Once scoffed at as an unrealistic way to learn the trades, online education has slowly climbed into prominence and ultimately emerged as a staple of HVACR education.

Schools across the country are adapting their curriculums to offer distance learning, which increases their attractiveness to HVACR prospects who wish to learn the trade whenever they can, from wherever they wish.

Computerized Coursework

Per “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” more than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, an increase of 570,000 students over the previous year. Thirty-two percent of higher-education students now study at least one course online, and 77 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to face-to-face instruction.

In other words, online education is becoming more widely accepted and is going to continue growing. Schools offering HVAC education need to stay on the cutting-edge of what’s possible academically.

“Going online offers a great deal of flexibility,” said Douglas Zentz, associate professor and HVACR department coordinator, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan. “Students can pick and choose when to engage with their studies, and going online allows students a level of flexibility regarding their studies and extra-curricular activities. Active members of the military and those busy with kids and jobs can take our courses. If you live miles away from our campus, you can receive the same education you’d get if you were attending courses in Big Rapids.”

Alongside traditional academic institutions like Ferris State are online HVAC schools. HVACRedu.net was founded in 1998 with the purpose of providing challenging and comprehensive online assessments, reviews, courses, and programs for the HVACR and building-performance industry.

“We have approximately 1,300 hours of content available online at HVACRedu.net,” said Chris Compton, founder and CEO. “We are, more or less, a community college program online. We offer everything from entry-level courses all the way up to sophisticated building automation systems and boilers classes.

“Access to quality information and the educational process is the No. 1 issue for students across the country,” continued Compton. “This is especially true with the existing workforce.”

Compare and Contrast

While both of these schools are uniquely serving the HVAC community, each is targeting students at different abilities. While HVACRedu.net strives to get people started in the industry, Ferris State’s curriculum is designed to further educate those with an already strong knowledge of everything HVAC.

“The degrees at Ferris State are very unique,” said Zentz. “Typical two-year associate’s degrees are offered, and bachelor’s degrees are available, as well.

“A four-year bachelor’s degree program is centered on HVAC and building energy management. We identified a federal grant about 14 years ago that helped us fulfill a nationwide need for people with two-year degrees through trade schools or community colleges who wanted more, but were unsure where to turn next. Our junior- and senior-year classes were transitioned into Web-based courses.”

Students at HVACRedu.net are able to interact with faculty through emails, chatrooms, phone calls, and Web conferencing. Compton said those avenues are not always used as frequently as staff would like, but strategies are constantly being developed for better engagement with the
student body.

And, Compton wants to ensure he has qualified faculty who are worthy of teaching HVAC to the next generation of professionals.

“We are dedicated to staffing certified faculty,” said Compton. “They go through the certification subject matter experts (CSME) educator process. It’s really the only instructional certification that’s out there, so that’s what we do. The biggest issue in the industry is the level of credentialing for the school. Does the person teaching the class really know what they are doing? To us, that’s essential.”

Both Zentz and Compton point out that standardization of curriculum is crucial, so as to ensure that each student who comes through their programs receives the same quality of education.

“We believe the consistency of the educational process is much easier to offer online than face to face,” said Compton. “It is all out there on the record in black and white; there is no gray area with a teacher feeling bad one day and choosing to have a lazy day with no studying or work being done. Our courses are the same every single day.”

Zentz said Ferris works diligently to offer the same instruction online and offline. “There may be some minor changes to certain assignments, but the materials are 95 percent the same,” he said.

Gaining Acceptance

While their makeup may differ, both schools have found extraordinary value in online offerings.

In any capacity, online learning has had to prove its worth and validity in recent years. The sheer number of online options for HVAC education has forced the industry’s hand in this regard.

“In the academic world, there is a stigma attached to online education,” said Compton. “It has largely gone away, but, even 15 years ago, I had people telling me that degrees or certificates from online institutions went to the bottom of the pile for prospective employers. However, a shift is happening. It happened first in the academic world, but now it’s becoming even more widespread.”

Zentz believes online education is on the brink of explosion.

“When you talk to any residential or commercial HVAC service contractor, they all say we don’t have enough skilled people. The thing that limits our growth is our ability to obtain and keep skilled people. Online education will allow more skilled people into the industry. Also, the baby boomer generation is starting to retire and, over the next 12-14 years, as those individuals continue to retire, there will not be enough X- and Y-generation people to fill in those gaps. Combine that with a huge need in the industry, and online education can only continue to grow.”

Though it’s taken a while, Compton said online learning is now well-received.

“Our students have shown a performance level that has drawn the attention of employers. They are now contacting us with requests for quality entry-level technicians.”

The Industry Goes Online

Plenty of other HVAC industry branches implementing online education. The Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI), North American Technician Excellence (NATE), and HVAC Excellence all offer HVAC education online.

“Our Building Science Principles (BSP) certification of knowledge is available online,” said Leslie McDowell, director of communications, BPI. “We call this the first step into the world of home-performance contracting. BPI is known for technical credentials and hands-on training, but this can be done online from the comfort of a home.

“Before we launched the BSP in February 2013, we had received requests for more entry-level credentials that would give them knowledge of the science behind everything,” continued McDowell. “People in HVAC need to know how homes work, but don’t need the diagnostics. This is designed for people working in programs, sales staff, those talking to customers, etc., so customers can better understand what’s going on.”

NATE does not provide its own training online directly, but rather allows manufacturers, distributors, trainers, and others to register their training courses as part of its Recognized Training Provider program in order to connect their training to NATE’s continuing education hour credits. There are hundreds of training providers in NATE’s system, and many offer online courses.

“For NATE-certified technicians and their employers, online courses offer the convenience and flexibility to train on their schedule,” said Valerie Briggs, director of marketing and business development, NATE. “With our new recertification training requirements of eight hours per year for a two-year certification, it is now easier than ever for these online courses to add up quickly.”

Similarly, HVAC Excellence utilizes online resources to reach out and connect with distributors, manufacturers, and students.

“We have groups on LinkedIn where we provide topics of discussion,” said Thomas Tebbe, national program director, HVAC Excellence. “We have constant contact with everyone we deal with online, in some fashion. Also, we provide all necessary information about accreditation, certification, and credentialing.”

Briggs added that as long as there is a need for training, online training will continue to prosper.

Publication date: 2/2/2015

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