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Online Education

Posted By Dr Martin Venter, Friday, 27 July 2018

Online education is growing quickly. Gone are the days where universities were the sole custodians of knowledge. Today we have unprecedented access to information and we are free to learn in near arbitrary depth in almost every imaginable field. A quick scan through Wikipedia can confirm how inertia is calculated in a moving reference frame, and YouTube will teach you how to replace a light bulb on your car. Most of us think that the learning stops there but the Internet can provide us with so much more.

As a group we are curious and enjoy learning, in our professional lives we are required to hone existing skills and develop new ones, but are plagued by extensive time commitments and a rapidly changing schedule that often prevents us from committing to the limited number of short courses presented locally. 

Online platforms offer a wider variety of courses with significantly more flexibility, in content timing and mode of participation. Modern online courses are truly massive and benefit from very strong community interaction. It is not uncommon to be enrolled in a course with 60 000 other students, most of whom are happy to communicate via the forums.

Experts
There are many strong online institutions but three organisations stand out, Coursera.org, Udemy.com and Edx.org. Each of these organisations afford anyone the opportunity to participate in courses presented by experts from well established universities including familiar institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT and TU Delft. 

Over the past few years I have participated in courses ranging from statistical modeling presented by John’s Hopkins to geographical information systems presented by the US Army Academy. The courses range from 4 to 12 weeks and require a commitment of between 4 and 12 hours a week.

Video lectures and course materials are provided, with graded assessments and an active mentor community. The courses range from introductory courses to advanced postgraduate level. In some cases, the courses even bear credit at their host university.

Although courses are available on a wide range of topics most fields are limited to a digital footprint, and you are not likely to get your hands dirty. Most will provide you with the theory and rely on the participants to create their own applications. With this in mind each of the three organisations listed make some capstone module available where the participant can engage in an extended application of the theory in a project setting with supervision. These are typically bundled into a mini-diploma style collection or specialisation. In some cases these can extend to full degree programmes.

The University of Illinois for instance has shifted their 2 year Masters degree in Machine Learning to the Coursera platform and whether you are a resident student or online participant you will have access to the same resources. Though some of the courses can be pricey, most will be credit bearing and provide a course certificate for around $15 - $100. Almost all will allow you to audit content and participate in the online forum for free. In some cases, the courses even bear credit at their host university.

Sealability
Although this style of online education is not likely to replace a conventional engineering degree in South Africa any time soon, it is likely that we will be seeing similar courses make their way into the existing university curriculum as an efficient teaching tool that scales well to large groups.

For those of you with your degree under your belt, there is an opportunity to up-skill yourself and your employees with some confidence without taking on the burden of creating your own programmes or relying on local 3rd party providers.

With a small time investment these flexible courses will allow you to develop up to date technical skills in new fields or refine skills from years past. It might be a practical way to transition from one field to another or provide you an edge in your current organisation.

Dr Martin Venter
SAIMechE Western Cape Branch Chairman

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