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What to Expect in an Online Engineering Degree Program

AFTER MORE THAN TWO decades working in the engineering industry, Anupam Sharma decided it was time to take his career to the next level, so the Washington state resident enrolled in an online master’s degree program at the University of California—Los Angeles Samueli School of Engineering with a specialization in data science. The 43-year-old currently works at Microsoft as a senior technical program manager focusing mainly on artificial intelligence.

“There was a program in the city in Washington where I live, but they didn’t have an online version, and I didn’t want to waste time traveling because of the full-time job,” says Sharma, who expects to graduate in 2020.

Just like a traditional on-ground student, Sharma takes proctored exams and completes various types of assignments, including group projects. Unlike a traditional student, Sharma doesn’t need to attend a lecture at a set time each week; instead, he listens to a recording at his convenience, completing coursework at his own pace under weekly deadlines.

Engineers looking to advance their careers have a lot of online degree options. They may be able to specialize in a particular area of the field like electrical or software engineering, choose an online engineering management degree to advance into a leadership role or study computer science. This decision will depend largely on their career goals, experts say.

Having a master’s can also lead to a higher salary, though the specifics will vary depending on the type of engineering a prospective student wants to pursue. Some degrees are also more in demand than others. For example, demand for civil engineers is expected to rise 11 percent between 2016 and 2026, and demand for petroleum engineers is predicted to increase 15 percent – much faster than average – in that same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Engineering is very, very broad,” says Shanna Revoner, student affairs officer for the online engineering master’s program at Samueli. “Most students that come into our program kind of already know what area they want to concentrate in.”

Here’s what prospective graduate students should expect in an online engineering degree program.

Curriculum and requirements. The specific courses an online engineering graduate student is required to take varies depending on the focus of the degree program.

For instance, at ASU Online at Arizona State University, online students in the Master of Science in engineering program with a concentration in software engineering take three core courses, a concentration course and electives, as well as a final applied project.

In Oregon State University Ecampus’ online master’s program in engineering management, students take classes focusing on engineering more broadly as well as those teaching them valuable management skills. This degree can be a good option for those aspiring to become chief engineers or engineering managers, experts say.

“They might look like business school and business-related courses, but they are really not completely business,” says Javier Calvo-Amodio, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at OSU Ecampus. “They’re about the management of engineering organizations.”

Your classmates. Experts say that most of those who pursue an online engineering degree at the master’s level typically have at least a few years of experience in the field and a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline. Online students may work with each other and leverage their past work experience on team projects, for example, and when sharing their thoughts on discussion boards.

In the Master of Software Engineering online degree program at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, those who enroll are predominantly working professionals, though a few college graduates enroll immediately after getting their bachelor’s degree, says Raghu Sangwan, associate professor of software engineering at the school.

“Most of the students do have some kind of a technical or an engineering background,” he says.

Course structure. Whether or not an online engineering program requires students to attend class sessions at set dates and times via videoconferencing varies, experts say. The same can be said of on-campus residency requirements, where students may congregate for discussions or lectures.

“Because we have students in different parts of the country and different parts of the world, they are not required to sit in on a live session at a particular time,” Revoner says. “The lectures are posted and they’re prerecorded. … Students are able to access the lectures any time, day or night.”

At Penn State—World Campus, classes are similarly structured around weekly lessons with associated assignments, Sangwan says. More often than not, there’s a course-long final project that ties together everything students have learned.

Types of assignments. The types of assignments students should expect varies depending on the subject area and instructor of a given course. In many online classes, discussion boards – where students respond to a relevant prompt from a professor and to one another – may be assigned.

Experts say especially in online classes focusing on quantitative topics, proctored exams are common. For online students, tests may be taken virtually or at a facility near home.

At OSU Ecampus, students in a few different online courses learn how to conduct needs assessments, Calvo-Amodio says. They work on projects to better understand how to structure a system so that it performs as expected and is reliable.

“It’s a long process starting from a high-level description of a problem down to concrete blueprints of the system,” Calvo-Amodio says. “This whole process is split into multiple assignments.”

At UCLA, near the end of the online program, students have a capstone experience where they must either take and pass three comprehensive exam questions or complete a research project, Revoner says.

“We do let students know that just because it is an online program does not mean that it has less quality,” she says. “Our program has the same quality and same rigor as the on-campus program.”

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