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Online and Global Education in Engineering: Building a Strategic Case for Placed-based Learning

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2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity)


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

February 20, 2022

Start Date

February 20, 2022

End Date

July 20, 2022

Conference Session

Technical Session 1 - Paper 3: Online and Global Education in Engineering: Building a Strategic Case for Placed-based Learning

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Natasha B. Watts Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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As Director of Cardinal Education and the Associate Director of Online Learning in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, Natasha provides college-level leadership for the design, development, implementation, and evaluation of distance learning initiatives. Watts is the main point of contact for the Cardinal Education Program (formerly Commonwealth Graduate Engineering CGEP).

Before coming to Virginia Tech, Natasha worked as an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for Visual Communication and Computer Information at Hazard Community and Technical College. Watts began her career at Appalshop, a non-profit media arts center located in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, serving as a director, educator, filmmaker, and youth media trainer. For the last ten years, her work has focused on placed-based visual learning and distance learning methodologies to facilitate rural classroom equality. Watts is passionate about distance learning, accessibility, and Appalachia. She believes there is a classroom for everyone.

Natasha has a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting and Electronic Media, with a minor in Appalachian Studies from Eastern Kentucky University. A Master’s of Science in Education with an emphasis on occupational training and development from Eastern Kentucky University, and a Doctorate in Educational Technology and Leadership from Morehead State University.

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Title Online and Global Education in Engineering: Building a Strategic Case for Placed-based Learning

Type Practice Abstract. PowerPoint Presentation. Practitioner focused.

Key Terms Instructional Technology. First-Generation. Engineering.

Topics Unleashing the invisible factors of human potential to innovate, explore the unknown, and develop community-centered solutions to address diversity, inclusion, and access in industry and academia Innovative curricular issues including inclusive pedagogies

During this presentation, the team proposes the idea that using place-based methodologies as a structural approach to classroom and programmatic design will increase value, build community and provide a more authentic approach for students in engineering. The presentation will look at the partnership between global and online education building a case for a more strategic pathway forward in closing the digital and diversity divides. The goal of the session is to explore more inclusive, thoughtful online learning environments for students from diverse backgrounds through theorized place-based approaches.

This purposed session will: Define online, global and placed-based education. Outline key concepts in online learning. Outline key concepts in place-based learning. Define current practices in online learning. Outline performance-based budgeting for higher education and how to utilize online and place-based strategies to reach goals for student diversity and budget. Define global learning in the context of this work. Explain how global, online and placed-based education can work together to help strengthen university services and recruitment of marginalized students. Give present-day working examples on global learning innovation from a school of engineering in a public land-grant university in the United States. Discuss research and partnerships in global education. Explain the vision around using place-based, global and online education to close gaps for underrepresented and underserved students.

Place-based education is often defined as the process of using the local community and the environmental ethos that resides in it as a starting point to teach concepts like math, language arts, science, and social studies. Providing hands-on, real-world learning experiences allowing students to develop stronger ties to their community, creating a heightened sense of service and contribution (Sobel, 2004). Building more intentional learning environments will allow students to learn from where they are and this comfort zone could be key to bridging diverse students into fields like engineering that are highly dominated by one race and sex. For many marginalized students, it is imperative to their success that they are allowed to be the voice of their own story (Greiner, 2010). Allowing students to build a sense of community, learn from each other and explore more experiential learning environments could be a key factor in creating long-term success rates. These marginalized communities and students need more initial pathways to community and learning (hooks, 1994).

The online learning discipline centers around instructional design and instructional technology methodologies and processes. Both concepts have long been linked to innovation in higher education (Jonassen, 1991). Understanding how these processes can be applied to classrooms that are deeply rooted in a cultural narrative is imperative to innovative growth in the classroom. Online learning programs are headlined by a for-profit institution with large enrollments. However, online learning is over 40-years old and started in much more community-centered spaces like community colleges. Understanding these current and past structures will help us understand the paradox that now exists in utilizing online innovative spaces to help build stronger communities. Online structures should be built on understanding the student’s needs, culture, environment and teaching them in a place they are comfortable with.

Higher education business models often lead their-hand to performance-based metrics. When we look at the growth in online learning and the staggering amount of people around the world who are enrolling we can clearly see the potential for it to help bridge the gaps for students from diverse and margined backgrounds. The National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data shows that in the fall of 2018, more than 6.9 million students, or 35.3 percent of students in the nation, were enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions (IPEDS, 2019). Additional, 37 percent of online students are the first in their family to attend college, and 70 percent of online learners are female (PNPI, 2021). When we think about this data matched with the disproportionate number of first-generation female students who enroll in engineering we can see that online learning could potentially be a place to help facilitate more community engagement among those students. These numbers help us build a strong case for having more initial programs and courses available for students in engineering.

Programs across the U.S. are starting to look for more innovative ways to grow students from diverse backgrounds. At the same time, they are working to increase the number of international, experiential learning opportunities for students. While these two topics are in constant flux and contention with one another, online learning could provide a valuable exploratory option for those seeking to improve their numbers both financially and domestically when it comes to achieving access to quality education for the underrepresented and underserved students. This hour-long PowerPoint presentation and discussion will explore how one university is tiring to merge the two concepts to achieve more enriching experiences for students.


Hendrickson, K. A. (2012). Student resistance to Schooling: Disconnections with education in Rural Appalachia. The High School Journal, 95(4), 37-49. doi:10.1353/hsj.2012.0011

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms and communities. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Press.

Jonassen, D. H. (1997). Instructional design models for well-structured and ill-structured problem-solving learning outcomes. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(1), 65-94.

United States Department of Education, Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). (2008). Retrieved from

Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI). (2021). Retrieved from

Watts, N. B. (2022, February), Online and Global Education in Engineering: Building a Strategic Case for Placed-based Learning Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana.

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