Campus Perks You Miss with an Online Engineering Masters
Shawn Wasserman posted on July 23, 2014 |

Ryan Connolly inspecting a student Jamaal Montasser’s frame in Stanford’s Product Realization Lab. Courtesy of Stanford University and Kurt Hickman.

Online masters are perhaps the best option for the working engineer. The convenience of studying when your business schedule permits is a big draw to professionals. You will walk away from the experience with the same knowledge, degree, and prestige. But will it be the same experience?

By taking your Masters online there are aspects of college life you will miss. Roads not taken, so to speak. You may never know who you could have met, what you could have done, and where you would have ended up if you hadn’t taken your courses from your desk or sofa.

The Labs

The world is full of people with different learning styles. For those that prefer to do, labs are an important part of their education.

A great example is the Product Realization Lab, open to Mechanical Masters students at Stanford. Thanks to Masters Student Ryan Connolly (back in 2001), the lab gained fame for teaching students to build their own bikes from scratch. After teaching himself to build the frame and the tools required for mass bicycle production, Connolly’s passion became the University’s realization course. A course still taught today.

Students go from blueprints, to design, to manufacturing lessons, learning to manage the business design cycle. For those that tend to gloss over the text and lectures online, physically bringing a bike into existence might be a better route.

The Software


Siemens’s PLM tool Teamcenter which will be used in Oakland’s PLM applications course. Courtesy of Oakland University and Siemens.

Software isn’t cheap and 30-day trials can pass by a busy engineer in a flash. This is where studying on campus can become invaluable. A quick trip to a computer lab can offer students access to a vast range of CAE software they could never hope to afford on their own.

Additionally, many schools will offer courses to teach these (often complicated) software packages. Take Oakland University’s Industrial and Systems Engineering program, for example. The program offers courses in which it teaches Siemens’ Teamcenter and Process Simulate-Robotics PLM software. These packages could take months to learn on your own and there is no guarantee you’d learn to use them correctly in the end.

In fact, I myself taught such a course at the University of Guelph on SimaPro, an environmental life cycle assessment software tool. Being the only person qualified to teach the software at the time it was an honor to pass on my hard earned knowledge. But it is a software I would never have learned in the first place had I not studied on-campus.

Though virtual machines, video lectures and screen sharing can do a lot to teach a program, nothing beats the hands on approach of having a TA, professor or tutor at your disposal.

The People

Campus life is all about making connections and developing your network. From the exchange programs, clubs, study groups, and the guy that sat next to you in differential equations, you are going to meet new and interesting people.

Though the same might be true of the online world, an online connection just isn’t the same. Would Blackberry exist if Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin had met Michael Barnstijn in a Waterloo distance education program? Would Facebook exist if Zuckerberg had meet Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes through a Harvard forum?

Never underestimate the network of people you will meet throughout your life; and while online interaction can help you maintain a friendship, it may not be the best place to start.

The Sit-in Opportunities


PK Clean depolymerization plant in Salt Lake City. Courtesy of MIT and PK Clean.

When MIT MBA student Priyanka Bakaya sat in on her chemical engineering friend’s class on Energy Ventures, a light bulb went off. She was finally able to see a path towards her entrepreneurship. Remembering her family friend Percy Kean’s invention for depolymerization, she signed into the program and started her own company.

This type of connection would not have been possible taking a masters online. There is no easy way to “sit-in” on a class online like Bakaya did in real life. Typically everything is password protected and gated within online classrooms. Without coming to class, her first PK Clean depolymerisation plant in Salt Lake City might have remained a dream.

The Decision

There is nothing wrong with an online masters. They are certainly the best option for busy working professionals. However, they are not the best option for everyone.

When making the decision, take the time to figure out if that on-campus education is really out of the question. Weigh the pros and cons of an on-campus program for both your personal life and current employment. It should clarify your decision and perhaps open you up to opportunities you might have missed otherwise.

Sources MIT, Oakland 1, Stanford

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