Campus News

Engineering school elevating SUNY’s online education stature

Concept of online education, female looking at a computer screen with the words, "online course.".


Published May 23, 2019

“We continue to invest in digital education because it’s the way the world is moving. ”
Timothy Leyh, executive director

In July 2015, UB committed to boosting America’s advanced manufacturing presence.

No one could have predicted what signing on to the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) as a Tier 1 academic member would eventually trigger: the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) becoming an online education powerhouse reaching learners across the globe with non-credit, cutting-edge technology courses.

Perhaps more importantly, outgrowth initiatives are influencing SUNY’s response to meeting learner expectations and increasing its competitiveness in this constantly changing market. One of SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson’s priorities in 2019 is enhancing the system’s online platform to attract more New Yorkers, out-of-state students and adults seeking lifelong learning opportunities.        

“Our school is certainly not the first nor only one to reach audiences beyond UB’s residential program students,” says UB SEAS Dean Liesl Folks. “But our acute attention and nimble approach is moving the needle in our competency to deliver in this mode, create synergies within UB and SUNY, and promote the sharing and development of best practices.”

A growing inventory

The story begins with — and evolves significantly because of — a small SEAS entity that links industry to the school’s engineering expertise. The Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), in coordination with the SMART (Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotics Technologies) Community of Excellence, gathered a team of UB and industry partners to submit a winning proposal to DMDII, one of the 14 Manufacturing USA institutes that has since been renamed MxD.

The project called for constructing online introductory courses about the digital age of manufacturing, also called “Industry 4.0.” UB’s massive open online courses (MOOCs) are suitable for anyone with a high school education. They are equally appropriate for the college student exploring careers, as well as for the professional who desires an understanding of industry developments.    

MOOCs are five- to 10-minute video lesson learning sprints, supplemented by elements such as readings, online labs and assignments. Learners access material anytime, anywhere — as long as they have an internet connection.  

The courses became available in 2017 on Coursera, the world’s largest online education company with 31 million registered learners and 160 of the world’s top universities and industry leaders.  

“Bringing together a team with so much talent to produce high-quality curriculum that serves both busy learners who want to consume education in small chunks and those who prefer to binge watch opened a whole new world to us,” says Timothy Leyh, TCIE executive director. “We continue to invest in digital education because it’s the way the world is moving.”

TCIE steers course creation of other engineering-focused topics, working with UB faculty facilitators to enhance curriculum, and recruiting industry professionals to illustrate applications in the marketplace.

UB engineering MOOCs now total 22, accounting for 50 percent of SUNY offerings on Coursera. As of mid-May 2019, overall enrollment is nearly 94,000.  

Altogether, the MOOCs include:

  • The aforementioned nine courses about digital manufacturing design and technology.
  • Four courses about blockchain technology.
  • Four courses about energy production, distribution and safety (in coordination with SUNY Buffalo State).
  • One course about collaborative robot safety.
  • Four courses about computer vision.

More is on tap. A SUNY Performance Improvement Fund engagement with Alfred State College, which aligns with one of SUNY’s Strategic Research Priorities, will educate HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) professionals in clean energy technologies. And a newly awarded Innovative Instruction Technology Grant (IITG) from SUNY further builds on the UB-Alfred State partnership to develop clean energy electives for engineering students.

A pathway to credit

Thus far, UB’s MOOCs have only provided opportunity to earn a Coursera-endorsed certificate. But that’s changing.

“Faculty are exploring how to create higher-touch MOOC models, where learners can be UB students and awarded academic credit for successfully completing MOOC-based courses,” says Lisa Stephens, SEAS assistant dean of digital education.  

Through an IITG grant, TCIE worked with the engineering school’s Office of Digital and Online Education and Empire State College to pilot a “MOOC for Credit” process. The existing blockchain courses served as the prototype curriculum.

By using a professional learning evaluation (PLE) process rubric, a faculty-led team investigated how a learner might receive conditional transfer credit at UB when completing the entire blockchain series and earning a verified certificate of completion.

This framework for determining whether a global online course may be considered for academic credit builds on similar processes already in use by accredited engineering schools across the country. If approved by the correlating department, incoming students will have the chance to receive transferrable credit for an additional fee. Policy details are being finalized.

The team will present final findings at the 2019 Conference on Instruction & Technology this month. The aim is to implement and replicate this model throughout SUNY.

Broadening UB’s and SUNY’s online presence

The process of creating engineering MOOCs is constantly being refined. For instance, a collaboration between TCIE and the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is easing the process for any faculty member interested in creating them.  

First, CEI guides faculty in the “art of teaching and the science of learning” by providing instructional design assistance. The faculty member is then referred to TCIE for assistance with generating the syllabus and script, video production, editing, and publishing MOOCs. Services are not exclusive to engineering faculty, but open to the entire campus.

SEAS, TCIE and CEI are also participating in a SUNY-wide task force to seize market opportunities. Research of the SUNY Online Working Group shows that New York trails 10 other states in exclusive online learning enrollment. The group aims to strengthen SUNY’s capabilities by addressing constraints of decentralized system operations and identifying new online programs and expansions.

“It’s an exciting time to be in higher education,” Folks says. “Making courses available to people all over the world is a phenomenal opportunity. It really can’t be overemphasized what this can mean for helping people to manage their careers in a modern economy.”