Can online students contribute to next generation’s manufacturing workforce?

Hands-on skills are critical in educating employees who are work-ready from the first day. This is true for most fields including health care, culinary, and automotive careers but especially true in advanced manufacturing.

Narrowing the skills gap that has hampered employer growth in this sector requires education that includes both theory and practice. We have long known that it’s not enough to write a paper on how to do something; a graduate must be able to perform the skill.

With the hands-on component being so critical and with the expansion of effective options for delivering education, a question faces those educating for advanced manufacturing. Is there a place for online education in manufacturing?

The short answer is yes, online education can work very well, when offered in a way that meshes the flexibility needed by busy students with the skills employers want to build. Many people think of online education as limited to situations in which a student receives course content and completes assignments without coming to campus, but there are many different formats for online education.

The format which has worked well for education in manufacturing disciplines is one referred to as the flipped classroom. Here, the student works online to complete small units focused on the theoretical aspects of the course, the equivalent of classroom lectures, before coming to the lab to learn, practice and demonstrate required skills.

At Greenville Technical College, we’ve been offering this flipped format (often referred to as hybrid at our college) for several years in many disciplines. On-campus time has been scheduled just as classes are, with students attending at a set time as a group.

When we open our Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI) in fall 2016, we’ll build on that successful model, giving students the opportunity to complete the hands-on component in an open lab format in which the student schedules time in the lab where work will be completed with heavy instructional support by the professor and with plenty of opportunity for one-on-one access to additional instruction.

This self-directed format will offer students the opportunity to complete work each term at their pace with assessments to evaluate and document their demonstrated skills.

The open lab format will deliver maximum flexibility for students without any loss of instructional quality. Professors will continue to monitor student progress and level of achievement as the college works to advance student success.

Students who work varying shifts will benefit from the ability to complete the online component at home and schedule the hands-on component around work and other responsibilities. This flexibility is important for students who are supporting themselves as they try to gain the skills to enter manufacturing and for those already working in the field who want to advance. This model means that students can access the education they need when they need it each term and can move through their educational program as quickly as possible.

As the Center for Manufacturing Innovation nears completion, we are reimagining manufacturing education to better meet the needs of students and employers. Designing new models of online education is one example.

Another is incorporating accelerated pathways that prepare students for entry-level positions, such as production technicians, with follow-on, post-employment training that allows students to work while they gain additional skills to advance. Accelerated pathways bring options together to merge students’ short-term goals with their next career steps.

GTC is also proud of our partnership with Clemson University at the CMI which will offer unique learning opportunities designed to eliminate educational silos. At the CMI, the education of the GTC technician and the education of the CU engineer will come together as the two learn from working side-by-side on real-world projects. By providing opportunities for these students to better understand the perspectives of everyone on the team, technicians and engineers will be better prepared to work together to solve problems through innovation.

Can online education work for manufacturing? Absolutely, if properly designed and delivered. Online education has enormous potential to deliver the highest quality education for the manufacturing sector while offering maximum flexibility for students. That’s not only a win for our students, it’s also a win for our manufacturers who need highly skilled employees now.

Lenna_YoungAbout the Author: Dr. Lenna Young, vice president for academic affairs at Greenville Technical College

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