Lifelong Learning Through Continuing Engineering Education
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Education is a lifelong process, with limitless topics and endless possibilities for growth, especially for professional engineers. Globally, engineers construct and design infrastructure, develop life-saving medical equipment and are responsible for millions of technological innovations. Their social, ethical and material responsibilities are far ranging. The process of continual learning, or lifelong learning is therefore vital for engineers in order to keep abreast of rapid technological developments in their field. This article will explore the nature of lifelong learning, and how and where it can be implemented.
The European Union defined lifelong learning as “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improved knowledge, skills, and competence, within a personal, civic, social, and/or employment related perspective.” The education process can continue long after graduation, and is beneficial to not only professional, but also personal, development.
Continuing Engineering Education (CEE)
In the engineering field, lifelong learning is facilitated by continuing engineering education (CEE), which refers to the specialized training (both technical and non-technical) undertaken by practicing engineers. CEE helps maintain high levels of continuing professional competency (CPC) by engineers undertaking and completing continuing education units (CEUs) and increasing their professional development hours (PDH).
A professional engineer’s CEE can easily be developed once in full time employment as:
- The volume and variety of CEUs offered at the workplace and by other service providers is increasing. These courses are generally short in duration, focused on skills and competency development, and designed for quick learning and rapid skills adaptation.
- Professional institutions play an increasingly active role and are key CEE service providers. A large number of CEUs are offered through continuing professional development (CPD) activities.
- More universities now offer post-graduate degree programs on a part-time basis, focusing on theoretical aspects of engineering.
- CPD now helps regulate professional practice. Each State’s Engineering Board will renew and maintain professional engineer (PE) licenses through accredited CPD programs.
Importance of Continuing Education
Newly graduated engineers require training in their field to assimilate knowledge of cutting edge technologies integral to their work. This is termed growth learning. This involves adding new knowledge and skills through learning, and can apply to both novices as well as experienced engineers (who move to a new area of technology or field of engineering). Maintenance learning involves the continual refreshing of information in order to keep up to date with peers in the same field. A third, and most exciting form of CEE is shock learning, which contradicts or reverses established knowledge or understanding of a topic, such that change and adaptation is accelerated. All three types of learning are integral to successful and sustained lifelong learning.
As discussed, CEE programs, through CEUs, help professionals to maintain and renew their professional engineering licenses. These licenses are vital for PEs working in both the government and private-sector and are required to seal design documents.
CEE enables professionals to keep ahead of new developments, both in related engineering fields and in non-technical fields such as communication, interpersonal, and presentation skills. CEE is thus one of the most pivotal components for professional development among engineers.
Challenges of Continuing Engineering Education
There are, however a number of challenges unique to CEE, including:
- Rapid changes in technology making currently available information obsolete.
- Practical, hands-on training requiring costly equipment.
- Globalization, requiring engineers to be familiar with advancements not only in their own country but also worldwide.
Opportunities for CEE
Postgraduate degree programs, Masters and PhD, are suitable for working engineers to gain knowledge in a focused engineering field.
Certificate programs, through CEUs, are designed for practicing engineers who prefer to get a professional certification related to their field of work.
Short courses offer an overview of the subject matter and usually last for a few hours to a few days. They often involve active student participation and usually cover theoretical as well as practical aspects.
Tutorials help the engineer to assimilate information in a short period of time, usually a day or less. They are delivered via talks, group discussion in a class, as well as online.
Conferences are a good platform for lifelong learning. They offer various technical sessions, consisting of presentations on conducted research, as well as keynote speeches by specialized guest speakers from other countries, delivering their viewpoints on current developments in their field of expertise. Conferences also facilitate sharing and knowledge exchange amongst engineers from around the world.
This is an acronym for web-based seminar. Participants can interact online with an instructor and each other by submitting questions and discussing the topic via the forum. Webinars are often delivered via free or controlled access.
Continuing Engineering Education Tools
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the world’s largest association of technical professionals (electronic, electrical and associated disciplines). This global organization aims to advance the educational and technical knowledge of its members. It is therefore a fantastic vehicle for engineers to maintain and upgrade their professional knowledge and competence.
IEEE educational opportunities include:
- Digital library
In addition to the above resources offered by the IEEE, there are a variety of learning tools available, including:
In distance education, lectures are recorded and either mailed to students on DVDs or posted online on a secure website. Lectures can be available in real time, but archived sessions are more popular as they do not impose viewing restrictions for students.
Open courseware is offered by academic institutions at no cost to participants and contains a great deal of learning material. It is useful for students not focused on earning credits.
These are designed specifically to accommodate the busy schedule of industry professionals. The courses are flexible, with minimum and maximum time limits for completion requirements. The majority of course material is available through the internet.
Web and Online Media
A huge variety of CEE tools are available online from a range of service providers and professional organizations. In fact the large scope can be overwhelming, and targeted, well defined searching, through multiple search engines, will ensure optimal results. However, care must be taken when choosing which online learning tools to use, and it is important to only access resources from credible and accredited sites.
Software Tools and Online Labs
The complex and multifaceted nature of CEE requires the use of particular software tools and online labs. These help both newly graduated and experienced engineers to fully understand how particular systems work.
Additional Benefits of CEE
Engaging in CEE clearly has multiple benefits, particularly in enabling professional engineers to continually perform at their best. Key additional benefits include being able to:
- Efficiently achieve targeted goals.
- Keep pace with changing technology.
- Develop and maintain key skills.
- Progress into new roles and sectors.
- Better serve the community.
Successful Lifelong Learning
The most important attribute for successful lifelong learning is the readiness for self-directed learning. Factors that contribute significantly to this include:
- Motivation – “will do”
- Ability – “can do”
- Openness to learning opportunities
- Self-awareness as an effective learner
- Initiative and independence in learning
- Responsibility and ownership of learning
- Love of learning
Lifelong Learning at Work
The best opportunity for lifelong learning is in the workplace, and it is possible to continually learn whilst in employment. Challenging assignments must be sought wherever possible – not only are they exciting, but provide great learning opportunities. It is also beneficial to seek out a mentor, and learn from watching, shadowing and discussing issues with them. The workplace also offers chances to improve communications both within and between different disciplines. Engineers should always be on the lookout for opportunities to learn, grow and develop.
The most important objective of CEE is to ensure that engineers have sufficient knowledge and skills in their chosen field. Through lifelong learning, the challenge of maintaining CPC in an ever changing world can be met face on. The onus rests on the individual however to find and engage in appropriate learning opportunities. As seen, there are many opportunities, and if taken, can reap many benefits. These lifelong learning advantages reveal themselves in not only the professional, but also the personal arena. Lifelong learning, through CEE, therefore offers a bright future for the engineering world.