, Mass.-based Munters Corp., moved from Connecticut to New Hampshire, he hadn't yet completed his bachelor's degree in engineering from one of the state's universities. In fact, he was 60 credits short. “That was a significant amount,” Bernard admits.

However, through the school's online distance learning program, he quickly earned the credits for his degree. He's even completed the bulk of coursework in the university's master's degree program in electrical engineering technology. “It's a wonderful way to learn,” says Bernard. “It beats commuting to and from school.”

In addition to a shorter commute, e-learning has other perks, according to Bernard. His online classes have been formatted along the lines of an independent study. Completed homework assignments, quizzes, and essays are sent by e-mail attachment to the professor for grading. The occasional “class discussion” consists of posting answers to professors' questions in an online forum. Consequently, taking classes online has afforded Bernard more flexibility than he experienced while attending the engineering program in a traditional classroom setting. “It's not at your leisure,” he explains. “You have a deadline, but you can fit in the time to do it much easier than having to go to a class at a set time.”

As a result, it's not surprising that for the past six years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than overall higher education enrollments, according to a recent report, “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States 2009,” by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), Newburyport, Mass., an institutional and professional leadership organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education (click here to see Fig. 1). The report, based on responses to a survey of 2,500 educational institutions, reveals 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2008 term, a 17% increase over the number reported the previous year. (In comparison, the overall higher education student population experienced only a 1.2% increase over the previous year.) Currently, more than one in four students enrolled in a higher education program takes at least one course online.

New tricks

Despite the convenience of online programs, however, the coursework for online classes can be just as thorough and demanding as in-class courses. “You probably are putting in more time and effort than if you're sitting in a classroom,” says Bernard.

Yet, online instruction — for technical subjects in particular — can be difficult to follow in the absence of traditional classroom elements. An online course's lack of hands-on laboratory equipment or display items is most apparent in scientific areas. “There are times where you can get lost with some of the technical descriptions,” Bernard says. “It's hard to see how a motor works in theory.”

Minus the benefit of hands-on training, fully online courses may not provide the same benefits for new electrical professionals as they do veterans looking to hone their skills. “New workers need a hands-on component in a school setting,” says Ohio-based electrician Mike Walker.

With more than 35 years of experience in the commercial and industrial electrical construction field, Walker recently completed a series of manufacturer-sponsored online modules that covered troubleshooting ballasts and fixtures. “There are few places that journeyman or master level people can go to update and/or hone their skills,” he explains. “Although I knew most of the material from past experience, it took me back to some techniques I haven't used in a long time. There are a few skills you can lose or forget. This just keeps you from getting too rusty.”

Be that as it may, some lab components can be replaced successfully by online simulation, animated scenarios, or interactive drawing tools. “People say online learning is not possible in engineering without a hands-on or face-to-face interaction, but simulations have become more sophisticated. Plus, there are thousands of engineering videos free on the Web,” says Curtis J. Bonk, Ph.D., professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., and author of “The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.”

Bonk singles out sites such as YouTube EDU and Academic Earth, which offer free online content that can be used to supplement an online course's offerings.

In addition, to provide hands-on experience, some courses require a short period of residency, for instance, over a period of a few weeks in the summer. Students immerse themselves in theory online during the academic year, and then attend on-campus labs or lectures toward the end of the course. Other courses may alternate face-to-face and online modules by the week, month, or semester. This is referred to as “blended learning,” and it's one of the three types of online learning (Types of E-Learning).

The disadvantage to this format is that individuals with full-time jobs and/or families may not be able to complete the residency requirement and would instead opt for a 100% online program. “The more face-to-face components you require, the less likely one could just do it as an addition to a normal everyday work and family life,” Bonks says.

Social studies

Surprisingly, undergraduate students make up the overwhelming majority of the 4.6 million students in degree programs enrolled in at least one online class, according to the Sloan-C report. Graduate students comprise only 14% (Fig. 2 on page 27). Yet, Bonk predicts the fastest-growing online programs will be in the areas of engineering, nursing, business, and education, particularly in graduate programs. “Those are the four disciplines I see as entering the e-learning space in a prominent way,” Bonk explains. “In some ways, it's because it's low-hanging fruit, especially in the areas of business and education. You have millions of people majoring in these fields.”

However, there are few online post-graduate programs. The scarcity of online post-graduate engineering programs has confined Cliff Whitlock, P.E., automation engineer for ProTech Electric, Inc., Casper, Wyo., to a master's degree in adult education through the University of Wyoming's, Laramie, Wyo., Outreach School. Whitlock would prefer to be earning his master's degree in engineering. “That would have been a nice direction to go,” he says. “But they don't offer online degrees in engineering here.”

Whitlock received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering through traditional face-to-face classes through the university's College of Engineering. Had his work schedule allowed it, he would have pursued his master's degree in the same way. “I prefer the in-class experience as far as the actual learning process itself, but it would in no way fit in with my schedule,” he explains. “There are days I wouldn't be able to go to class, and that's how most of my days are.”

This meant Whitlock could only consider master's degree programs that were 100% online, with no scheduled face-to-face or cyber meetings. This flexibility allows him to work full-time with overtime and still complete his assignments. Although Whitlock credits the lack of online engineering programs to the logistical difficulty of having test equipment and other laboratory materials at home when enrolled in such a program, he argues an even greater challenge to learning a technical subject is lack of contact with both the instructors and other students. “One of the downsides of online classes is you don't get face-to-face contact,” he says. “Sometimes, the isolation allows people to do the bare minimum. Then they don't get much out of it.”

In an isolated situation, it's difficult to gauge your own comprehension, Whitlock says. “A lot of times you don't understand what you don't know,” he continues. “That's the type of thing you get by interaction with other people that you don't really get by just going through a presentation on your own.”

Therefore, even in self-paced courses, a key to successful learning is total class participation. “If the class has motivated members who participate in the threaded discussions, then I learn the topics well,” explains Whitlock, who says most of his online classes have had great participation. “The threaded discussions really aid in the learning and absorption of the material as we share ideas, confusion, and enlightenment.”

However, in those classes, participation was mandatory, meaning it made up a percentage of the final grade. “That's a key component — when you get credit for it,” Whitlock concludes. “In a class in which nobody participated, it was because it didn't matter,” he says. “The instructor is pivotal to participation, and participation is pivotal to learning.”

Check points

Bonk refers to the sense of community for online classes — both technical and theoretical — as the “social presence.” He explains it as having an instructor who gauges your progress and offers feedback. “It means there's an instructor that cares about you,” says Bonk, who explains that in some classes, former students of the class can act as mentors (Employee Training on page 26). “If you have a mentor or guide, that's a big help.”

In addition, with the growing popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, peer-to-peer communication is also gaining ground in online courses. Previously, the focus of an online class was for the student to do the assignments and complete the course in relative isolation. “It was very task-focused,” Bonk explains.

However, his recent research reveals getting students to focus off-task at times is important to their retention and success. In his own online teaching methods, Bonk employs an initial social ice-breaker and uses team-building activities throughout the course. In the first class in which he used these techniques, the dropout rate fell from 30% to zero. “Students get to know one another on a social level, and you get to have case solutions, meaning problem-based scenario learning where you're solving things as a member of a team,” he says. “When they finish that course or certificate, there's a larger sense of accomplishment — they have that team identity.”

However, Bonk warns that creating this sense of community is not easy. Most participants are attracted to online learning because it affords flexibility and independence, usually because their schedules can't accommodate a traditional classroom time frame. That was true for Thomas Clark, power plant project coordinator for Vero Beach Municipal Power Plant, Vero Beach, Fla. At the time he began an online bachelor of science in business management program, the position he held as maintenance supervisor for the power plant kept him on-call 24 hours a day. “Working in power generation made it next to impossible to attend a brick-and-mortar establishment,” says Clark, who was responsible for equipment repair at any hour of the day or night.

So when the plant's tuition reimbursement policy was brought to his attention, he decided to look for an online program. The plant's program required an accredited institution, so he chose Western Governors University (WGU), an online university founded by the governors of 19 U.S. states, which offers nationally and regionally accredited online bachelor's and master's degrees specifically designed for working adults.

When Clark passed his courses, the plant reimbursed him 100% for tuition and 50% for books. “That gave me a lot of incentive,” he says. “The course was $2,600 every six months, so if I didn't pass I was out that money.”

Clark also had the option to contact a mentor who helped him choose his course load and talked with him every two weeks by telephone to check his progress and keep him motivated. His mentor would also review his assignments before he turned them in for a final grade. In addition, Clark could e-mail his mentor questions in between the scheduled phone calls.

As for peer-to-peer interaction, Clark took advantage of the WGU Student Portal and online learning communities. “That was helpful because you could go in and talk to other students,” he says. “They have chat rooms so you can go in and chat with other students.”

In the end, however, Clark had only himself to rely on. He established a study routine at his house and worked toward the degree from 20 to 30 hours a week. He completed most of his assignments alone. In addition, if he worked extra hours at the plant, he had to make up the time. “When I signed up, WGU told me I'd need at least 20 hours a week, and that was kind of hard for me to believe,” he says. “But it was easily 20 and sometimes 30 hours a week. It really was hard to turn down doing things I enjoy, but I really wanted this degree, so I had to motivate myself.”


Sidebar: Types of E-Learning

Although there are three major types of online learning styles, many programs use a combination of methods. Traditionally, corporate training sessions were mostly synchronous, in order to keep employees tuned in, whereas higher education courses comprised mostly asynchronous courses, according to Curtis J. Bonk, Ph.D., professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., and author of “The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.” However, in the last 10 years, colleges and universities have embraced the synchronous model.

  • Asynchronous: The communication between student and lecturer or employee and trainer does not occur simultaneously, meaning the course is self-paced, and assignments are handed in by set deadlines through e-mail. If there is a discussion component, it is carried out through messages posted to threads in an online discussion forum. Students with full-time jobs and families may prefer this type of online course for its convenience and accessibility. However, less self-motivated students may find themselves falling behind through lack of feedback. Some programs now provide mentors who provide advice through e-mail messages to combat possible feelings of isolation.

  • Synchronous: The communication between student and lecturer or employee and trainer occurs simultaneously, meaning individuals log onto discussion boards at the same time or use real-time instant messaging or audio/video conferencing technologies. This type of online learning course provides instant feedback on a student's participation and performance and can also build peer-to-peer relationships. The drawbacks to this type of learning are that the modules are not self-paced and require set meeting times over possible differing time zones.

  • Blended learning: The communication between student and lecturer or employee and trainer combines online and face-to-face delivery. Although most of the courses' content is delivered online, this type of online learning contains a number of face-to-face meetings, either one-on-one with the professor or trainer or in a group classroom setting. Students receive timely feedback, yet are allowed to self-pace some of the assignments.


Sidebar: Employee Training

As much as 40 cents of every dollar spent on in-person training goes to travel and lodging costs, according to Training Industry, Inc., Cary, N.C. Therefore, it's not surprising that almost 80% of executives who employ Web-based training and conferencing cite the elimination of travel costs as their reason for the switch, according to a recent study of training techniques by Osterman Research, Inc., Black Diamond, Wash. Currently, about 33% of employee training is conducted online, according to research by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), Alexandria, Va. In 2001, the figure was around 11%. Yet, the percentage could be a lot higher. Curtis J. Bonk, Ph.D., professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., and author of “The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education,” offers some tips for introducing your employees to online training:

  • Incremental change: Change is always difficult. Shifts to online learning are no different. Those who might be nervous or more hesitant should start with small steps, such as finding online resources that they can later use. Have your HR or IT department create tip sheets for the technology and create tutorials that walk employees through Web site screens. There is also technology available to add a voice-over component to the module.

  • Testimonials: Add testimonials to the introduction to the class or training module. Ask employees who have already taken the class or module to speak to new students. Bring them in for the first week of the class and have them explain what they did. That can reduce the tension for other students. Recruit former students to be mentors for the new ones coming in.

  • Early feedback: Within the first three weeks of the course, have someone come in to see if people need any help or advice. Bringing in the human touch early creates less tension. If employees don't feel that someone cares, they're more likely to drop out. If you're going to have assignments, have something due early so students are testing their computer and passwords early, instead of waiting until the end of the course to have everything turned in. Have a chat or opening Webinar orientation session where you go through a Q&A. Offer a face-to-face meeting if people are located in your area, and provide a lunch orientation session to show them the technology and tools.

  • Awards and incentives: Embed a recognition system for those who successfully complete the course. Tie in completion to performance goals. Training programs might also include incentives, such as certificates of completion, money, or gift rewards.