Fridays with Fuhrmann: New Online Program

renderedI am delighted and excited to announce the launch of a new venture in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan Tech. In September 2018, the ECE Department, in partnership with the online education support company Keypath Education, will begin delivering a new set of online courses leading to the MSEE degree, with an emphasis in communications and signal processing.

Distance education is not new to the ECE Department. Over 15 years ago, ECE faculty members Bruce Mork and Leonard Bohmann recognized a workforce need in the utility power industry for advanced education in power and energy, and proceeded to create online versions of all our senior and graduate-level in that area. Graduate students with an interest in power and energy could take all the courses they needed for the MSEE degree online. The online courses were offered in tandem with our on-campus courses through lecture capture, at first in dedicated studios and more recently in self-service classrooms. Although enrollment has tailed off in the past couple of years, those courses were very well-received and the program met its objectives. I thank Bruce and Leonard for all their hard work and congratulate them on a job well done.

This new program is something quite different. The world of online education has changed considerably in the past decade, and so have the expectations of our students. In this new program, we are moving away from the lecture capture model, and will use the latest technology and pedagogical theory for distance education to create web-based products that are polished and professional and meet modern production standards. We need help doing that, and this is where Keypath comes in. They will help us create the delivery mechanism for the courses, and in addition they will help with the marketing of the program, the recruiting of new students, and the online tech support for those students once they get in the program. The content of the courses is entirely the responsibility of Michigan Tech faculty, and we will retain all the rights to that intellectual property.

Given my musical inclinations I make the analogy that our traditional methods of classroom teaching are kind of like playing in a bar band. We show up, well-prepared most of the time, and give a performance that can be polished or a little rough on occasion. The most important responsibility is to make sure we are ready on the day of the lecture, even if next week’s lectures aren’t quite ready yet. If we teach the same course year after year, we give the same performance over and over to different audiences, with the material evolving and our understanding of that material deepening over time.

Putting together an online course in today’s market is more akin to going into the recording studio and cutting an album. We need to have a vision for the complete course, from soup to nuts, and the full package needs to be ready to go on Day 1 of the semester. When you go into the studio, you bring the producer and the recording professionals in with you, and it becomes a team effort. The Keypath team will be our producers.

There will be a lot of time spent on course development and all the little pieces that go into the web-based delivery mechanisms. This is going to be new for me, so I can’t even speak with authority about all those delivery mechanisms. I understand that the 60-minute or 90-minute talking head lecture is gone, and instead we will have a series of smaller modules with plenty of opportunity for the students to engage with the material as it is presented. We will also work hard to make sure that all the courses use a common set of online tools and have the same look and feel, so that we present a unified and coherent program that does not put the student on a steep learning curve with every new course, just to learn the mechanics. There are implications for the workload model in the department, as I will have to give credit for time spent developing a new course before it is offered the first time. That is going to be new for us too.

We selected communications and signal processing as a technical sub-area within EE for this new venture, for several reasons. First, this is an area where we anticipate high workforce demand. As we move further and faster into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the era of the Internet of Things, electrical engineers need to know how to acquire digital data, process it, merge it with other data, and design systems that allow for the communication of that data over complex global networks. This need cuts across all industry sectors and all applications of electrical engineering, and is very closely related to robotics, automation, and control which I wrote about in my most recent column. Second, we think the material will lend itself well to online learning, as it is mostly theoretical with the applications either implemented or simulated with computer models. Finally, it turns out just by coincidence that the faculty members in the ECE Department with the most enthusiasm about trying these new methods of course delivery, including Tim Schulz, Mike Roggemann, Glen Archer, and myself, are all in signal processing. It just seemed to make the most sense all the way around.

I won’t go into all the details of the degree program, but I will mention one feature that comes right up front for new students. We have been finding recently a wide disparity in the skill levels in mathematical analysis and computer programming among our incoming MSEE students, and that has created problems for what the instructors can reasonably expect in our more advanced courses. That observation was made independently from the exploration of the new online program, so it was just serendipity that we started thinking about ways to address it at the same time we started the conversations with Keypath. The result is a new course, EE5300 Mathematical and Computational Methods in Engineering, that will be the entry point for the all new students. It is not communications and signal processing per se, but it will provide many of the tools in the toolkit for engineers that work in this area. More importantly, it will ensure that all of our students are on a level playing field as they enter the heart of the program. I think this new course, which still needs to be developed, is critical to the success of the new program and so we will put a lot of time and resources into making sure it is done right. It is the only course in the new program being offered in September 2018 – others will come along in January 2019 and later as the program really gets rolling.

I want to thank all those who have helped to get this venture off the ground, including the ECE Graduate Programs Committee, Dean Wayne Pennington in the College of Engineering, Provost Jackie Huntoon, and of course all of our new best friends at Keypath. I should also mention that a parallel program is being put together in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with an emphasis on structures, and the group conversations with CEE have been helpful as well. No one can say for certain where this will lead, but we are jumping in with both feet. I think it is important for the department, and it is important for Michigan Tech when one considers both our geographical location and the role that we play in economic development for Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and indeed the entire U.S. That’s why I am excited about this – it is a new and hopefully effective way of fulfilling our mission, educating the next generation of engineers and supporting them as they enter the workforce.

I guess a little marketing is in order. For anyone reading this who holds an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering or a related field, and can see value in expanding your skills in communications and signal processing, we would love to have you be a part of this. I can guarantee you all the challenges, rewards, and technical rigor of a Michigan Tech education. With all the new delivery methods on the horizon, that is the one thing that is not going to change.

For more information see Michigan Tech Partners with Keypath Education to Serve Professional Engineers

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


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