Back to the Future of Engineering Education — This Is Not Your Pre-Pandemic Classroom

A return to the traditional classroom raises some fundamental issues as the education community strives to ensure student engagement both in person and virtually.

By Rishelle Wimmer, SWE Editorial Board

Seeking a university education is an act of hope. Students invest their time and money in the belief that it will help them realize their potential and forge career pathways. The Covid-19 pandemic brought about significant changes and challenges for students. Up until March 2020, digitalization of education had been an unfulfilled vision. After university buildings around the world closed and everyone was sent home, however, the education community was forced to make an unprepared pivot — from the brick-and-mortar classroom to lessons online. And although the transition maintained a sense of continuity, it was not seamless — exposing technical and social inequities. While educators scrambled to “keep calm and carry on” with the semester, they were constrained by time, resources, and digital teaching competence.

After three semesters of online learning, it was with great anticipation that we finally returned to campus, eager to meet face to face. I remember walking into the building and passing a group of fourth-semester engineering students, who all looked somewhat familiar. I vaguely recognized them from our online classes during the past year. There was a shyness in our encounter, and even though we recognized one another, we had never met in person, having seen each other only virtually, on MS Teams or Zoom. They all looked surprisingly taller in real life!

Credit: sorbetto

I wondered what they thought about their semesters online and whether they preferred in-person or online classes. I asked two students for their impressions:

“There’s no question about it,” Elias told me, “being together with everyone again is great. I’d rather have classes in person, except if the lecturer is boring — then online is better.”

“I wish I could watch most of the lectures at home, online,” explained Janette, who commutes three hours a day by train to and from campus, “but for the labs, it’s best to be in the room, working together with others, to get the full benefit.”

Students’ perspectives were dependent on their individual situations and were often influenced by their relationship with the lecturer. Creating quality online instruction takes a level of expertise that most faculty did not have in their teaching repertoire; this resulted in learner disengagement. Students’ perspectives toward online learning were also affected by personal mobility issues — the stress of traveling to and from class.

From inequities to Zoom fatigue and privacy concerns

Transcending individual circumstances, we recognize the inherent value of being in the classroom. There is the social advantage that comes from learning with and from others in a shared space. The interactions that take place face to face in the classroom are difficult to replicate in a virtual setting. We are naturally social beings who seek interaction. We learn by modeling the behavior of others. We want to experience a sense of belonging and connectedness; we want to be seen, heard, and receive feedback. During lockdown, we were isolated from one another, and the only alternative to meeting in person was to meet online.

We want to experience a sense of belonging and connectedness; we want to be seen, heard, and receive feedback. During lockdown, we were isolated from one another, and the only alternative to meeting in person was to meet online.

Studies¹ conducted after returning to the classroom showed that more than three-quarters of the more than 1,800 engineering student respondents neither enjoyed the online learning experience nor wanted to continue learning online.

Why was this the case? Reliance on the virtual setting made the existing digital equity gap visible. The availability of digital devices and poor internet connections, restricted access to education for some students, and the ability of educators to implement effective online instruction compounded teaching and learning limitations.

The online classroom also found students struggling to maintain their focus as they were more prone to distraction — doing other things while the online class was in session. Additionally, more than half the students had Zoom fatigue after attending multiple online sessions, and many experienced low levels of interest and motivation to learn.

The use of cameras and microphones, or having lessons recorded, added to students’ concern for personal privacy. This was especially challenging for students who had no private space within their homes to attend classes. Furthermore, some students experienced an increased level of anxiety about being watched on camera, hindering their focus. An indispensable part of a successful engineering education has always been hands-on training in laboratory settings. Without the opportunity to experience working in a lab, much practical knowledge could not be developed.

Back to the future of engineering education

Whether to keep elements of online learning in engineering education requires examining some fundamental issues. When does online learning support the learner and how can it best be implemented? Furthermore, educators need skills, resources, training, and time to prepare online teaching as a supplement to classroom learning.

When online episodes are well-prepared and supportive of the curriculum, there are advantages. One example is the hybrid learning setting, where most of the content is taught in person, supplemented by pre-recorded videos, used to introduce or reinforce learning asynchronously.

The transition from the traditional classroom to online learning was pandemic-driven, resulting in an unprepared shift in format. The question remains, what can we do better to ensure student engagement in both the in-person and online classrooms?

1. Two studies of engineering students documented impressions of online education from the perspective of students at various universities of chemical engineering in Pakistan in 2022 and six engineering departments at California State University, Long Beach in 2021 (1,200 and 627 students, respectively):

Asgari S., Trajkovic, J., Rahmani, M., Zhang, W., Lo, R.C., and Sciortino, A. (2021). An Observational Study of Engineering Online Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic. PLoS ONE 16(4): e0250041.

Musarat, Y. (2022). Online Chemical Engineering Education During COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons Learned from Pakistan. Education for Chemical Engineers (39): 19–30.


Rishelle Wimmer (she, her) is a senior lecturer in the information technology and systems management department of the FH Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria. She studied operation research and system analysis at Cornell University and holds a master’s degree in educational sciences from the University of Salzburg. She serves on the SWE editorial board and the research advisory council and has been the faculty advisor for the Salzburg SWE affiliate since FY17.