The validity of any engineering education and training institution lies in the accreditation of its courses. An ongoing mission for qualification boards around the world is to find providers that are truly educating and training up to spec, and to flag those which are problematic.

Technological advancement has enabled education providers to reassess and rejig their approaches to education; with the advent of the internet, new learning platforms have emerged. But still, recognition and accreditation reign supreme.

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The number of students that can be reached when learning online is far greater (even when a synchronous or live approach is used). Students who struggle to access a campus can now acquire qualifications. Better still, online learning is impervious to strikes on campus which threaten the running of classes and the platform is usually robust enough to cope with small or large intakes (the size of the ‘lecture theatre’ online is much more flexible).

An event that made a strong case for online learning was the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa. It was a nationwide protest for tuition-free universities; a significant disruption to academic progress around the country. The movement lasted from October 2015 to October 2016.

During that time universities relied on their online portals and other virtual platforms. Both the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria reportedly ran efficient online modules that enabled engineering students to continue their studies undisrupted, but remotely.

An institution which has a well-established synchronous online learning platform is the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT). For a good ten years now South African students have been acquiring their engineering qualifications through EIT. Interestingly, after the disruptions at South African universities, the interest in online study and training has grown tenfold.

Achieving recognition

As far back as 2014 the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) began recognizing EIT’s Advanced Diploma of Industrial Automation at NQF Level 6 - a level equivalent to the National Diploma in South Africa.

It was a good sign that international qualifications could obtain official accreditation in South Africa. With high numbers of unskilled and unemployed young people, and spiraling attrition rates within their education institutions the country needs solid, safe education options for students of engineering and technology.

The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) has taken a magnifying glass to online institutions intent on educating and training South African students. They have shown much interest in the interactive online learning model EIT provides.

Recently South African, Kevin Tatenda Nherera, graduated from EIT’s online Advanced Diploma of Electrical and Instrumentation Engineering for Oil and Gas Facilities. He has been recognized as a Candidate Technician by ECSA.

This has resulted in a hopeful and positive outlook for online education and training. There is an indication that those courses, previously denied accreditation by the authorities in South Africa, may be legitimized in the near future.

Online institutions must, however, ensure their delivery platforms are engaging and encourage students to continue through to graduation. Attrition rates tend to be far higher when courses are delivered asynchronously.

The Dean of Engineering at the Engineering Institute of Technology, Dr Steve Mackay, has been on the forefront of gaining accreditation for online modules, but is a fierce advocate for the relationship between lecturer and student, claiming that an online platform should not impede this. He said:

“My suggestion is to avoid asynchronous online education. Attend courses where instructors and students meet in real time, via video conferencing or web conferencing. This is synchronous online learning; the type of inflexible online learning that drives students to complete their qualifications.”

He goes on to add:

I am very pleased that our learning platform has also enabled us to offer BSc degrees in Engineering online, to both school leavers and to advanced diploma holders. With the added option to study on campus in Australia”