Online Learning Growing Slowly but Surely for HVACR

May 14, 2007
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It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your technician is? In the case of Matthew Boden, the apprentice at Pioneer Heating and Air Conditioning, Twin Falls, Idaho, he may just be reviewing HVACR course material on his computer - until who-knows-when. It’s the best option for the single father of two small children.

“He could not go to school at night and leave his kids, who had already spent 10 hours in day care,” explained Boden’s boss and Pioneer owner, Steve Shoemaker. “With online schooling, my apprentice can do his schooling after the kids go to bed and on weekends.”

There is a growing allegiance to online learning, be it ever-so-slowly in the HVACR field. Most institutions have at least some form of online learning, perhaps as a complement to in-class study. At Ferris State University (FSU), one can earn a bachelor of science degree in HVACR engineering technology by taking the required courses online. Meanwhile, the United Association (UA) and HVACReducation.net have been among the few organizations able to provide heating and air conditioning training via the Internet.

Chris Compton, CEO of HVACReducation.net, believes online learning is the perfect way this industry can get - and teach - its much-needed techs. While the Baby Boomers may be hesitant to step into this new world of online education, he is counting on the computer-savvy younger generation to take the leap.

“There is no perceived notion, other than it is different,” said Compton, referring to online HVACR education. “Usually, when they [contractors] think it is different, it is not good because it is change.”

Shoemaker was one such contractor, until he signed up and found out what it is all about. “HVACReducation.net has given my company a way to meet state-required schooling for my employees,” he said. “Their apprenticeship program is outstanding. I can’t make my employees take online schooling, but I highly recommend it to them.

“Time-wise, it just makes more sense to them to do their school work when it is best for them, not always at the college after a 10- to 11-hour day at work. I feel that HVACReducation.net gives a well-instructed platform to help my employees to progress. And, that is what I am looking for.”

GROWING ACCEPTANCE

From a nationwide perspective, the growth of online enrollments continues to set records. According to research by The Sloan Consortium, nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term. This same report (“Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006”) noted that more than 96 percent of the very largest institutions (more than 15,000 total enrollment) have some online offerings and that 62 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face.

“This is a significant endorsement of online learning programs,” said Suzie Sands, executive vice president of HVACReducation.net.

According to Mike Feutz, department chair for FSU’s HVACR program, the university began to notice a real interest in online education and in the bachelor’s degree program several years ago.

Each year, FSU sets up a booth at the Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Expo to educate attendees about the university’s HVACR department and what the program can offer. Feutz explained that on each occasion several people stopped by the booth and were surprised to learn that the university offers a bachelor’s degree in HVACR technology.

“Many people wanted to know where they could go to get this,” said Feutz.

He would explain to the attendees that the only way would be to attend FSU, which is located in Big Rapids, Mich. With expo participants coming from all over the country, several asked Feutz if the courses could be made available via distance learning.

“That was when the little light bulb came on and said that there is a market for this,” said Feutz.

This idea was reinforced when FSU did some market research and found out that there was a great deal of interest in an HVACR bachelor’s degree and online learning. Also, Ferris State conducted HVACR courses for individuals in Grand Rapids, Mich., an hour south of the Big Rapids campus. Adult students in Grand Rapids take part in adult education through the FSU program, which allows them to earn their degree while keeping their full-time jobs.

This program, along with the market research, made it clear to those at FSU that there is a real desire for pursuing a bachelor’s degree in HVACR engineering technology via online learning.

To date, FSU has had 113 students enroll in the online program. The first graduate, Mike Curcio, attended commencement last May, and three more are expected to graduate this spring.

“Will online ever take off? I think it already has,” said Feutz, answering his own question. “We have been doing it since January 2003 and are going strong. There is plenty of room for growth, and I’m sure we will see more and more schools offering HVACR education of some sort or another online.”

In the eyes of its creators, HVACReducation.net is easy to navigate through. Pictured above is an example page on its site. (Click on the image for an enlarged view.)

JUST DO IT

Sands and Compton encouraged contractors to “just do it” when it comes to online learning. “If you drive on the highway in a Volkswagen and you drive on the highway with a Porche, you are getting to the same place,” was Sands’ analogy. “It’s all about getting your education.”

In the case of HVACReducation.net, all courses are instructor-led with assignments, text support, handouts, exams, and student discussions as found in conventional classrooms. The 25 instructors are technicians/teachers that have experience and industry certification in the areas in which they teach. Both said they could fit the need of any contractor or institution. It offers a variety of online education and training options for apprenticeship, academic, assessments, continuing education units, certificate programs, blended learning options, and more.

In fact, Compton said it can produce custom programs. For instance, if a contractor wanted to offer weekly or monthly training sessions for his/her techs and installers, but does not have the time or the ability to do it, Compton said HVACReducation.net can step in and provide the desired goal.

“It could be very proprietary, very specific,” offered Sands.

For academic institutions, career-trade schools, or apprenticeship organizations, Compton said HVACReducation.net can customize a blended program that “can lower your cost, increase enrollments, or capitalize on current resources.”

“Partnering with HVACReducation.net allows you to offer your students online learning options for their educational needs in heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration technology,” he simply said.

Don’t know if you are ready for a North American Technician Excellence (NATE) exam? HVACR education.net offers precertification assessment, designed to assess general and specific HVAC technical knowledge. Take the online exam and a performance report is issued. It reveals strengths and weaknesses, and will recommend a specific course of action to follow.

“We try to set up a learning path,” explained Sands. “Based on scores, we can adjust the learning process accordingly.”

HVACReducation.net provides moral support, too. While an instructor at a school may not know you from Adam, nor care if you attend a class or not, Sands said she has support people behind the computer that keep track of students. “I can tell you when you went in. I can tell how long you were in. I can tell what exact page you went through. I can tell how long you were on that page. I can tell what IP you came from,” said Sands. “I can tell everything about your behavior in learning.”

If progress is not seen, the student will receive a call or e-mail.

“I have called some students four or five times,” said Sands. “After a while, though, you have to take responsibility for you. You can give me every excuse that you want, but at some time you have to back off.”

Having this tracking system in place helps contractors know if an employee is really going to class or not. “It’s not Big Brother,” said Sands. “It is more of a support system, a mentorship. We will do everything in our powers to get the student the needed visuals or whatever is needed. Every learner is different.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT HANDS-ON TEACHING?

Of course, there are some detractors who will say that an online course in HVACR cannot work. The argument is that distance learning leaves out a fundamental component of learning any trade, and that is the hands-on training.

In FSU’s case, Feutz said this issue has been addressed. First, since the bachelor’s degree program is an engineering technology program, the main tool used by students is the computer. It is used to perform load calculations, system selection, energy analysis, and design, along with direct digital control work. A student working on a computer can be at home just as well as they can be on campus.

Second, the two courses that include hands-on learning experience in commissioning and direct-digital controls require a five-day trip to the Big Rapids campus. Feutz said this trip takes place during the first summer of the program and is needed to maintain the quality of the educational experience, and to verify that students are truly learning what is presented online.

FSU faculty adapted on-campus coursework for the Internet using a Tegrity Smart Cart. This technology uses a computer, projector, and three cameras to capture actual lecture sessions and deliver them from the classroom to the student’s computer screen using CD-ROMs. This means that a student working at home is actually watching an instructor on campus teach the course lessons. The Tegrity program can also project any kind of teaching aids the instructor is using, including overheads or other visual material.

The entire class is organized using course management software adopted by Ferris called WebCT. This Web-based software provides links to all aspects of the course, and includes communication tools such as e-mail, bulletin boards, and chat rooms.

These lessons are also archived, which Feutz said is a huge benefit to students.

In the case of HVACReducation.net, Compton admitted there are some courses that do not translate well online, including welding, bending sheet metal, or anything requiring manual dexterity, such as attaching a vacuum gauge hose. However, he said never underestimate the power of streaming videos or CDs showing completed tasks visually.

“What you try to do is try to do as many things online as possible,” he said. “On the screen you can manipulate this or push this. The ideal arrangement is the apprenticeship programs that we have, where the person has 40 hours of real-life work, but you learn online at the same time. The workplace is the ‘lab’ for those students. If we have an arrangement with a community college program, then the community college provides the ‘hands-on’ lab segment.”

As online technology keeps improving, all will fall in order, believed Sands.

“It is a very growing industry, becoming more and more resource-available,” she said.

Visit www.ferris.edu/uce or www.hvacreducation.net for more information. Subscribers to The NEWS can get a 15 percent discount on every course offered by HVACReducation.net. To obtain the 15 percent discount, go to www.achrnews.com/Learning_Center.

Sidebar: Online Benefits

As owner of Pioneer Heating and Air Conditioning, Twin Falls, Idaho, one of Steve Shoemaker’s goals is to train apprentices that can become journeymen “in the easiest way possible.”

He turned to HVACReducation.net for his answer.

“The (local) college does have classes now, but they start at 5 p.m.,” said Shoemaker. “When we work out of town, it is nearly impossible to get one or two men back in time for class. Besides, I lose the productivity of the other men that had to quit work that day to facilitate the college schedule.”

HVACReducation.net worked with the state of Idaho to provide the educational requirements of the state with online education options. The estimated study time per week during the run of the course is five to six hours for eight months each year. This is an “asynchronous” learning program, meaning that the students and instructors do not have to be online at the same time, but there is a constant level of communication through a “conference environment” in the online class. Students and faculty have an ongoing conversation on the current course topics. Students are required to participate in these discussions as they would in a face-to-face classroom.

“I’m so impressed with HVACReducation.net that I enrolled in a class for instructors,” said Shoemaker. “I have seen the online process from the inside out. The training for instructors, as well as students, is outstanding. The standard is set high. HVACReducation.net wants their students to expand their knowledge.”

Tyson Garten, operations manager for A-1 Heating, Boise, Idaho, cannot argue with the assessment. He is responsible for signing up apprentices at his business.

“A lot of our guys do not have time to work, go to school, and raise a family,” he said. “Logging on at home allows them to do this.”

Echoed second-year student Andrew Hendricks, “Who has time to go to work, then to school, and have time to spend with the family? Online education is the only way that I can make all of this happen.”

Online learning is not easier than being enrolled in a classroom setting, assured Shoemaker.

“It takes discipline to be a student in the online environment,” he said. “Students can get behind and then be overwhelmed by the amount of work that it takes to keep up. However, the instructor is aware of his students’ time online and grades. HVACReducation.net has done an outstanding job making sure that the students are successful.”

George McCain, an employee of Air Comfort Inc., Caldwell, Idaho, believes online training may be more difficult than if in a classroom setting. He is in the midst of his four years of apprenticeship training online.

“Online training is harder for the student because the student cannot sit back and hide behind his or her classmates to do all the work or answer all the questions,” he said. “The instructor views the online student’s work each and every time.”

Publication date: 05/14/2007

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