The Current State and Future Needs of Systems Engineering Curriculum: A Proposed Curriculum; Identifying the Flaws With Online Higher Education and Understanding Why They Remain Unsolved

Vangala, Vinay, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Forelle, MC, University of Virginia
Scherer, William, University of Virginia
Burkett, Matthew, EN-SIE, University of Virginia

My technical research centers around systems engineering education. Specifically, an
analysis of how changes in the roles of current systems engineering professionals combined with
a more virtual workplace due to COVID create a need for a new standard in systems engineering
higher education – a modernized curriculum that reflects the needs of current professionals.
Researching this topic necessitated an understanding of the future of content delivery within
systems engineering education programs, and whether it should be fully virtual, in-person, or
hybrid. This inspired me to look deeper into the current state of online higher education, as I was
curious about the problems that online programs encounter. With this revealing a bevy of issues
stemming from a greedy system, I decided to center my STS research on an Actor-Network
Theory analysis on the problems with online higher education. Thus, my STS research topic
stems from the preliminary research done for my capstone project.
The Current State and Future Needs of Systems Engineering: A Proposed Curriculum
begins with a description of the field of systems engineering. Systems engineering is a
transdisciplinary approach to problem solving that applies skills such as Model-Based Systems
Engineering and the MITRE Systems Engineering Competency Model to arrive at solutions and
analyze systems. Professionals who utilize systems engineering principles in their day-to-day
include systems analysts, test engineers, and systems engineers. However, the education
programs for these professionals are lacking. Current systems engineering education content is
stuck in the past – most degree programs have a primary focus on systems analysis and design, a
topic more pertinent in the 2000s. This is a contributing factor to the large gaps between
academia and industry. Content delivery has similar flaws, with classrooms not digitizing fast
enough. An analysis of current Mid-Atlantic programs reveals this - few are geared towards the
needs or lifestyle of current working professions, emphasizing a need for modernization. The
modern systems engineer needs to act as an intermediary between technical and business roles,
acting as a product manager as innovation is increasingly technical. Thus a modern curriculum
needs to emphasize product innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset. A cohort-model and
hybrid format are also identified as the optimal content delivery methods to emphasize social
competence and teamwork while remaining flexible to the needs of a working professional. This
research leads into a final proposed curriculum consisting of a focus on product innovation, a
cohort-based hybrid learning environment, and a mixture of instruction from professors and
industry professionals.
My STS research is an Actor-Network Theory based analysis of the current problems
with online higher education and the reasons they persist. With online higher education programs
existing to provide an alternative to those who cannot have a traditional college experience, their
quality is of utmost importance to creating an even playing field for those looking for
educational opportunities. An overview of the current research through a thorough literature
review reveals that online higher education programs are primarily for-profit, online learning has
intrinsic flaws, and that managers of these online programs use predatory marketing tactics in
order to boost their enrollment numbers. To understand the root of these problems, an Actor Network Theory Framework is utilized, leveraging connections found in primary and secondary
sources to understand power dynamics and negative influences on online higher education
programs. Analysis using this framework reveals that the profit-forward motives of online
program managers is at the root of the problems persisting in these programs, including poor
education quality, predatory marketing, and a failure to address the lack of interaction in an
online space. This is exacerbated by a slow legislative response that enables online program
managers to act unfettered. Opposition argues that these programs are taking advantage of the
free market, however with education standing as one of the most important factors of success in
modern America, they must act with more care to prevent the growth of class inequity. Future
research must be undertaken to understand the relationship between state legislators and program
managers, with simultaneous activism needed to spur change by lawmakers.
Working on both projects simultaneously afforded me the opportunity to view the world
of online higher education from multiple perspectives. Systems engineering degrees are rarely
offered at community colleges or for-profit online universities, and the future of masters
programs in systems engineering lies in hybrid programs that support working professionals to
avoid taking a gap year from their job. The needs and challenges of setting up that curriculum
and structure address a problem in a single industry. However, the problems facing online higher
education programs are, ironically, much more systemic and speak to a deeper issue of class
inequity and greed.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
For-Profit Education, Online Education, Systems Engineering, Actor-Network Theory

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: William Scherer
Technical Advisor: Matt Burkett
STS Advisor: MC Forelle
Technical Team Members: Mia Varghese, Maggie Salomonsky, TJ Gwilliam, Salem Keleta, Vinay Vangala

Issued Date: