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Integrating Continuing Education courses and Engineering coursework units

Frank Bullen
School of Engineering, University of Tasmania
J. Liston
School of Civil Engineering, Queensland University of Technology
A widely accepted tenet in academia is that its practitioners are actively involved in teaching, professional practice and research. This broad spectrum of "expertise" should assist academics to provide a broad range of education options to students. This educational expertise can simultaneously be made available to practicing professionals in the form of continuing education programs. This synergism provides a cost-effective and flexible method of offering integrated courses to both students and professionals. If such an approach is to be successful however, the academic must be dedicated, have good management skills and have access to industry organisations that are able to provide direct or indirect funding support. The paper explores the use of integrated classes for undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals in the School of Civil Engineering at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. It is concluded that such an approach can provide a flexible and cost-effective service to both students and professionals if industry and university management is supportive of academics and teaching programs.


The School of Civil Engineering at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has established a good reputation over the last decade in the integration of undergraduate and continuing education teaching. The School offers a comprehensive range of teaching programs, which integrate and enhance the learning experience for undergraduates, postgraduates and professional engineers. The programs combine research with state of the art knowledge and are presented by teams of leading academics and practitioners. The teaching format often is in the form of interactive seminars. The combined learning group typically consists of professional engineers who undertaking continuing education, postgraduates and undergraduates who are pursuing a specialist field of engineering. Some topics are limited to restricted numbers of undergraduate students, due to the high level of demand.

Supporting material and presenters are garnered from industry bodies, government departments, consultants and academia. Industry bodies that have supported the programs include the Concrete Masonry Association of Australia, Australian Asphalt Pavement Association, the Cement and Concrete Association of Australia, Department of Main Roads, and the Timber Research and Development Council. Academics are drawn from both national and international universities linked with the School. The School utilises this pool of knowledge and expertise to provide quality training programs for students and the profession.

The range of units offered has been large and covers the full spectrum of civil engineering infrastructure including; transport engineering, geotechnical engineering, design maintenance and construction, water supply, and waste management. A total of 18 advanced units have been offered to undergraduates and a further 18 units offered at the postgraduate level, which are able to build on the specialist undergraduate units. The most specialised are the continuing education courses utilised by professionals, postgraduates and undergraduates. A summary of some of the courses offered is shown in Table 1. The courses have been developed and refined over a number of years and one of the courses "Concrete Construction" has now been running for over 10 years. Although thousands of professional engineers have availed themselves of the School's expertise over the last decade, the School will likely expand these activities to continue to meet the needs of its clients.

Table 1: Teaching and Continuing Education courses

Continuing EducationPostgraduateUndergraduate
Alt. of Pavement Design
Concrete Training Course
Limit State Steel Design
Masonry Design
Timber Engineering
Safety of Structures
Compaction in Roads
NRMCA Training Course
Finite Element Methods
Concrete Construction
Pavement Rehabilitation
Protection of Structural Steel
BCC/QUT Traffic Engg.
Construction Practice
Cement Treated Pavements
Quality in Compaction
PMCAA Training Course
Eng. Management and Admin.
Process Modeling
Municipal Eng. and Planning
Drainage Engineering
Const. Manag. and Economy
Municipal Law and Regulations
Road and Traffic Engineering
Advanced Traffic Engineering
Transportation Engineering
Urban Transportation Planning
Water Quality Engineering
Public Health Eng. Practice
Advanced Treatment Processes
Waste Management
Environ. Law and Assessment
Environmental Chemistry
Municipal Engineering Practice
Timber Design
Pavement Design
Transport Engineering 1
Transport Engineering 2
Geotech. Engineering 2
Geotech. Engineering 3
Environmental Geohydrology
Advanced Struct. Design
Masonry Design
Advance Const. Methods
Proj Manag. & Admin.
Hydraulic Engineering 3
Waste Management
Environ. Impact Studies
Design Project
Civil Design

The School's continuing education program has been designed for the continuing professional development of engineers in the form of refresher courses or additional education. As defined by Ackermans [1], the refresher type course is where established undergraduate curriculum is re-taught with the inclusion of the latest technologies. The additional education type course introduces topics which may never had been taught in the undergraduate programs studied by some professional engineers.

The refresher course is suitable for the older graduates of the School who enroll to gain the same state of the art information as undergraduates (who may be building on more recent knowledge). The additional education concept applies to graduates from other institutions where the continuing education topic was never included in the undergraduate program, either because the topic was considered irrelevant or did not previously exist.

Typically the combined classes of undergraduate students, technologists and professionals contain a broad range of people with a vast spectrum of education and experience. For the undergraduate, the work is an extension of earlier work. For a recent graduate, the lectures represent a refresher course, and for the older engineer the work may be entirely new, conceptually difficult and hard to master. The management and teaching of such a diverse group is a challenging task..

The role of the University

Almost all universities include the provision of continuing education and life long learning to professionals as part of the duties of an academic. The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is a typical example and in the case of QUT this assists in meeting its Mission Goals. The QUT Research Goal contains the phrase "to advance and apply knowledge germane to the professions....". The Service Goal contains the phrase "to enhance QUT's relationship with the professions, and to increase community awareness through professional service....". Its Teaching Goal includes "a commitment to professionalism, ethical practices and the fostering of lifelong learning by its graduates".

Similarly the University of Tasmania's goals include to "provide lifelong learning opportunities" and to "make important distinctive and excellent contributions to the community, industry, government and scholarly communities" (University of Tasmania 2000).

Universities thus provide an indirect impetus to academics to mount continuing education courses, via Faculty and School strategic plans and missions statements, which have been formulated to meet the Universities' aims. Usually financial benefits also accrue to the university from levies on fees paid by the professionals undertaking the continuing education.

The role of the Institution of Engineers, IEAust

The IEAust policy of professional development and life long learning for its members has helped to spawn a huge continuing education industry in which the Institution itself has a financial interest, through Engineering Education Australia Pty Ltd. Engineering Education has the principle role of implementing the IEAust's policy on continuing education. That policy may be summarised as saying that all IEAust members should commit themselves to a minimum of 150 hours of continuing education in any three year period, as part of their professional development.

The role of industry organisations

Industry organisations exist mainly to promote the products and services of their members and the managing bodies must be pragmatic when involved in continuing education. Some organisations however, claim to be more altruistic and express the desire to expand the understanding of the science and technology bases of their industry.

If undergraduate engineers are exposed to the benefits of certain products, design procedures or methodologies, they are likely to continue such practices in their ensuing careers. Practicing professionals may have reservations about certain technologies or concepts overcome by their participation in good courses. Thus industry organisations should find it cost effective to fund courses (partially or fully) which combine undergraduate and professional education. The fees paid by the professionals taking the course to increase their knowledge or simply to meet the professional development requirements of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, will help offset the costs of mounting the course.

A good course developed with the assistance of an industry organisation may be adopted for further use outside a university. The course may be used for the training of industry personnel, or as short courses targeting specific groups of local professionals. Often the industry groups will provide prizes for outstanding results achieved by participating students, which is independent of other support. Such prizes can serve as enticements for extra dedication and performance in that unit area. Examples of this approach in the School are 2 prizes of $500 in the masonry design elective, provided by the Concrete Masonry Association, and 3 prizes of $500 in the flexible pavements area provided by the Australian Asphalt Pavement Association (AAPA).

A case study - the Australian Asphalt Pavements Association (AAPA)

AAPA is a typical well organised industry body and as such has a vested interest in maintaining an adequate supply of graduates to the profession, who have a good general founding in the principles of all types of pavement materials and design. It is also in the interest of the association to ensure that some emphasis is given to the treatment of bituminous-based materials and pavements. The Association has excellent technical staff and is able to call on the services of its local (state) members to provide support. The Association also can provide resource material directly and via its web site and also help with site visits and laboratory involvement relevant to course work.

An association with such an industry organisation may be extended beyond the continuing education aspects to form a synergism. The School has benefited through its association with AAPA by being assisted with the purchase of expensive, sophisticated testing equipment and some support in its applied research program in the area of bitumen and asphalt materials. AAPA was instrumental in forming the Australasian Pavement Studies and Research Centre (APSARC) in partnership with the national road association body, AUSTROADS. QUT became a member of the APSARC advisory group due to its involvement with AAPA in its continuing education program.

As far back as 1991 the School of Civil Engineering and AAPA held informal discussions concerning the possibility of the School running some form of flexible pavement engineering unit in its Bachelor of Engineering course. AAPA saw the proposed unit as the initial stage in the development of the postgraduate qualifications, Master of Technology and Master of Engineering in Pavement Engineering under the management of APSRAC in partnership with Deakin University. In 1992, AAPA funded the School to develop the new unit with the provision that it be made available to both practising engineers and students. This meant that the unit had to be offered as both a final year elective and as a continuing education program. The unit "Pavement Design and Rehabilitation" was developed between AAPA and School staff and offered for the first time in second semester 1993 (July - November). AAPA funds allowed design of a course brochure and payment of external lecturers. A small, nominal fee was paid to academic staff and the surplus funds held over to support the course over the following years. This proved to be the start of a drive by AAPA, with support form AUSTROADS, to position itself in the formal education sector (Farrelly 1994).

Unit design and assessment

The elective was initially designed to build on the information presented in an undergraduate unit "Highway Engineering", which provided students with the basics of pavement material and design. It was assumed that practicing engineers undertaking the unit as a continuing education program would either be familiar with the basics or would be capable, due to good motivation, of quickly assimilating the extra, necessary background information. Such an assumption was only partly successful and there was some dissatisfaction from participants who thought the pace too slow and from other participants who thought the pace too "racey". Comments from professionals and students ranged across a wide spectrum as shown in extracts taken from a survey, and presented below. In the first year the course was thought not to be well integrated due to the limited level of control which could be exerted by the academic staff involved in the course. External lecturers can often be very difficult to meld into a coherent team, as they may not always meet deadlines for lecture material and can easily stray from the set course structure. Such events can infuriate paying customers who expect delivery of advertised material. It is important to ensure that courses have a feedback mechanism for continual monitoring of quality and reviewing. Integration was greatly improved when the unit was subsequently presented in a short course mode rather than the initial extended weekly approach. This is explained further in the paper under "Ongoing Developments".

Assessment was via the well-established route of in-class tutorials, design assignments and an informal in-house examination at the end of semester for all participants. Students sat the unit exam as part of their normal examination process and were graded in parallel with other elective units. The professional engineers received a certificate, which also indicated the grade achieved in the unit, based on overall performance. This grading was intended to assist those professionals who intended to undertake further study in the area.

Flexibility in delivery

Once a university school or department accepts the concept of integrating students and professional engineers it opens up an easy pathway to flexible delivery. A unit can be presented in a multitude of modes, often beyond that possible in a normal undergraduate unit. The three preferred modes of study are listed below and all can be augmented by WWW sites and other online material. It is however, the short concentrated intense teaching block methods of 2 to 3 days utilised for time efficiency that attract both local and [non-local] students, even in a radius of up to 1500 km.

One benefit of combined courses held within the School is that if required, they can be carried out over a period of time (up to 12-14 weeks) which promotes gradual and deeper assimilation of knowledge. The on-campus courses allow access to modern testing facilities and also assist good staff-student interaction, which can promote learning but which is missing from many of the correspondence courses marketed and provided by the Institution. These types of courses for professional engineers are disappearing as student-student and student-staff interaction becomes simplified via distance education courses due to wider acceptance and use of electronic communication techniques.

Both students and professional engineers appear to prefer the first mode as it maximises initial delivery of information under academic guidance, minimises time away from work and allows flexibility over the remaining weeks of semester via web support. This flexible model presents material away from campus, at venues (typical hotels) more suitable to the professional engineers and innovative for the undergraduate student. Often follow up activities can be pursued within the facilities of members of the supporting industry body.

Ongoing Developments APSARC - CPEE

In 2000 APSARC became the Centre for Pavement Engineering Education (CPEE), a new title which more accurately indicates its main functions and aims. The CPEE prime goal is to provide "professional engineering qualifications by distance education for personnel in or entering the road pavements industry". In spite of the distance learning emphasis, CPEE with AAPA and participating universities, still provides short courses for pavement engineers and (typically) final year engineering students who are able to study the topic as part of an elective unit. The units currently offered by CPEE Deakin and AAPA are shown below. The units in bold are those that have been offered to QUT students, typically as a 2-3 day short course mode that formed the core part of a final year specialist elective. Students typically undertake extra tutorial and assignment work after the short course.
SEC600 Introduction to Pavements
SEC601 Pavement Design
SEC602 Pavement Construction
SEC603 Pavement Wearing Surfaces
SEC604 Asphalt Mix Design
SEC605 Pavement Maintenance and Rehabilitation
SEC606 Industrial and Heavy Duty Pavements
SEC607 Pavement Management
SEC608 In Situ Stabilisation
SEC609 Asset Management (in preparation)

Master of Technology (Pavements) students must complete 4 of the above units plus 2 other units from School of Engineering and Technology at Deakin, while Master of Engineering (Pavements) students must complete 8 specialist units plus 4 units from the School of Engineering and Technology at Deakin.

The need for academic involvement

The confines of university monetary policy in Australia, means that courses and units are continually under pressure from administrators to be rationalised. This usually means that larger classes become the norm as universities increase their student/staff ratios to increase income, while maintaining the same academic staff levels. In such an environment it will often be difficult to develop and instigate more elective units unless there is substantial external funding available. If students are to benefit from the introduction of elective units that will broaden their educational experience, then the academic must be able to enlist the support of industry. Such support usually occurs due to the professional or research reputation, and contacts of the academic. A university as an administrative body does not often play any leading role in organising or promoting such liaisons.

The question of "why bother" must then be asked, what are the rewards for academics. There seems little reward to academics compared with the input required to mount a good course. Fortunately rewards do exist, albeit marginal. For the academic it is being able to teach in an area for which he or she has a great affinity or research interest. There is also the possibility that promotion prospects may be enhanced. The rewards for the students are more options for study, while professionals gain access to state of the art knowledge. Any actual financial reward for the academic will usually be quite marginal. As facilitators, academics should be concerned with educational innovation and creativity, particularly if there is a way in which abstract academic knowledge can be translated into practical applications.

The School has adopted an interactive model for development of its staff [2] and has highlighted that service to the profession assists the academic to become a "rounded engineer" as he or she is encouraged to become involved with real world engineering problems and their solutions. Research, teaching, and consulting constantly reinforce and interact with each other until the boundaries become blurred as shown in Figure1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A fully integrated university and industry program

The rewards

The academic

As indicated earlier the financial rewards for an academic are minor, and are not considered further in this paper. The lecturer can however, gain a wider and higher standing in the professional community by demonstrating his or her command of the subject matter. There is also a possible benefit that running such courses will stand the academic in some good stead in the race for promotion or for a tenured position. Finally there is the self-satisfaction of a job well done and the knowledge that a good service has been provided to the profession.

The professional

Engineers require the balanced experience of technical skills combined with management principles if they are to be considered as being prepared for the 21st century. This is regardless of whether they are at the cutting edge of the profession in either design or construction or become involved in the necessity that is fast approaching of maintaining, rehabilitating and operating the nation's ageing infrastructure and existing plant.

Professionals should be able to update their knowledge in courses, as academics would normally be airing their "secret arts", while they demonstrate their standing as good researchers. The professional development guidelines of the IEAust are also met. An unusual benefit is that the professionals are exposed, on an informal basis, to young undergraduate engineers who are poised on the brink of their careers. Some professionals are taken aback by the candour and openness of today's undergraduates.

The undergraduate

The undergraduate benefits from the interaction with senior professional engineers at a level unlikely to be achieved once graduation is over. In the university situation it is often the undergraduate who is able to achieve the best results due to superior study habits and skills. Undergraduates can also enjoy better access to information from academic staff, which may otherwise be unavailable in an undergraduate unit. Often such state of the art knowledge can enhance the employability of the student upon graduation.

The university

While the more tangible benefits may accrue to individual academics, the university, faculty and School all benefit from in-depth industry interaction, which may lead to research partnerships and the subsequent generation of research quantum. This has in fact occurred between the senior author and AAPA via several research contracts and ARC SPIRT APA (I) grants. The other benefit to the university is that it gains prestige in the eyes of the profession by providing "real world" training and graduates with enhanced employment prospects due to an ability to more readily cope with the rigour of engineering practice. This hopefully results in university viewing the academic as a valuable asset who has good long-term employment prospects.

Future partnerships

Courses such as those offered jointly by APSARC/CPEE and the School of Civil Engineering undoubtedly have a good future if managed wisely. The academic staff involved must remain dedicated and the courses continue to serve and promote the relevant industries represented by the supporting industry bodies.

Associations look for value for money and will only continue to support the courses as long as their members see positive results in the performance of their existing staff and what they see as better new graduates. Some academics believe they can be held to be more responsible and accountable for the quality of such combined courses than for normal undergraduate units. There is a strong pressure within all industries for accountability. Partnerships such as the models in place allow for strong accountability for both the industry and academia (Figure 1).

Unfortunately such partnerships are very dependent on high level expertise and will break down with changes in staffing unless enshrined in award degree programs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as enshrining a unit removes the flexibility inherent in the original course design. Also new staff will bring new skills and the opportunity to develop new partnerships in previously unexplored engineering fields.


The School of Civil Engineering at QUT has successfully integrated final year undergraduates, postgraduates and practicing engineers in combined courses. Students use the courses as elective units to gain specialist knowledge and to enhance employability. Practicing engineers use the courses as continuing education for self-development and to satisfy the membership requirements of the IEAust. The course can often also be used to partially satisfy the requirements of accredited higher degree programs offered by industry linked and supported organisations such as APSARC and CPEE.

The success of the combined courses is dependent upon support from industry organisations, which in turn are funded directly from industry. If the courses are not of a high quality then industry support will deservedly wither and die. Students then lose the opportunity to participate in electives to develop skills that may enhance their employability. Academics must ensure that course contents are well presented, contain state of the art information and are constantly under review.

The key to the efficiencies described in the paper remains as the academic. They must be, and remain, the leaders in teaching, research and professional practice if they are to have successful academic careers in engineering. Partnerships with industry such as described here will enhance and support their prospects and also provide a gateway to the real world of engineering.


Ackermans, S.T. (1989). Who needs continuing education. Search for patterns of co-operation. European Journal of Engineering Education, 14(1), 5-14.

Bullen, F. (1994). School of Civil Engineering, QUT, Strategic Planning Workshop (unpublished).

Farrelly, R. (1994). AUSTROADS and AAPA educational initiative. Proc. 9th AAPA Int. Asphalt Conf. Session 6 - Improved Performance from Technology Transfer. Surfers Paradise, Queensland.

University of Tasmania (2000). University of Tasmania Plan 2000-2002. Hobart, Tasmania.

Contact details: Professor Frank Bullen, School of Engineering, University of Tasmania
Phone (03) 6226 2131 Fax (03) 6226 7248 Email

Please cite as: Bullen, F. and Liston, J. (2001). Integrating Continuing Education courses and Engineering coursework units. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 89-98. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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