Is COVID-19 Changing the Future of Education for Engineering Students?

Zoom is fine for lectures, but what about the labs?

Full disclosure: Make: Projects, mentioned in this article, is a joint venture of and Make:Community. 

Students Hit by Closures. Counties with country-wide or localized school closures as of August 3, 2020. Source: UNESCO. (Picture courtesy of statista.)

Students Hit by Closures. Counties with country-wide or localized school closures as of August 3, 2020. Source: UNESCO. (Picture courtesy of statista.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted school for more than 1 billion students worldwide, according to UNESCO. That leaves many educators, parents and students wondering if schools should adopt more online learning classes.

Students are using virtual tutoring, videoconferencing, or online learning software now more than ever. But online learning isn’t a new concept. According to the World Economic Forum, businesses were investing over $18 billion in global educational technology in 2019 alone, with the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 billion by 2025.

Many companies are launching new ways to teach and participate over the internet while others are offering free services on online learning platforms.

Make: Community and are helping students by offering a place to organize and share their projects online. The platform enables students and teachers to collaborate in private and public groups as well as share images, files, videos, whiteboards, and much more. Make: Projects is optimized to enable creativity and ingenuity through tools such as project collections, contests, and a worldwide community. The companies recently introduced the project through a webinar aimed at helping teachers engage students and enhance project-based learning.

BYJU has an educational technology and online tutoring site. Lark offers a collaboration suite that includes videoconferencing time, auto-translation capabilities, real-time coediting of project work, and smart calendar scheduling. Both applications have seen an exponential increase of students and teachers using their products since the beginning of the pandemic.

Many universities are successfully transitioning to online learning. In fact, many elite schools, including Yale and Stanford, as well as big tech companies, such as Google and Amazon, are offering over 3,900 courses on Coursera.

Many educators state that the move to online learning infringes on education because there has been very little preparation and training for educators. Many believe a hybrid model, with live and online education, will emerge.

However, postsecondary students, specifically those studying science and engineering, each with lab-based classes, are struggling to find comparable and effective education options online. Worldwide, many students have fallen behind due to unreliable Internet access, the lack of online resources, and the inability to provide a comparable lab experience virtually.

Educators continue to search for ways to teach hands-on courses and labs through online platforms or project-based virtual communities such as Make: Projects. Others have simply canceled labs altogether due to the lack of resources and software. 

Lab courses allow students to perform experiments that validate theory taught in lectures and classes. Without labs, students will miss out on the hands-on experience that will be valuable for their potential employers. One student, unable to do lab experiments, was simply handed the results and told to write the final report. 

Online learning could lead to the creation of a new, more effective method of educating students, actually providing an advantage over education as it existed pre-pandemic, say its champions. E-learners retain 25 to 60 percent of what they learn online, compared to 8 to 10 percent of “face-to-face” learners, according to Aurora Interactive, makers of the SHIFT online training platform. 

While engineering and science students still wonder how they will do their lab work, resilient educators and students are showing that lectures and discussions have been readily adopted. The vast array of collaboration and videoconferencing applications has certainly been put to good use.