Bethany S. Oberst, Ph.D.,
Russel C. Jones, Ph.D., P.E.,
World Expertise LLC
In 1982 John Naisbitt introduced a new technique of gleaning trends in our society in his best-selling book Megatrends – content analysis. He based his futurist predictions on a detailed analysis of what the news media were reporting, by taking time to connect individual events to begin to understand larger patterns. His premise was that the most reliable way to anticipate the future is by understanding the present.
This paper looks at recent and current events in engineering education at the international scale, as reported over the past three years in the International Engineering Education Digest, and attempts to connect them in ways that reveal megatrends in engineering education. From the rush of universities to get into for-profit distance education ventures, to the worldwide drive toward harmonization of degrees and their quality assurance mechanisms, to downturns in engineering enrollments due to student disenchantment with the profession, the topics repeated in the monthly issues of the Digest provide a pattern that helps to illuminate current megatrends, and to project them into likely future directions.
Was spring 2000 one last season of irrational optimism in
If you need a reminder of how quickly the
Using three years of the International Engineering Education Digest as a data source, and with the luxury of hindsight, four major themes emerge from the world of engineering education:
Ø Changes forced by the fragile world economy;
Ø Student and professional mobility;
Ø The use of communications and instructional technology;
Ø The increasingly loud voice of the social imperative.
These individual themes are complex enough, but when taken together they are intertwined, interactive, synergistic, and strike to the core of not only engineering education around the world, but also of higher education in the new millennium.
“An investment bank has made a deal . . . that will have it pay for one-third of the cost of a new chemistry building in return for a share of the profits from any spin-off companies in the next 15 years. … The bank . . . is confident that it is getting a good deal, on the basis of its own expertise and experience in advising high technology and biotechnology companies” (Digest 18 December 2000).
Presumably, the university’s confidence was equal to that of the bank.
This Digest article captures the changing scene of higher
education, where, in the face of decreased funding, universities are making more
aggressive and complex business deals in hopes of shoring up resources.
The famous university in question,
Since 2000 money has been exceptionally tight for higher education around the world. As the world economy has faltered, colleges and universities have been forced to adopt strategies for increasing revenues and decreasing costs. Among those strategies are instituting or raising tuition, changing research funding, finding efficiencies in traditional operations, and developing new, for-profit business ventures. The current environment has also been hospitable to the growth and expansion of new educational organizations around the world, both for-profit and not-for-profit.
But elsewhere in the world, expectations, history and
culture are different. Students have
traditionally attended universities for free, or have paid only symbolic costs,
or even have been paid for attending a university.
That is fast changing, as the Digest has reported. In 2002 Canadian
students protested increased tuition which raised the average student debt load
to about 15,600 US$ (Digest 18 February 2002). The Association of African
Universities endorsed the imposition of tuition in its 170 member institutions
spread through 43 countries, places where higher education has traditionally
been free. The implications for the poorest of the poor are clear, but the trade
offs are painful, especially in view of the crises in health care, starvation,
and employment, all of which present competing priorities.
A later report, picked up in the Digest (
Under conditions of budget constraint, research funding is
undergoing major changes around the world. Long-standing assumptions are being
rejected, and the national infrastructures which have controlled the
distribution of research funds have been remade.
A significant crisis in scientific publishing is driven largely, but not exclusively, by economics. Universities are seeking to maintain their traditional ways of acquiring and making available research findings, but at reduced costs. As an economic problem faced by all colleges and universities, the problem to many seems amenable to solution by the Internet. Just put journals on line immediately: low cost, instant access to ideas, free scholarly inquiry, etc. Not so fast, say publisher representatives (Digest 12 October 2001). Quality costs money. So the question and the solutions linger. Although not seen as central to the interests of many engineering educators, in the light of current world events the related problem of book publishing of works in Arabic takes on an added interest. With 275 million speakers of Arabic throughout 22 countries, a run of 5000 copies of a book by Middle Eastern publishers is considered large (Digest 24 August 2001). Something to think about.
This grim global scene of the funding available for all of
higher education is lightened somewhat when we look at the creative ventures of
some institutions attempting to balance their meager budgets.
More serious financial maneuvers have included efforts by
Temple University of Philadelphia to start a for-profit online school, which was
closed down when a new president took over (Digest 3 August 2001).
While the impact of communication and instructional
technology in engineering education over the past three years will be discussed
in the next section of this paper, we need to spend some time here considering
how technology has offered entrepreneurially minded university administrators
some dazzling opportunities for making money.
The Digest is full of articles about how this university or that around
the globe has plunged into production of on-line courses or modules in hopes of
making money, only to be disappointed. It
didn’t take the dot.com collapse for universities to learn that the investment
needed to create quality online programs was heavy and the profits did not
quickly roll in to help balance the university budget.
There have been some creative efforts to use the new ventures
to compensate individuals, a welcome innovation in view of generally
stagnating salaries in higher education. University
College Cork staff, for example, working at the national
There are limits, however, to efficiency measures and creative entrepreneurship when it comes to managing the financial existence of a college or university. The strong growth of private and for-profit institutions of higher learning around the world has attracted a great deal of attention. In country after country, the tradition of a single, publicly funded system of higher education has given way in the face of increasing demand for access which outstrip national resources. Governments have admitted candidly that they cannot provide places for all the qualified students in their countries who want to attend college, and thus have created legislation and policies which invite, encourage, and support the entrance of private money into their countries for building new universities.
The overarching concerns that these budget squeezes create, exacerbated by the creative solutions proposed in desperation, are ethical ones. Who benefits from higher education, the individual or the society? If the emphasis is on individual benefits, should universities try to turn that around? What is the pay back expected of a university graduate to the society which funded his or her education? Who should fund research? Are public-private partnerships inevitably tainted? Should private donations, complete with limitations and conditions, increase or decrease? Engineering educators are centrally involved in these deliberations, on both a local and a global scale. Their contributions to the dialogue would be valuable.
In the end, it is difficult to attribute lessening support for higher education solely to the current state of the world economy: that is today’s explanation/defense. Tomorrow will likely be the same, with a different excuse. The case for education, as the solution for society rather than one of its many problems, has not yet been made.
The complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges facing engineering education are nowhere better seen than by looking at instructional and communications technologies. Certainly technology has been viewed, as outlined above, as an opportunity for earning money for institutions and individuals, thus relieving some budget problems. Technology also offers cost-cutting solutions by creating operational efficiencies. Communications and instructional technologies are a means of increasing access to higher education, and thus are related to the social imperatives facing higher education. It is a way of increasing student and professional mobility, through virtual visits, courses, recruiting and communication. Technology has been offered as a means of increasing the effectiveness of both teaching and learning. In fact, technology has been such a driving issue in engineering education that it has merited its own category in the Digest.
In reviewing the past three years of the Digest we can see evidence of a substantial amount of rash behavior related to technology, with decisions being made quickly, only to be retracted in the light of the inexorable forces of reality, profitability, feasibility, readiness and politics. While we learned long ago that technology hardware was not cheap, it has taken a bit longer to accept that integration of technology into teaching, learning, research and life is neither cheap nor easy.
Technology’s potential for increasing access to higher
education was immediately evident and is now visible throughout the world.
Huge investments have been made in instructional
technologies in the
While admiring the ability of various technologies to increase access to higher learning and their suitability to engineering education, we cannot escape the problem that much of distance learning has yet to be assessed in terms of learning outcomes. We have probably come too far to have the entire enterprise collapse, and the alternative -- persistent ignorance around the globe -- is too dangerous to consider. But we need to attend to assessment, to have a better grasp on what really works when we use the tools of technology in the instructional process. If more students do not learn more, more effectively, more efficiently, with better retention and ability to use what they have learned, why use technology?
Communication and information technology (CIT) has been a great boon to international contacts among engineering and science researchers. There is no need to provide examples to prove this point. And for engineering students who can communicate with their peers around the world, there are great advantages. However, this great potential has yet to be systematically exploited to offer students international exposure through technology and to expand the reach of international engineering meetings and conferences to engineers in the developing parts of the world. In fact, the digital divide appears to be increasing, as forward motion in developing countries is slow, while advances in technology, software, hardware and individual competencies accelerate in other parts of the world (Digest 18 March 2002)
The variety of technology-related projects, programs and activities in engineering education has produced important results, including some which were unintentional. For example, it has become apparent to anyone who has engaged in distance education that modern teaching includes several discrete functions which must be decoupled in order to achieve the desired learning results. Instructional designers and technology experts are now active members of the teaching team which traditionally included only a professor plus graduate assistants (Digest 22 September 2001). This can lead to a feeling of loss of control on the part of faculty, but probably also a welcome sense of humility and appreciation for collaboration. A developing history of the use of instructional technology has even allowed the definition of new problems and the vocabulary with which to discuss them. Take, for example, the notion of “linkage rot,” the tendency of links to become outmoded over time, as sites disappear or are renamed or relocated (Digest 6 May 2002). “Linkage rot” is real evidence of the half-life of most technical knowledge, and how fungible knowledge and evidence are, both valuable pieces of understanding.
The pervasiveness of English as the dominant language of
higher education and research has been emphasized and intensified by technology.
“Student mobility” and the Bologna Declaration have become more familiar subjects since the European Union began to focus attention on the need for its students to be able to navigate more smoothly the European “space of higher education” without regard to borders (Digest 12 April 2001). For engineering educators, it is particularly important to consider also professional mobility, as professional engineers and educators have increasingly higher expectations of being able to navigate the labyrinth of licensure and practice requirements around the globe.
We should note that mobility to some is brain drain to
others. Students and engineering
faculty have proven to be particularly adept at following the best the world has
to offer, regardless of national borders. US
engineering educators have been provided with large quantities of statistics
describing fluctuations in the national origins of their students (Digest 22
October 2002). Figures usually
demonstrate that the number of US students ready, willing and able to engage in
higher education in engineering are in decline (Digest 26 November 2001), while
large numbers of international students wait eagerly in line to take their
places in US universities at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
Once a comfort level had been achieved with the strong presence of
overseas students in science and technology programs in the
With demographics demonstrating what is already being
felt in countries such as
Brain drain is on everyone’s mind.
Despite economic downturns, the
Professional mobility for engineers has everything to do with accreditation and licensure issues around the world, and the Digest has recorded this issue in some detail. Efforts continue to create some consistent standards, enabling engineers to practice outside of their home countries (Digest 26 November 2001). Of course, licensure issues immediately raise quality control issues, along with accreditation issues, resulting frequently in a hot mix of idealism seasoned with turf protection and national defensiveness (Digest 18 March 2002). But the search for common global grounds for quality standards, fair employment practices, and useful application of human resources goes on. That this section of the paper is not longer is less a reflection on the importance of this theme than it is of the lack of real progress that has been made over the past three years.
While students from around the world strive to acquire the strongest possible technical education in engineering, some older hands persist in proclaiming that the ill-named “soft skills” are the ones which will ultimately be key to the successful practice of engineering by up-and-coming engineers. But the list of “soft skills” too often is limited to things such as public speaking techniques, management skills and the ability to work well in teams. What is missing is an understanding of how the growing social consciousness around the world is making it imperative that engineering students understand the implications of their work. Technical skills applied without regard for the ultimate result of the work can lead to the creation of world societies characterized by the worst dreamed evils. Technique without conscience, we know, is a danger.
The Digest has placed an emphasis on diversity from the
very beginning, and recognized that diversity means different things in
different societies. Stagnation or
weakness in the pool of students eager for engineering education has finally
reached a point where even some of the most conventional thinkers agree that the
student body must be diversified to more accurately reflect national and
regional populations. This means, in
different countries, different mixes. In countries such as
How to integrate ethical issues into the engineering curriculum remains a work in progress, along with how to prepare students to work and live well with people whose culture, language, skin, religion are different. The Digest has not recorded very many efforts in these directions, but the overwhelming coverage of the destructive results of discrimination makes the issue self-evident. Ethical issues covered in the Digest, and which should be a part of engineering education include:
Ø what responsibility the young have to giving back to the world for their education;
Ø consideration of the extent to which research should be driven by the needs of society rather than the curiosity of the researcher;
Ø intellectual property issues, especially in light of the wide-spread perception that western aid is too often a guise for western theft of ideas from developing countries;
Ø how to combat the technological divide;
Ø how to promote and educate for entrepreneurism;
Ø how to assure the quality of engineering practice;
Ø assessment of what engineering societies are doing around the world to solve the social issues, not to exacerbate them;
Ø sustainable development, and international aid programs;
Ø how to keep borders open for those involved with teaching, learning and creation, without imperiling national security in face of very real threats;
Ø how to instill in students a sense of ethics in their university studies which will carry over into their professional conduct;
Ø the extent to which engineering schools should invest public and private funds into regional international development;
Ø whether technology can bring about more social equity.
The social imperative inherent in the practice of engineering presents a huge potential agenda, one which individuals, universities and professional organizations around the world must attend to. Most recently a UNESCO/OECD study called “Financing Education – Investments and Returns,” (Digest 3 March 2003) demonstrates a positive correlation between secondary and post-secondary education and economic recovery. It validates the view of those who have been urging engineering educators to recognize their key roles in forming young people who will apply engineering skills to solving global problems.
Our research technique
The International Engineering Education Digest is published electronically every three to four weeks by Dr. Russel C. Jones, a longtime engineering educator, on the basis of the many papers, conference proceedings, magazines and journals that he reads regularly. The Digest is copyrighted by World Expertise LLC, with all rights reserved. While Jones as editor uses personal judgment in selecting items that he feels are of appropriate interest to engineering educators, the Digest entries are straightforward summaries of the items. For the current paper, all the items in Digest editions since May 2000 have been reviewed by Dr. Bethany S. Oberst, James Madison Distinguished Professor and international administrator who has a background in both the humanities and technology. In the preceding pages Oberst, who recently began collaborating with Jones on the Digest, has identified megatrends in engineering education, and higher education more broadly. In the conclusion which follows Oberst and Jones make some observations about likely trends in the future, based on the backsight provided by the Digest items of the past three years.
Although the economists of the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund have failed in improving the status of people in poor countries
through attempts at stimulating economic growth with foreign aid, we must find
effective ways of ‘teaching people how to fish’ instead of sending them
fish. Engineering education and technology development can provide the base for
capacity building which leads to economic benefits
from engagement in the global economy, as well as to the effective local
utilization of foreign aid resources guided by indigenous engineers.
Take care for
Ø Engineering students increasingly need to be educated for international practice. Programs of study should include education in languages, cultures, and mores of foreign countries. International experience through study abroad and internships are a must. Faculty need to show the way, with their own international activities.
Ø More engineers must act as public intellectuals, drawing upon broad-based skills and experiences to provide articulate leadership in the modern world.
While graduate education in engineering in the
Ø Effective quality assurance systems are needed for all engineering education programs around the world. Mutual recognition agreements to move toward acceptance of educational equivalency are a must to allow appropriate mobility for practicing engineers.
All back issues of the International
Engineering Education Digest are posted on the web at http://www.worldexpertise.com
S. OBERST is Executive Director of International Programs
C. JONES is a private consultant, working through World Expertise LLC to offer
services in engineering education in the international arena. He previously
served as Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.
Prior to that, he had a long career in education: faculty member at MIT,
department chair in civil engineering at