This has baffled me for quite some time. There are many other majors that have been built completely online. But engineering is behind those other careers. The technology is there, it is true that it may become very expensive to produce online courses for engineering but the investment will be recovered in a medium term and the lifetime of the courses will give plenty of revenue to that institution offering the program.
There are certificate and master programs out there, that is true. But they tend to cater to professionals who do not have the time to attend a classroom or are looking for a career switch or need the certification or the diploma to climb up the ladder in their place of work.
But why is it that all those freshmen coming out of American High Schools would not want to enroll in those programs that are currently being offered (in majors that would not require a lot of lab work, more on that later)? There are certainly online programs in computer science or information technology majors, but even those do not have a lot of enrollments from recent High School graduates.
In my view, I see three reasons this is not happening right now.
- Parents and students do not see a degree earned online as valuable as one earned on campus. This is still true all around America. They still see a degree from a mortar and bricks university more valuable (even if that university is not even ranked in the US News Annual list) than one earned online from a highly ranked university. The perception that a degree from an online program was earned through easy courses and not-so-difficult exams has not been erased from the minds of these parents and potential students. This is changing, and rapidly. As universities feel the need to serve as many students as possible, even though the seats available in the classroom are not expanding at the rate that students graduate from High School, these institutions are creating courses that will eventually morph into complete online programs, which have the same or equivalent value that the version offered on campus. They are making sure that is the case, we have to remember that their names are still on that online degree.
- The fact that many engineering courses require laboratory work. This is changing as well. Many universities have asked the question of how valuable lab work really is in an engineering program. They are also looking into alternative solutions that can recreate the lab work either online or by asking the students to do the lab work at home.
- The complexity of many courses that are needed at the undergraduate senior level. When you reach the final year into the undergraduate program the student needs to take courses that require a higher level of thinking (such as composite materials, or fracture mechanics). These course are highly specialized subjects (in many cases they are elective courses) that may require a lot of web technology for their implementation (which translates into costly courses).
At the end of the day, you need to prove that a graduate from the online program has the same abilities and skills as a graduate from the on campus version, and that is the hardest part of this whole business. In many countries you are required to take an examination or perform original work in order to obtain the degree. This is not a common practice in the US. That might be the solution, you can create a final assessment that could measure the same variables in students that are graduating from both programs, and both programs must have global goals that map to that assessment in order to guarantee that both graduates have achieved the same level of expertise. This will give an additional value to online programs.
If we are able to overcome these difficulties, I am pretty sure I will be seeing a mechanical engineering online program that is as valuable as the one offered on campus in that higher education institution.