The COVID-19 pandemic that affected the whole world early last year resulted in lockdowns worldwide wide which are still ongoing in some countries. These lockdowns restricted the movement of people and forced them to stay within their homes for most of the year. This forced isolation increased the use of technology in our daily lives. Like all the other activities education, including engineering, was also compelled to shift from the conventional face-to-face medium to an online format. Schools and colleges adapted to this new method of teaching so that the education and learning of the students are not interrupted.
Challenges to online engineering education
Online education, even though it ensures continuity in education, comes with its own set of challenges and hurdles especially in fields such as engineering education that has traditionally been focused on hands-on learning.
While the majority of students and faculty have the necessary means to instruct and attend the online classes there might be few cases where either the students or the faculty might not have access to the necessary hardware such as personal/laptops, microphones/headsets, printers/scanner, licensed software, a stable internet connection.
The result of attending multiple online classes, events, and training in a single day has resulted in the students feeling weary and tired. This Zoom (and other video conferencing platforms) fatigue is attributable to spending long hours in front of the computer, increased focus due to lower resolution images, delays in audio and video. These delays or cuts-off sentences in the online video classes increase the confusion and one thing might need explanation over and over again. This adds to the effort that has to be involved in attending the online classes.
Fatigued students may also feel anxious and worried and are more likely to lose interest in their studies.
The fundamentals of engineering can be taught online but for the students to effectively understand the concepts they have to conduct experiments in the laboratory. This hands-on practical training helps in improving the observational and analytical skills of the students. With colleges shut, the faculty are finding it difficult to conduct laboratory teaching. Without sufficient laboratory experience, the students might find it difficult to apply their theoretical knowledge in real life.
Final year projects and internships
The final year engineering students have to submit projects and do internships to complete their degrees. The students might feel distressed as they are unable to meet with their supervisors face to face to discuss the progress of their projects and seek solutions to any problems they might be facing.
Overcoming the challenges to online engineering education
There are ways by which educational institutes can overcome the challenges that are being faced by engineering students while completing their education virtually.
Effective online classes
The faculty need to prepare their lectures in such a way that they are more interactive and can hold the attention of the students. There should be more online collaborations in the form of group projects and assignments that help in developing team-building skills amongst the students. The colleges could introduce more guest lectures in the curriculum to help students learn from professionals having years of industry experience in the field of engineering.
Availability of faculty
The tutors should try to increase the communication and interaction with their students. The professors can schedule problem-solving sessions where the students can interact with the faculty as well as their peers to solve complex engineering problems. Apart from this, the faculty should also have one on one discussion with the students who are writing their thesis and guide them on working independently.
Use of virtual labs
Delivering more engaging study material and increasing the two-way communication between the students and the faculty helps in making the process of imparting theoretical knowledge more effective. But engineering education is incomplete without carrying out laboratory experiments, working on equipment, etc. The laboratory training helps the engineering students to understand the theoretical concepts better.
This problem can be solved to an extent by making the students perform experiments in Virtual Laboratories and using simulation software such as Matlab, Comsol, Pspice, Labview, etc. The use of virtual labs can help students in learning the basic as well as advanced concepts of engineering through remote experimentation. The students can access the laboratories through desktops, laptops, tablets, etc. This also helps in developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills in students. The students can carry out the experiments at any time of the day without worrying about the opening and closing timings that are associated with physical laboratories.
While performing experiments remotely the students become familiar with the equipment, procedures, safety guidelines, etc. While running experiments in a virtual laboratory the students can use visualization techniques to understand the experiment better and can carry out the experiments without the constraints that are faced in a conventional laboratory setup. The virtual labs provide more flexibility to the students and the teachers.
In a virtual lab, a student can also speed up time and can see the results of the experiments quicker. The students can also repeat the experiments as many times as they want to fully understand the concepts.
The use of virtual labs also makes the educators more effective as it reduces their workload over time by reducing the repetitive tasks such as instructing the students on the various experiments. Carrying out experiments in virtual labs helps students in storing and sharing the result of the data electronically.
Internships help students to learn the real-world application of their engineering education and prepare the students better for the job market. The students can opt for virtual internships in companies that are situated in different geographic locations.
Future of engineering: A hybrid model
The future of engineering definitely entails a hybrid model combining the best of both online and offline learning. Students can also benefit from online homework help platforms like TutorBin to augment their learning and knowledge and improve their grades.