Interview with Dr. James F. Groves, Associate Professor, University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science

About James F. Groves, Ph.D.

Dr. James F. Groves is an associate professor in the Departments of Engineering & Society and Materials Science & Engineering at the University of Virginia (U.Va.). Previously he served as the engineering school’s director of distance learning and Associate Dean for Online Innovation; administered the institution’s Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program; and founded its undergraduate Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia initiative. PRODUCED is a unique program that allows students to earn engineering degrees online while completing internships across the Commonwealth.

Dr. Groves won the 2015 Hartfield-Jefferson Scholars Teaching Prize for Excellence based on his work with PRODUCED. He also has four U.S. patents are attributed to him. Dr. Groves earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering and political science from Duke University, then master’s and Ph.D. degrees in engineering from U.Va.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] The University of Virginia offers some online programs, including online graduate degrees. What are some of the reasons schools like U.Va. invest in online education and do they vary by degree level? For instance, is there anything that makes online learning particularly beneficial for graduate students?

[Dr. Groves] As an institution of higher learning, part of the mission of the University of Virginia is to disseminate knowledge. Engagement in online education represents another avenue through which the university can fulfill that portion of its mission. While the exact focus of the university’s online learning activities varies from one education level to the next, a primary motivation remains the dissemination of knowledge. Our engineering school engages in online education at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels. As we engage online with high school students, we seek to provide young people with an early exposure to the engineering field, its tools, techniques, and opportunities. At the undergraduate level, our involvement in online education represents a commitment to educational accessibility for a more diverse student body. Our online undergraduate program attracts a different segment of the undergraduate community in America. Our online undergraduate students value access to the quality and rigor of a University of Virginia degree, and they appreciate the chance to earn that degree while simultaneously applying their new knowledge in the engineering workplace through our apprenticeship program. At the graduate level, we recognize the importance of and student desire for lifelong learning. Our online graduate students understand the importance of new knowledge to their career success, and we provide degree programs online that allow them to continue their contributions at work while upgrading their knowledge skills.

[OnlineEducation.com] U.Va. offers a unique program called Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia that pairs online coursework with long-term internships in the field. Can you provide an overview of how this program works? What inspired the University to launch such an initiative?

[Dr. Groves] At the moment, the PRODUCED program is a fairly unique educational opportunity in America. The program brings undergraduate engineering education out to students in their community and allows them to weave together academic coursework and hands-on engineering work experience day in and day out, year round. I see PRODUCED as a modern apprenticeship program that leverages online technologies to strengthen the successful, historical model of apprenticeship education. As students begin to study with U.Va. via PRODUCED, we work to connect them with engineering employers willing to support the students through continuous, cooperative work experiences – apprenticeships. Then, using the power of the Internet, we enable students to go to their engineering workplace in the morning and spend the entire day there working and attending classes online. The students do not have to take the time to commute to and from classes. Rather, they can efficiently gain work experience and learn – all from their professional engineering work setting.

The PRODUCED apprenticeships really reinforce student learning. Concepts covered in class show up in the workplace. Activities at work motivate student thinking and inquiries during class. The students don’t wonder when a classroom concept might be useful. They often grasp quickly the importance of different concepts because they see and hear from engineers around them how those concepts are used on a regular basis.

Additionally, the PRODUCED apprentices are paid by the employers, helping to defray the costs of higher education. Some of our top corporate partners not only pay an hourly wage to the students (ranging from $10 – $20 / hour) but also they cover the tuition costs for the students. Nearly one-third of the PRODUCED program’s students to date have been able to secure year-round engineering apprenticeships that compensate them with a wage salary and full tuition coverage. Other program students are with companies that provide year-round apprenticeships with just wage salaries but no tuition support. A number of other students in the program secure term employment opportunities with engineering firms, more in-line with traditional internship and co-op programs. While students must apply for admission to the university and the PRODUCED program, companies voluntarily step up and provide support for students, based upon their needs and commitment to engineering education in their community.

[OnlineEducation.com] The PRODUCED program’s internship model allows students to complete degrees in engineering, a traditionally hands-on discipline, online. How can schools ensure these students get the practical training they need? Are there certain benefits or challenges associated with this approach?

[Dr. Groves] As with any other student, the academic work of PRODUCED students is assessed regularly. The vast majority of our PRODUCED class sessions are conducted live online. That means that instructors can call on distance students at any time, just like in a traditional face-to-face classroom. Faculty instructors can also use modern web-based tools for real-time in-class assessment, to check student understanding as it forms. Tests can be administered in real-time electronically or on paper, in proctored settings if needed.

Hands-on lab activities are accomplished via a range of educational solutions. In some cases, labs are simply sessions in which students learn how to use computer-based tools like computer aided drawing or circuit design software. Such computer-based work is easily mentored online. In other cases, labs are centered around inexpensive, small, lab-in-a-box solutions that allow students to have their own complete lab kits. Support can again be provided online, in real-time. In some cases students travel to regional sites or to the university campus for selected lab activities that use more expensive, more dangerous, or larger equipment not easily provided to individuals.

In all courses, the learning expectations are set by faculty instructors at the university. With that said, faculty value and solicit inputs from working engineers. They want to know how companies are applying engineering principles today, and they welcome workplace supervisor involvement in student projects. In some instances, for student design projects, PRODUCED program students may have both a workplace engineering supervisor and a faculty member providing input and guidance along the way. At the end of the day though, the grade for the assignment is issued by the faculty instructor.

[OnlineEducation.com] Internships and field practicums help online students develop and practice new skills, but one would imagine success hinges on pairing the right students and engineering specialties with the right employers. How do students find employers? Does the University take steps to ensure these arrangements work?

[Dr. Groves] At present, the PRODUCED program commits to assisting students as they seek to secure apprenticeships in their community, but we do not guarantee placement. Still, because of our engagement in many communities, we know who the engineering employers are, we know what types of engineers they employ, we know when they might be looking, and we know what level of support they typically provide. So, compared to most undergraduate student just coming up through the ranks, we have a lot of knowledge to provide regarding position availability. We can also assist employers who wish to reach out to students who are seeking opportunities through the program. Interestingly, a few of our students are already working for engineering firms before they join us for their education.

While we facilitate matchmaking, it is up to the students and companies to select one another. I always tell students that securing an apprenticeship is a collaborative venture. We will point them in the right direction and assist them during the process, but ultimately they need to prepare resumes and cover letters, learn about companies, and pursue opportunities. I think that’s the best way. It’s good training for later in life. Serving opportunities up on a silver platter would develop an unrealistic expectation about how job searching works.

As with full-time employment positions in the private sector, both students and employers can walk away at any time if they are dissatisfied. The University does not attempt to manage the worker-employer relationship. To date, perhaps we have been fortunate that there have not been any matchmaking disasters. Then again, I would like to believe that all of the students in our program are sharp, high-quality individuals, the sort that any company would be pleased to employ.

I tell students that it is important to realize that their apprenticeship is not a lifetime commitment to an employer. If they are happy with the position, then certainly they should work to deepen the relationship. If they are dissatisfied, they should think about when their desire for basic resume building experience and income is exceeded by the disappointment they feel with the position. When they decide to leave, we will help them search for the next opportunity. As with the initial position search, dealing with the challenge of an unsatisfactory work environment is a good learning experience for students. Students gain perspective. They better understand what they like and want and what they will not tolerate. At the same time, the PRODUCED program does not require employers to continue to employ students whom they deem to be unsatisfactory contributors. Our flexibility to date seems to have worked well for both students and employers.

[OnlineEducation.com] According to the PRODUCED program website, participating students attend live, interactive online courses. How do these courses work, technically and logistically, for students working full-time?

[Dr. Groves] Essentially all class sessions offered to students in the PRODUCED program are made available in real-time, and students are expected to attend live. There are several reasons for this synchronous format. First, we believe that a key element of education is intellectual engagement by students with others – faculty instructors, teaching assistants, and fellow students. Education is not simply access to a textbook with content. Because U.Va. has traditionally been a residential school of study, we participate most often in real-time intellectual engagement where faculty and students can comment, question, and be challenged in real-time. Certainly, asynchronous settings can deliver strong learning outcomes. However, synchronous education is our tradition. Second, many of our classes mix students from our residential program with PRODUCED students. So, the live sessions offer the opportunity for student mixing, and we believe that the additional perspectives of the larger, more diverse student body benefit all of our students. We teach students that many engineering challenges are addressed by teams, and our live class settings give our students the chance to become more comfortable with the social, interpersonal element of engineering.

Beyond our live class sessions, we also work to make certain that PRODUCED students can interact with one another and with their instructors in real-time outside of class. So much important learning occurs outside of class during informal, impromptu exchanges. Live interactions give our students the chance to participate in and practice smooth, rich intellectual exchanges with one another and their faculty mentors. We have found that our students really value the community that this outside of class communication and collaboration fosters.

We are fortunate that the hardware and software tools of the internet age have matured so quickly. The requirements for participating in our learning environment are not particularly stringent. All of our students must have a laptop computer. That is a requirement for all our students – in residence and in PRODUCED. Then, beyond that, our distance students need a reliable high-speed internet connection and a good headset for audio communication. With those basic elements, they are set to participate fully in our learning environment. The specific software tools for participation are all provided via university site licenses that the students support through some of the fees that they pay. For outside the class connections, we are able to offer students tools that “show” them who else in their class is online right now. So, they know who is available at any time day or night to answer a question or help them work through a homework problem.

Certainly one of the challenges of our live format is scheduling. Because our program is live online, we provide great, global location flexibility, but we do not provide complete time flexibility. As students enter the program and as employers consider support of students, we ask that they all make studies the top priority. Whenever possible, class sessions need to take priority over work meetings and other responsibilities. Employers who are considering the sponsorship of students in the program are asked to consider this as they think about recruiting PRODUCED students. Our experience has actually been pretty positive. While our class sessions need to be attended live, students do not need to leave their place of work to join class. So, there is not lost time due to commuting. Instead, students need to pause their work a few minutes before class, and they can be back on the job just a few minutes after class is over. For students trying to squeeze studies, work, and “life” into 24 hours a day, we offer a pretty efficient solution. Indeed, on those occasions when a student must miss class, because of work or life obligations, all of our live sessions are recorded, and so they can go back and catch up.

[OnlineEducation.com] Research from the Babson Survey Research Group shows the number of students and colleges participating in online education has grown significantly over the last decade. What trends you see emerging in the field? Are there certain motivators at work or challenges to overcome?

[Dr. Groves] I think there is a lot of evolution still to come in the online education arena. While some see online education as an inexpensive way to deliver education to large numbers of students, others recognize the flexibility offered to students, particularly adult learners, who want or need to tap into learning from anywhere at any time. Still others recognize the unique, value-added experiences that online education can bring to all learners – in residential settings or fully online programs.

I was intrigued by a recent article in the higher education literature that talked about how academic leaders should be thinking about a digital strategy in education rather than an online strategy. The article noted that a focus upon a digital strategy acknowledges the ways in which the tools and capabilities of online education can and perhaps should be woven into the fabric of all education today – residential, commuter face-to-face, and online programs. I think the article is on the right track. The rapid development of online hardware and software tools and techniques are opening up real, value-added learning experiences for all our students. Now that we can support distance students in modern apprenticeships, why would we not want to offer that interwoven education and work experience to all our undergraduates?

In all of engineering education today, I think there is a real role for online (or digital) solutions. There are significant challenges confronting our society and the world today and tomorrow. Many of those challenges are the result of engineered technologies, and many other challenges may be addressed with engineered solutions success. As we seek to prepare students to confront these challenges and design solutions to them, online systems have the potential to connect students into learning experiences that best prepare them to deliver the positive contributions to society that we all desire.