A significant shift in the world of engineering is changing the reality of online learning. Embedding computing devices in everyday objects is a growing and determined trend. This trend, commonly called the Internet of Things (IoT), means that many everyday objects have the ability to send and receive data.
This development is changing the dynamics of engineering and has strengthened the premise for online learning. IoT is facilitating acquisition of meaningful and practical engineering skills, even when they’re studied online and off-site. The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT), an international college dedicated to the education and training of engineers and technicians, has been captivated by the impact that this Fourth Industrial Revolution is having on education.
For many years, EIT focused on tried-and-tested, classroom-based training, with physical labs lugged around the world to city venues and onto engineering sites. This was a remarkably effective venture (if somewhat cumbersome) with more than 520,000 participants over 25 years. But as online technologies began to emerge, the dean of engineering at EIT, Dr. Steve Mackay, contemplated the changing face of education and realized that it would ultimately serve engineers well.
Mackay witnessed many in the industry being denied access to the education and training they needed due to the tyranny of distance, the responsibilities of demanding jobs and budget constraints. He spent four years of extensive research (resulting in a PhD), during which he analyzed the various online learning platforms and tools available. This enabled him to devise an optimal method for EIT. He settled on an innovative live and interactive approach to teaching, where industry-experienced instructors and lecturers are streamed to students around the world, who are given access to high-quality remote labs.
In traditional learning environments, students of engineering rely on physical labs for hands-on practical applications. For equivalency online, the key is the evolving IoT and the fact that engineering is increasingly underpinned by technology. EIT students log into remote or virtual labs and use simulations to ably apply their learning.
There are fields of engineering that present some challenges to online learning online—for example, civil engineering. However, many other disciplines, including industrial automation, do lend themselves to the platform. EIT students have access to simulations of industrial plants. They're able to "walk" through the plants, receive practical hands-on experience tuning a process loop, for example, or diagnosing a fault such as an instrument air failure or the failure of a valve due to feedback position error (Figure 2).
Students are exposed to simulation kits ranging from compressors, pumps, distillation columns, heaters and boilers. And they're realistic. With diagnostic tools rapidly becoming Internet-based, these simulations are very closely aligned with real-world plants. Students are stretched in terms of identifying and remedying encountered problems, and support from experienced instructors is available to assist them.
There are some significant benefits inherent to practical applications tackled online. In addition to accessibility and flexibility, they offer the potential to test the limits of equipment. In an online medium, this can be done safely—something that can’t be achieved with real equipment.
In terms of the remote labs, students can interface with a pneumatic circuit control using a microcontroller, for example. There are also labs involving field instruments, including data acquisition, pumps, motors, industrial modems and routers. Sensors can also be accessed, such as flowmeters, ultrasonic sensors, oscilloscopes and temperature sensors. For example, students can remotely access a data logger to calculate the temperature change and response time for different thermocouple and RTD installations (Figure 3). The engineering and industrial worlds have taken notice of these developments: EIT has 1,400 students in more than 140 countries. The learners have access to a range of accredited online bachelor and master degrees, and vocational qualifications. And they can select from a range of engineering disciplines including industrial automation, electrical, civil and mechanical.
Studies show insignificant differences between learning equivalent material face-to-face or online. And as the technologies become increasingly sophisticated, those differences all but disappear. When learning reaches that juncture—where students are no longer aware of the technologies involved, but are able to interact with excellent teachers and access labs that “take them onto the worksite”—then online education will have come of age.
Edwina Ross is the public relations officer at the Engineering Institute of Technology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.