John Siegenthaler
John Siegenthaler

Last fall, I taught my first online course dealing with designing hydronic heating systems. The course was titled “Mastering Hydronic System Design.” It was a collaborative effort between HeatSpring Learning Institute, BNP Media’s CE Campus, and myself.

The seed for this undertaking was a call I received from Brian Hayden, one of the founders of HeatSpring. Brian and his associates had been working with Marc Rosenbaum, a recognized expert in the field of net-zero building design. Together, they developed a detailed, design-focused, online course on that subject.

That course was intended to go well beyond what could be offered in a webinar or even a full-day seminar. It was for those who wanted to dig deep into design details, including calculations, computer simulations, lots of reading, investigating reference material, and even homework assignments. The result was called the “Masters Series” course on net-zero energy homes. It was a sellout for its first offering.

Hayden proposed the development of a similar course focused on the details of hydronic system design. I would develop the content, HeatSpring would coordinate the infrastructure needed to deliver a high-quality online course, and BNP Media would help market the course through its CE Campus website.

I’ll admit, this sounded both enticing and intimidating. Although I’ve spent three decades talking face to face with thousands of people about hydronic systems, I had never developed or taught such an extensive online course. But, like most unexplored opportunities that have come my way, I agreed to jump in.

Great Coaching

That’s where Hayden came in to ensure this would be a smooth process for everyone involved. He began working with me several months before the course launched, explaining the process of creating instructional videos, demonstrating how discussions would take place over Facebook-like bulletin boards, and describing how assignments could be handled. Hayden, along with Chris Williams at HeatSpring, also worked with Brittnie Wilson and plumbing group publisher Bob Miodonski at BNP Media to keep this team effort moving forward.

From the onset, the goal was to deliver a quality educational experience that would give students a deep appreciation of what’s possible with modern hydronics technology, along with the knowledge to craft those possibilities into smoothly functioning systems.

The course was structured to run over 10 weeks. Enough time to get into details, but not so long that it would drag on the way some college semesters seem to. Students viewed prerecorded video segments averaging about 2 ½ hours per week. They were then directed to reading assignments, as well as several related websites and other learning resources that dealt with the topics covered that week. Finally, students would download homework exercises that tested their understanding of the material. The answers for the homework were posted the following week.

If that sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. From its inception, this course was designed to be challenging. I suggested that every student set aside at least six hours each week to focus on what would be presented to them.

“The Mastering Hydronic System Design course is really advanced hydronics training. Once you have the basics down, this will bring you to the next level,” said Sokhom Kith, principal at KIT. “This course will help you understand advanced hydronics design and make you an efficient designer.” The course launch date was set for Sept. 30, 2013. Promotions began in late spring and by mid-August all 50 seats were sold. I was delighted to see registrations from across the U.S. and Canada. These students covered the spectrum from heating contractors to engineers to researchers. Some of the companies represented by those taking the course included Winnelson, Integrated Solar, The Jordan Institute, Lawrence Berkley Labs, Johnstone Supply, Taco Inc. and Mestek Inc.

Because the course was structured for asynchronous learning, students could view the week’s assigned materials at their convenience. As expected, some students worked ahead of schedule, some a bit behind, and others stayed right on target. If someone was having a problem with downloading the material, Tom McCormack, the student advocate at Heat Spring, quickly stepped in to remedy the situation. These guys are pros.

Each day, I received a listing of questions and comments posted to the course’s bulletin board. Students could read these postings and my responses. They also could comment on the questions, which encouraged good information exchange.

Here, again, I found eager students who obviously immersed themselves in the material and were actively applying it to systems under design. Several people were asking questions on a daily basis. I found the questions to be well thought out and proof that those posting them were after the details. I really enjoyed opening up the bulletin board every evening to see what had been posted that day.

The video sessions were based on Keynote (PowerPoint-like) presentations that I developed and narrated, while my computer recorded every sound and mouse movement. For me, this was definitely different and more difficult than presenting to a live audience. There’s no pacing the floor, opportunity for body language, instant feedback, or laughs — all of which are part of the fun at face-to-face events.

Many recorded segments were deleted before I was satisfied with the results. I used Camtasia software to digitally splice the final segments together. In total, the course has a little more than 26 hours of instructional video. Most of this is broken up into 15-30-minute segments.

Unique Opportunities

So, does this mean I’m ready to throw in the towel on face-to-face teaching? Absolutely not. I enjoy it way too much. That said, teaching this course has convinced me that online learning creates opportunities that go far beyond what’s possible with a face-to-face approach. How else could 50 people from all across North America get together over 10 weeks and exchange this much information?

“I have found that the contact I make with fellow students can be as valuable as the course material,” said Bob Claridge, president, Bobcat & Sun Inc.

I’ve come away from this course with a deep appreciation for the delivery method, as well as respect for the caliber of students who participated. I’m eager to teach this course again and expand upon what will be covered.

The second offering of Mastering Hydronic System Design launched Feb. 17.

If you want to check out the outline of this AIA-accredited course, just Google the phrase Mastering Hydronic System Design. If you would like to watch some sample training videos, use the following link:

If you’re ready to immerse yourself in the details of modern hydronic system design, please consider reviewing for the course. Although we may never meet in person, exchanging ideas, questions, and a healthy dose of hydronic piping schematics through cyberspace is the next best option.

Publication date: 5/26/2014

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