Distance learning has been with us since 1858, when the University of London began its “External Learning Programme,” offering students the opportunity to study privately and take exams by mail.
Since early 2020, however, with a pandemic raging worldwide, distance learning has moved mostly online and taken on an entirely new importance. While many students complain about the loss of personal contact involved in learning online, virtual experiences may actually improve several aspects of internships.
“Higher education is leaning more and more into the online delivery of knowledge, which could level the playing field and democratize access to education,” said Sirin Tekinay, dean of engineering at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates; Tekinay also chairs the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC), giving her a view into trends worldwide. “We have an opportunity like never before to transform the way we offer courseware to improve accessibility to and opportunities in higher education.”
A study by the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University in Indiana reports that undergraduate engineering students say their remote learning experiences have helped them better “adapt to online lectures and actually learned to manage time better,” and that they “believe this experience has made [them] more adaptable.”
“Professional skills, formerly known as ‘soft skills’, are so important to engineers,” said Julie Martin, associate professor of engineering education at The Ohio State University and a collaborator on the Purdue University study. “When students were required to shelter in place, many scattered to different time zones across the USA and the rest of the world. They found themselves on what were truly global teams – something that happens in real engineering work all the time.”
Necessity breeds innovation
While some courses are entirely academic, others rely heavily on laboratory-based study. The importance of a hands-on experience is particularly apparent during internships.
To meet this challenge, universities and other educational societies are switching to remote internships that take advantage of virtual technologies, including 3D product models and artificial intelligence. Access to virtual technology, these educators agree, will greatly improve the value of the internships by exposing students to applications and processes already in use and growing in the global marketplace. For example, a ReportLinker study projects the global simulation software market reaching US$19.4 billion (15.9 billion euros) by 2025; GrandView Research projects the 3D design software market alone to reach $US13 billion (10.7 billion euros) by the same year, indicating rapid adoption for which students must be prepared.
Just four months into the pandemic, in May 2020, the GEDC and the European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI) launched the Global Virtual Internship Program to help students remotely access online opportunities widely available to the GEDC’s corporate and on-campus members.
“As the year went on and we started to adjust to virtual delivery strategies, we realized that there were actually advantages beyond traditional methods to teaching online and using technology, if we reformulated our mindset,” Tekinay said. “We were able to change teaching techniques significantly throughout the year, and we realized that experiential learning opportunities such as internships could be treated the same way. At the GEDC, we wanted to enable engineering students worldwide to have the option to undertake virtual internships, despite the pandemic.”
Hugo Kieffer, a nuclear engineering student at the École nationale supérieure d'ingénieurs de Caen in France, spent his summer as a remote intern for the Department of Nuclear Reactors of the Czech Technical University in Prague. During the eight-week program, Kieffer contributed to research on uranium fuel, improved his knowledge of Python coding and tested newly developed software.
“In terms of social interaction, it was clearly very different from the normal procedure,” Kieffer said. “I only attended one meeting each week to report my progress and discuss the various next stages of my work.”
Despite the limits on personal engagement with colleagues and senior staff, however, Kieffer said the experience was beneficial.
“Although I was only able to complete certain tasks due to the remote nature of the internship, I was still able to contribute to the laboratory’s projects which, in time, could affect production methods of nuclear fuel. It is important that we know that remote internships are possible and provide students with relevant industry experience.”
Tekinay said that she believes virtual internships are here to stay, and can actually create more valuable experiences than physical internships. Her college at the American University of Sharjah was able to offer virtual internships to students from the US, India, and Chile. During that time, the students worked on research topics, created presentations, observed experiments and collected results.
“This opportunity probably wouldn’t have been viable as a face-to-face experience in our biomedical engineering lab, for various financial and time-related reasons,” Tekinay said. “As such, virtual internships have created a range of new opportunities for engineering students around the world and have the sense of being part of a global community.”
The intern truly became part of the project team, with very clear assignments from day to day, she said. “They were not required to take part in the more menial tasks often asked of interns, such as filing or making coffee. As a result, they were able to provide real value and insight to the project.”
“The idea is not to have remote learning all the time necessarily,” said Julien Doche, student and president of the Bureau Nationale des Élèves Ingénieurs (BNEI), a group which represents the interests of engineering students in France. Instead, the goal is “ to find the balance between the development of education, its adaptation to society and economic events, and maintain the quality of higher education.”
The cost of disruption
Even when virtual learning is delivered effectively, however, questions of cost persist. A recent study by education research organization Niche found that 79% of students believe virtual or hybrid classes should cost less than a traditional, in-person course, since they offer fewer contact hours and little-to-no on-campus interaction.
“This is a tricky issue because the cost of paying for instruction is not lower for online learning,” The Ohio State University's Martin said. “If anything, staff are working more hours to convert courses and deliver online instruction than we were when teaching in person. I think faculty hear this argument and wonder if the implicit suggestion is that they should be paid less for working more. Additionally, universities are experiencing drastic budget cuts during the pandemic, and those institutions that are laying off instructors require the remaining faculty members to teach higher loads than normal.”
Attitudes toward remote learning and the associated fees differ across geographies. Doche said that he believes many engineering students across France are happy to continue paying their fees.
“The majority of engineering schools in France are public,” he said. “We pay around 600 euros [US$725] per year, so the fees are not as expensive as other education institutions and in some other countries. I think attitudes might be quite different were we paying a lot more.”
The subject of higher education fees has been and continues to be a divisive subject. Virtual internships, however, are already proving their value by removing some of the associated clerical work and enabling students to be part of global teams. As educators find ways to pack even more value into virtual learning, exposing students to advanced engineering technologies and global teaming experiences, resistance to paying for them may evaporate
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