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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Online Engineering Education: Many Options, Many Outcomes

April 30th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

I’ve been around design and engineering for many years. Well, you might say that I’ve been “around the block.” I can accept that, but I also have realized for a long time, that to remain relevant, I have had to continuously re-educate myself through various channels to reinvent myself.

Just last autumn I took a computational physics course (Optics) at the University of Colorado Denver as background for a book I am in the process of writing on 3D scanning. To say it was a challenge is an understatement, and I had to dust off my old college math books, but I got a lot out of it and look forward to future college-level courses. Disclosure: I audited the course and did not receive a grade, but felt I kept up with the class, and missed only two classes during the 16 week semester.

There are several academic routes for those earning an online (primarily graduate level) engineering degree to pursue, including mechanical, software, and electrical engineering, among other specializations. Some master’s of engineering programs require students to participate in an internship, and a few require a comprehensive exam. The focus here will not be on full online engineering programs with traditional curricula, but rather, online platforms that teach specific skills (and sometimes specific CAx software) required for staying current in one of many engineering disciplines.

Although there are several educational methods and delivery systems, I’ll focus exclusively on online delivery. While not for everyone, online educational delivery is a great equalizer because it can be accomplished increasingly anytime and anywhere on any platform. That said, the biggest requirements for online learning are discipline and commitment, because it can be too easy to become distracted and lose focus without them — usually not a concern in a classroom environment.

Before today’s online offerings, radio and movies were used for educational purposes, primarily by the U.S. government and military.

We can’t get too far into contemporary online education without talking about the massive open online courses (MOOCs) movement. These are online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.

In addition to traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive user forums to support community interactions between students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). MOOCs are a relatively recent and widely available development in distance education which was first introduced in 2008 and emerged as a popular mode of learning in 2012.

Early MOOCs often emphasized open-access features, such as open licensing of content, structure and learning goals, to promote the reuse and remixing of resources. Some later MOOCs use closed licenses for their course materials while maintaining free access for students.

In my very early days, I can recall the precursors to MOOCs in the back sections of magazines  in the form of correspondence courses, broadcast courses, and early attempts at e-learning. In the 1890s correspondence courses on specialized topics such as civil service tests and shorthand were promoted by door-to-door salesmen. Over 4 million Americans – far more than attended traditional colleges – were enrolled in correspondence courses by the 1920s, covering hundreds of practical job-oriented topics. I can remember correspondence courses for trades ranging from locksmithing to radio broadcasting to TV repair (during the tube era).


How Free Online Courses Are Changing Traditional Education

If there is a detrimental or dark side to online learning it’s completion rates. For online courses, completion rates are typically lower than 10%, with a steep participation drop starting in the first week. In the course Bioelectricity, Fall 2012 at Duke University, 12,725 students enrolled, but only 7,761 ever watched a video, 3,658 attempted a quiz, 345 attempted the final exam, and 313 passed, earning a certificate. Not exactly stellar numbers, but not too surprising given the commitment required.

Early data from online learning provider, Coursera, suggest a completion rate of 7%–9%. Most registered students intend to explore the topic rather than complete the course, according to Koller and Ng. The completion rate for students who complete the first assignment is about 45 percent. Students paying $50 for a feature designed to prevent cheating on exams have completion rates of about 70 percent.

One online survey published a “top ten” list of reasons for dropping out. These included that the course required too much time,  was too difficult, or too basic. Reasons related to poor course design included “lecture fatigue” from courses that were just lecture videos, lack of a proper introduction to course technology and format, clunky technology and trolling on discussion boards. Hidden costs were cited, including required readings from expensive textbooks written by the instructor that also significantly limited students’ access to learning material. Other non-completers were “just shopping around” when they registered, or were participating for knowledge rather than a credential. Providers are exploring multiple techniques to increase the often single-digit completion rates in many MOOCs.

The effectiveness of MOOCs is an open question as completion rates are substantially less than traditional online education courses.

So, that aside, let’s take a look at some of the online educational delivery systems that are available today. Keep in mind that some of the courses are free, while others charge a modest fee. Also, for the most part, the delivery platforms discussed below are not accredited as traditional colleges/universities are, but do offer a wide variety of learning opportunities for specific purposes. However, some of the introductory courses offered may qualify for transfer to an accredited institution.

Udemy — is a platform or marketplace for online learning. Unlike academic MOOC programs driven by traditional collegiate coursework, Udemy provides a platform for experts to create courses which can be offered to the public, either at no charge or for a tuition fee. Udemy provides tools that enable users to create a course, promote it, and earn money from student tuition charges.

Udemy serves as a platform that allows instructors to build online courses on topics of their choosing. Using Udemy’s course development tools they can upload video, PowerPoint presentations, PDFs, audio, zip files, and live classes to create courses. Instructors can also engage and interact with users via online discussion boards.

No Udemy courses are currently credentialed for college credit; its students take courses largely as a means of improving job-related skills. Some courses generate credit toward technical certification.

It is reported that Udemy has served over 5 million students, and offers more than 22,000 course alternatives.

In 2007 Udemy founder Eren Bali built software for a live virtual classroom while living in Turkey. He saw potential in making the product free for everyone, and moved to Silicon Valley to found a company two years later.

Within a few months, 1,000 instructors had created about 2,000 courses, and Udemy had nearly 10,000 registered users. Based on this favorable market reaction, they decided to attempt another round of financing, and raised $1 million in venture funding. This sum was significantly more than they had originally sought when approaching investors just months earlier.

Udemy offers paid and free courses, depending on the instructor. Most courses are priced between $29 – $99.

 iGetIt —

i GET IT provides online self-paced training for engineers, and the i GET IT training course library contains courses and tutorials for many of today’s design software and industry topics. i GET IT also enables you to publish your own training content to share knowledge within your organization.

You can capture and share best practices, standards, and knowledge specific to your organization with the i GET IT authoring tools. You can also track your progress or your team’s progress on courses and assigned learning paths to identify areas of focus for improvement.

Brad Engholt, Product Manager, iGetIt at SolidWorks World 2015

With over 100,000 members wordwide, iGET IT ranges in price from free to $395 per year.

All courses are available online, but are not downloadable or available offline.  With over 1,000 courses, instruction is available for many software applications from vendors such as Autodesk (AutoCAD, Alias, Inventor, etc.), Dassault Systemes (CATIA, SolidWorks, ENOVIA), PTC (Creo), and Siemens (NX, Teamcenter, Solid Edge), as well as general engineering skills training (automotive, GD&T, plastics).

Udacity —

Udacity is a for-profit educational organization founded by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky offering MOOCs. According to Thrun, the origin of the name Udacity comes from the company’s desire to be “audacious for you, the student.” While it originally focused on offering university-style courses, it now focuses more on vocational courses for professionals.

Udacity announced a partnership with San Jose State University (SJSU) in January 2013 to pilot three new courses, two algebra courses and a statistics course, available for college credit at SJSU and offered entirely online. Three months later, the pilot was expanded to include MA006, MA008, and ST095, as well as two new courses, CS046 and PS001. In July 2013, the partnership was suspended after more than half of the students failed their final exams. In June 2014, Udacity and AT&T announced the “Nanodegree” program, designed to teach programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level IT position at AT&T.

The coursework is said to take less than a year to complete, and cost about $200/month. AT&T said it will offer paid internships to some graduates of the program.


IMAGINiT Technologies is a subsidiary of Rand Worldwide and claims to be the world’s largest provider of enterprise solutions to the engineering community. With 20+ years’ experience, and over 40 offices throughout North America, the company can provide  expertise, training, and support .

IMAGINiT is a provider of Autodesk software solutions for various industries and is the largest North American Autodesk Authorized Training Center (ATC) partner. All of its locations are supported by a pool of engineering resources focused on developing real-life business solutions for clients.

While IMAGINiT does offer courses for a few other software packages, since it is an Autodesk reseller, its focus is on courses and supporting material for Autodesk products and suites.


The ASCENT Center For Technical Knowledge is another subsidiary of Rand Worldwide that develops and produces a wide range of courseware offerings and knowledge products and courseware for engineering software tools from Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, and PTC.

ASCENT’s team is comprised of courseware developers, engineers, instructional designers, architects, and technical writers who work together to create training solutions — video-enhanced eLearning, video-enhanced eBooks, and traditional hardcopy training guide books.

Its curriculum group specializes in the creation of blended education programs that incorporate the best of expert-led and technology-based training offerings to create the most effective course content and ensure that users achieve maximum productivity from their chosen engineering tools. ASCENT also works to meet its client’s needs by offering different levels of customization for classroom-training curricula. 

Solid Professor —

With over 40,000 subscribers, Solid Professor video lessons are designed to help clients rapidly increase knowledge in areas ranging from CAD to CAM to BIM. Its eLearning platform allows you to start learning the basics, or if you are an advanced user you can jump right into the specific areas of learning. Solid Professor’s intent is to provide the tools needed to develop design and engineering skills.

According to the company, the SolidProfessor approach is not theory, it’s a tried and true learning formula that has made significant impact in people’s lives and to the organizations in which they serve. Because Solid Professor employs training plans, as you move through lessons you can measure results.

Tony Glockler, Co-Founder Solid Professor at SolidWorks World 2015

Pricing for individuals ranges from free to $399 per year. —

Founded in 1995, and with over 3,500 courses, is an interesting online learning company that helps anyone learn business, software, technology and creative skills to achieve personal and professional goals (with the emphasis on creative skills). Through different subscription schemes, members have access to the video library of engaging, top-quality courses taught by recognized industry experts.

Price for individuals ranges from $20-$25 per month with unlimited access to all courses.

In other recent news, LinkedIn recently announced that was acquiring, a leading online learning company teaching business, technology and creative skills to help people achieve their professional goals.

The transaction is valued at approximately $1.5 billion, subject to adjustment, in a combination of approximately 52 percent cash and approximately 48 percent stock. Subject to the completion of customary conditions, the acquisition is expected to close during the second quarter of 2015.

“The mission of LinkedIn and the mission of are highly aligned. Both companies seek to help professionals be better at what they do,” said Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. “’s extensive library of premium video content helps empower people to develop the skills needed to accelerate their careers. When integrated with the hundreds of millions of members and millions of jobs on LinkedIn, can change the way in which people connect to opportunity.”

“This is such an exciting moment in the 20-year history of, and I couldn’t imagine a better pairing than and LinkedIn,” said Lynda Weinman, co-founder and executive chair of the board of

iTunes U — iTunes U

iTunes U is a free medium through the Apple iTunes application where colleges and universities can offer courses at no charge, to anyone who wants to take them. There is also a relatively new section of iTunes U that focuses on K-12 education. Currently, over 800 colleges and universities provide content to iTunes U for post-secondary learning.

The iTunes U app not only gives you access to complete courses from leading universities and other schools, but also the world’s largest digital catalog of free education content.

Free courses in a wide array of subjects

  • Take free courses created and taught by instructors from leading universities and other schools
  • See all assignments and updates from the instructor in one place, and check off assignments as you complete them
  • Take notes and highlight text in iBooks and see them consolidated for easy reviewing in the iTunes U app
  • Access course materials, including audio, video, books, documents & presentations, apps, and new iBooks textbooks for iPad

The world’s largest catalog of free education content

  • Choose from more than 500,000 free lectures, videos, books, and other resources on thousands of subjects from Algebra to Zoology
  • Browse collections from education and cultural institutions in 26 countries — including Stanford, Yale, MIT, Oxford, UC Berkeley, MoMA, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress

Khan Academy —

Khan Academy is a non-profit educational organization created in 2006 by educator Salman Khan to provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” The organization produces micro lectures in the form of YouTube videos. In addition to micro lectures, the organization’s website features practice exercises and tools for educators. All resources are available for free to anyone around the world.

The major components of Khan Academy include:

  • A personalized learning engine to help people track what they have learned and recommend what they can do next
  • A video library with over 6500 videos in various topic areas, the majority of which are math, science, and business.
  • Automated exercises with continuous assessment. The exercise software is available as open source under the MIT license.

Editor’s Note: I recently brushed up on my math skills using Khan Academy prior to and during the physics class I was enrolled in last fall.

Coursera —

Coursera is a for-profit educational technology company founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University that offers MOOCs. Coursera works with universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in math, physics, engineering,  computer science, biology, medicine, business, and other subjects.  As of late March 2015, Coursera has 12,088,380 users from 190 countries enrolled. As of April 2015, it offered more than 1000 courses from 117 institutions.

All courses offered by Coursera are “accessible for free” and some give the option to pay a fee to join the “Signature Track.” Students on the Signature Track receive verified certificates, appropriate for employment purposes. These students authenticate their course submissions by sending webcam photos and having their typing pattern analyzed.

Interestingly, Coursera found that students who paid $30 to $90 were substantially more likely to finish a course. The fee was ostensibly for the company’s identity-verification program, which confirms that they took and passed a course.

Tooling U —

Tooling U-SME is all about manufacturing training. For more than 80 years, it has worked with manufacturers to build training programs and support workforce learning initiatives.

Tooling-U offers a diverse suite of training resources that includes professional consultative services, online training content, instructor-led training, book and video content and industry-backed certifications. More than 210,000 individuals from 5,000 companies use the resource to strengthen the knowledge and skills of the manufacturing workforce.

Tooling U, the original online training component of Tooling U-SME, started as a division of Jergens, Inc., which is a privately held workholding and tooling component manufacturer. Tooling U launched its initial 30 classes and proprietary learning management system (LMS) in the fall of 2001, focusing on training topics such as metal cutting, CNC, shop math, print reading, and workholding components.

In February 2002, Tooling U-SME was formed as an LLC and brought on key investors within the industry, a trade publisher, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). In the fall of 2010, SME acquired Tooling U, forming the industry’s most comprehensive portfolio of manufacturing-specific, professional development training products and services.

Price for Tooling-U varies on size and type of group (for example, corporate versus educational institution), but individuals can sign up for $79 per month for unlimited classes.

YouTube —

YouTube just turned 10 years old, and is arguably the world’s biggest online educational resource with thousands of videos available as demonstrations and tips/tricks from software vendors and users, as well as video lectures from many colleges and universities.

YouTube is currently free, but that may charge for some videos in the near future, although how much will be charged is a matter of speculation.

Over the years, MCADCafe has recorded and posted many video interviews from various trade events. Below is an example.

MCADCafe Video on YouTube

Brick and Mortar Schools

And finally, there are a number of universities that directly offer free online classes – MIT, Stanford, Yale, Oxford, UC Berkeley, and many others — both domestic and international. These programs offer some pretty incredible (mostly non-credit) courses and instructors ranging from freshman fundamentals through advanced and challenging graduate-level content. These are really worth checking out because virtually all are free.

Also, a number of the online platforms above have partnered with traditional colleges and universities, such as Stanford, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Duke, and so on.

Taking into account all levels of online education worldwide, the market is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $75+ billion and growing. This is not small potatoes, and is the reason so many online education resources continue to pop up. Not all are created equal, however, so investigate carefully before investing much time or money.

So, as you can see, if you’re in the mood and motivated for learning, there are plenty of opportunities available and more are literally coming online all the time. I didn’t even get into another great learning resource, maker and hacker spaces, but that’s a definite topic for a future blog.

This is by no means an exhaustive list all of the online learning resources and opportunities available, but does provide some of the possibilities. If you know of any others that our readers would benefit from, please leave a comment or email me at

Happy learning!

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One Response to “Online Engineering Education: Many Options, Many Outcomes”

  1. Jeff Rowe Jeff Rowe says:

    We received the following comment by email from David Darbyshire, engineer and co-founder of DASI solutions.


    I read with great interest your Blog about Online Engineering Education and the many options and outcomes that are available.

    The new movement for the training of designing engineers is related to apprenticeship programs that traditionally have been available for the skilled trades. This past year, DASI Solutions was approved by the US Department of Labor to launch the Industrial Design Technician (Graphic Designer) Apprenticeship program. This two-year work/study program leverages training from Career Technical Education programs and SolidWorks VARs from across North America to address the workforce development needs of the engineering and manufacturing community.

    Click the following link to learn more about the DASI Apprenticeship Program

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