Virtual Education: Better or Worse?


Mabel Chow
M.A.S.C. Candidate

S. F. Stiemer
Dr.-Ing. ( Ph.D.), Professor

Department of Civil Engineering, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, B.C., Canada


1.0 Introduction

Human needs are traditionally categorized as food, clothing, and shelter; however, today's youngsters have more than milk, diapers, and strollers. Parents often provide them with huge TV sets, small cellular phones, exciting video games, and fast computers. Such high-tech electronics were considered luxurious a few decades ago; now they are part of the basic standard of living for the new generation in the Western World. Today's generation is brought up in a multimedia environment; an environment that is already integrated into the way humans think, learn, work, and live. For most people, high-tech electronics are fun, convenient, and useful. Indeed, if they are used intelligently and adequately, they can benefit humans in many ways. For example, in recent years, multimedia technologies have been implemented in education, and computers are one of the main players in the educational revolution.

Since the introduction of computers, attempts have been made to use computers and software programs for educational purposes. Modern communication technologies can be powerful assistants in the academic area, especially in engineering education, a field characterized by new discoveries every day. The rate of learning and the amount of information transmitted improve drastically through interactive learning by means of electronic media. When playing a video game, a teenager acquires an impressive amount of information while enjoying the excitement the game provides. The information contained in an electronic game is assimilated quickly, but this exciting medium only benefits people, of any age group, if they play video games in moderation as a leisure activity. Moderate video games can have positive effects, while excessive use may cause serious problems. If such an interactive tool is implemented intelligently and adequately into the academic area for educational purposes, the tool will definitely have the potential to accelerate the learning rate and stimulate the interest in learning among students.

Modern technologies have been being widely adopted by the academic community to perform duties traditionally carried out by faculty members, and one of the fascinating applications is the virtual lecture. Traditional educational training consists of lecturers, students, teaching assistants, classrooms, textbooks, etc., but these components can now be fully or partially replaced by videos, CD-ROMs, online "star" lecturers from renowned universities, and World Wide Web sites. Traditionally, learning is centred in formal schools, but information technologies enable learning to occur anywhere and at any time; hence, the importance of physical schools has gradually diminished. The ingredients of traditional lectures are becoming less and less important; indeed, technology advisers play a big role and have major responsibility in working with faculty members in planning the curriculum as well as classes. Some educators believe such revolutionary developments can enhance academic processes; however, some fear such a redefinition of education may reduce the interaction that exists in the traditional classrooms, and, hence, educators might have less control over the curriculum and become less important in students' lives.

2.0 Advantages
2.1 Computers Are Convenient

Many problems exist in the traditional teaching-learning system. One of them being classrooms and lecture halls, which are highly structured forums for imparting, conveying, gathering, and learning knowledge, promote passive information absorption, and they are not the perfect environments for the engineering education. Due to the increased numbers of students, today's education has a great demand for more efficient, effective, well-organized, and well-run teaching methods. Secondly, traditional teaching approaches tend to be mechanistic and idealized. Engineering problems are challenging and complex, but they are usually assumed to be simple and linear with standard solutions; however, the fact is that these problems are difficult to solve manually. Although actual laboratory experiments are able to model certain problems with numbers of parameters taken into account, performing experiments is time consuming and frequently involves cookbook approaches with many restrictions. With the introduction of computer based learning-teaching tools, such problems can be resolved. These tools are able to solve engineering problems of certain kinds. Although not every engineering application has the corresponding software, most tools can perform computations for general engineering situations.

Computers, software, and equipment that could execute rich multimedia presentations used to be expensive. In recent years, the cost of these modern electronics has gone down, resulting in increased use of computers. Although not every student can afford to buy them, computers are easily accessible in schools. In addition, the production of high-quality didactic tools for system programming, graphics generation, and audio production is experiencing rapid development and improving quickly. Multimedia networks now support knowledge and information transmission, bringing new possibilities to the distribution of study materials.

2.2 Expand Students' Opportunities to Learn

An interactive education, with the help of computers, gives users choices of information and working rhythms. Users are encouraged to choose and create styles of learning according to their preferences and the learning environments that meet their skills and styles. With many selections of learning modules available, users can customize unique sets of tools according to their backgrounds, goals, and styles. For example, a visual presentation of an algebraic computation of a simple structural problem helps engineering students to simultaneously visualize both the theoretical formulas and graphical results. Moreover, in some specific disciplines, such as Strength of Materials, theoretical concepts such as stress distribution can be visually presented in 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional space by means of engineering software. Such tools have led to great improvement in students' participation, interest levels, as well as their understanding of conceptual theories. At the end of the day, students can check their progress by using a self-assessment function that estimates how well they understand the material. There may be quizzes or checklists of the subjects covered. Using this self-assessment process, another sets of modules can then be designed for the next learning process. Figure 1 shows the difference between the traditional education and computer-based learning environment at four level of: 1) Information transfer, 2) Study materials, 3) Concepts augmentation, and 4) Knowledge evaluation.

Figure 1.  Difference between Traditional Education and Computer-Based Learning

2.3 Expand Students' Horizons

In engineering education, certain parts of the curriculum are continuously changing, while some parts are relatively stable. If an instructor teaches similar material over a long period of time without revising or modifying the content, students do not have a chance to be exposed to the constantly improving industry. Although curriculum and course contents from ten years ago may be similar to today's, certainly much more factual knowledge and information have been added, changed, and omitted in that time. In engineering, it is becoming increasingly harder to cover rapidly growing knowledge and teach basic scientific principles at the same time. Without learning the basic principles, how can one understand the theory behind modern technologies? Without exploring the newest inventions, how can one keep up with the changing engineering industry? Achieving a balance between these two options is a big challenge. Fortunately, this balance is possible with modern multimedia technologies that allow for a great volume of knowledge to be transmitted quickly and efficiently.

In general, when developing didactic materials for engineering education, students' participation is extremely important. Communication amongst students, professors, technological advisors, professionals, and experts can lead to new paths in the transmission of knowledge. The engineering education revolution can lead to the following developments (Buchal, 1996), and their relations are illustrated in Figure 2:

Figure 2.  Developments of Engineering Education

3.0 Disadvantages
3.1 Cost Factors

The cost of running a school historically involves expenditures on instructors, books, chalk, blackboards, desks, chairs, and other teaching essentials, which are stable assets with predictable costs. On a larger scale, the cost of running a university involves expenditures on creating and maintaining huge lecture halls, sophisticated laboratories, and other academic facilities. One may have the idea of replacing formal lectures and experiments with electronic courseware, and virtual laboratories will alleviate these high expenditures; however, this is not always so. Creating a virtual university definitely sounds economical, but the hidden costs can be enormous. These costs involve (Wald, 1998):

The cost factors are complex and can become greater than original estimates. The size of the faculty remains, but their functions shift. Faculty members' responsibilities require them to put great effort in maintaining the online and offline educational systems. The university not only needs to pay for the faculty members, but also for media-based interactive learning. Publishers and programmers are working together and provide a unique combination of teaching resources, but the costs of software production and dissemination of multimedia teaching can be enormous. Constructing and maintaining online and offline teaching-learning materials become the main objective, and the price cannot be easily foreseen. Universities should plan carefully when providing financial support and funding for the development of virtual learning. Figure 3 presents the approximated cost distribution for the different phases of the production, in the case where the distribution channel consists of a CD-ROM. One should notice that the delivery and mastering costs do not play a significant role in the overall cost distribution. (Keurulainen 1999)

Figure 3.  Time and Cost distribution for different phases of the production (Keurulainen 1999)

3.2 Human Factors

Learning is traditionally centred in formal schools and universities, where scholars and experts gather, and where existing knowledge can be archived in large, physical, and extensive libraries. A learning climate is established by interactions between students and professors. Virtual learning technologies shift learning away from formal institutions; eventually, the relationship between a mentor and a student diminishes and becomes the relationship between a computer and a student. Colleges and universities play major roles in creating, storing, as well as transmitting knowledge. Computers, which are excellent at transmitting information, definitely aid these processes but cannot replace any of the human connections. Information, with the help of the Internet, can be transmitted in a matter of seconds; yet, knowledge is not the same as information. Transforming information into knowledge takes mentorship, teaching, directing, moulding, guidance, construction, criticism, etc., and they require human interactions: a lecturer teaches in a classroom, a lab instructor offers help in a laboratory, and a tutor answers questions in a tutorial. These tasks can be done, if adapting technologies wisely, by e-mail conversations or interactive videoconferences, but technologies only aid the teaching-learning process if they are adapted intelligently.

It is inevitable that the roles of faculty members are gradually changing; their roles as mentors, guides, scholars, and agents have shifted to new roles as curriculum developers, partners in learning processes, and facilitators. On the other hand, students are becoming individual assessors who are starting to explore new learning environments and develop their own survival skills.

3.3 Using Technology Ineffectively

Computers and computer software offer a large variety of useful tools to support virtual learning, but not all of them are used effectively. Sometimes, they are employed to strengthen traditional teaching methods instead of providing an interactive learning environment. Good courseware of this kind is usually distributed via CD-ROMs, which can be costly. If the courseware is rooted in the old model of learning, it is just another textbook that is published electronically. The amount of communication between users is none, and the interaction between the computer and the user is limited to carefully prescribed paths. Furthermore, the content is static and difficult to improve. Indeed, there is no significant difference compared to a real textbook.

Another undesirable situation presents itself when students abuse learning tools. Engineering software offers powerful problem solving techniques, which perform sophisticated solutions after only a few mouse-clicks. Students often misunderstand this as an advantage when doing their assignments and projects. Such tools certainly provide great convenience, but heavily relying on computers may not promote a positive learning attitude in engineering education. Engineering problems are challenging and complex; there is no model answer for each problem. Solving a problem step by step definitely strengthens one's understanding of basic principles. After becoming familiar with the theory behind each step, software offers a helpful tool in solving similar problems. However, if a student approaches a problem with engineering software without considering the situation carefully, he/she may reach the wrong answer, and be misled by the solution that is generated from the software.

4.0 Conclusion

Do technologies already have a significant impact on today's education? Will the impact become more dramatic in the near future? Are the advantages of employing the latest technology altering learning? If higher education becomes infatuated with technology, what are, or should be, university policies with respect to computers in today's engineering education? These questions are not easy to answer, nor do they have definitive answers, but, clearly, that the application of multimedia teaching-learning methods at all levels of education shows that the world is changing rapidly and people of all ages need to be undergoing a continuous educational process. Those who refuse to follow this new agenda could be considered "illiterate" in the near future and, therefore, become marginalized in this society. In today's world where information is transmitted in numerous ways in various forms, new teaching-learning methods can provide students with pleasant and exciting learning environments, which follow their pace and interests. Thus, they are no longer passive players in the process, but active players who are capable of constructing their own learning styles in a positive manner. Entering this new academic era, it is undoubtedly necessary to redesign and redefine existing educational methods in order to achieve desirable teaching-learning processes. Modern multimedia methods not only offer potential benefits that traditional learning methods are not easily able to achieve, but also assist users in gaining conceptual understanding from learning materials and improving their metacognitive skills. The essence of learning is now in an environment that encourages exploration, allows risk-taking, inspires creativity, and stimulates motivation. With a variety of learning styles and behaviour, students will continue to be benefit from a wide range of educational tools that will continue to be expanded and improved. In the near future, the influence of modern technologies will definitely change the ways in which humans think, learn, work, and live.


  1. Keurulainen, A., Häggman S.-G. (1999): "Implementing Multimedia Methods in Engineering Education", EUNIS Annual Conference 7.-9.6. Information Technology Shaping European Universities. Espoo, Finland, pp 20 – 25. 1999.
  2. Buchal, R.O.: "Engineering Education in the 21st Century", presented at the ASEE Annual Conference, Washington D.C., 1996.
  3. Wald, M.S.: "Multimedia in Engineering Education: International Issues and Projects", Global J. of Engng. Educ., Vol. 2, No.2, UICEE, 1998.

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