Online Education Can Build a More Diverse Workforce

Fewer innovations have disrupted higher education in the last decade more than online education. For years, online ed has faced criticism for a number of reasons — including the notion, by some, that it’s not a “legitimate” way to learn, or that it doesn’t have the same amount of “rigor” as a traditional “brick and mortar” program — especially for technical degrees in science and engineering. That’s changing now, as we’re seeing more and more highly regarded and competitive institutions offering STEM degrees online at the master’s and bachelor’s levels. Institutions such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Purdue, Arizona State, Johns Hopkins and SUNY Stony Brook are now offering 100 percent online programs in several STEM disciplines. As many have taken note, a remarkable benefit has emerged as a result in this growth of online education in the technical degrees: greater diversity in the STEM workforce. And that’s exactly what’s needed to meet the greatest engineering challenges in the 21st century.

When we think of students today, they are very different from the students we saw a few decades ago. If we want to educate the workforce of the future, we need to ensure education is accessible to all. Today, a large percentage of students are considered “non-traditional.” They may be single parents working full time, deployed military, veterans returning from active duty or people in rural or remote areas who might not otherwise have access to a college education. Many universities are seizing this opportunity to reach students beyond their traditional communities, with some programs offering 100 percent of their courses online.

But the truth is that nearly every STEM program today offers some type of online component, and many instructors are increasing the amount of online assignments every semester as a means to provide more in-depth, comprehensive instruction on a number of topics. In addition, an overarching benefit of online education is increased accessibility — that’s essential to bringing the best minds to STEM, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic situation and geographic location.

In September 2012, incoming MIT President L. Rafael Reif recognized the need to push the science of innovation forward and recognized that one of innovations’ greatest catalysts is diversity. He emphasized that attracting that diversity would require MIT to change how it delivers learning to meet students’ needs. MIT’s leadership understood that programs must allow for learning outside of the traditional classroom environment, and prioritized approaches that allow for such innovation. “At MIT, we believe online learning technologies can offer teachers (and learners) everywhere the tools to transform the educational experience,” President Reif said.

As many have taken note, a remarkable benefit has emerged as a result in this growth of online education in the technical degrees: greater diversity in the STEM workforce. And that’s exactly what’s needed to meet the greatest engineering challenges in the 21st century.

The negative views of online or “distance learning” — with the majority of the criticism aimed at the for-profit universities/colleges — only increase the importance of the work we do at ABET: ensuring that these programs deliver an experience that meets educational and industry standards. We understand the importance of making quality education available to all. That’s why our network of Experts — those that evaluate individual academic programs — has been increasingly reviewing STEM programs that include more and more online content. Many use a variety of delivery methods including onsite instruction, online instruction, as well as an increasing number that include components of both methods. These programs are evaluated against the same ABET criteria we use for all programs — regardless of delivery method — so we’re confident they will produce graduates capable of addressing the global challenges of tomorrow.

There is no question that higher education is changing, and online learning is here to stay. STEM education must be a part of this trend — we can’t afford to be left behind. America needs to fill one million STEM jobs to keep its global competitive edge, and distance education is a significant pipeline of highly qualified and engaged students. We understand that the key to staying ahead is innovation in STEM education, and the means in which this education is provided. We must meet the needs of all learners, and as the global accreditor of university and college programs in the STEM disciplines, ABET stands ready to help.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.