BACnet Intl. recently developed The BACnet Institute, an online center for BACnet educational resources that provides an easy path to BACnet information and learning for everyone involved with BACnet systems as well as forums to share knowledge.
The organization also recently merged its BTL Listing and WSPCert Certificate programs under the BACnet Testing Laboratories (BTL) certification program, which provides companies with a certificate of conformance, a BTL listing, and the right to use the BTL mark.
With these major changes underway at BACnet Intl., the organization’s president and managing director, Andy McMillan, recently sat down with The NEWS at the 2017 AHR Expo in Las Vegas to discuss the online center and the program.
The NEWS: How did the idea for The BACnet Institute come about?
McMillan: BACnet Intl. has several objectives and one of them is education. We were looking at how we were approaching education of BACnet and how it needed to be done. Our goal is to make sure the content the community needs is available and accessible. A few years back, we surveyed 10,000 community members and asked them to give us their thoughts on education. We asked them to tell us what they needed, what they were doing at the time, and what was most important to them. Out of that survey came a resounding clarity that there is not enough access to education for BACnet — especially initial education. If you are a developer or a technical person, and you want to go talk to technical people, you can do that. But, if you are a facility manager, and you just want to understand what BACnet is, how it relates to you, and what exactly it means, that can be hard to dive into. So, we wanted to see if we could address that with the BACnet Institute.
We felt having a collaboration of community, dialogue, an easily accessible resource library, forums, and online courses answers a lot of the currently unanswered questions about where to send somebody if they truly want to learn more about BACnet.
The NEWS: How exactly does The BACnet Institute function?
McMillan: The institute itself is a new portal built around a learning management system (LMS). It has three components encompassing information and education. The first component is intended to deliver online self-paced education through interactive courses. The first course is called BACnet Basics and features six lessons. It offers two or three hours of interactive, online education. You are taking quizzes throughout, and, at the end, you have an opportunity to take a mastery test. If you do well enough on the mastery test, you have an opportunity to get a certificate of completion.
The NEWS: What’s the short-term plan?
McMillan: Our intent is to build out the course set and eventually expand it to around a dozen courses. We are currently working on what courses to add and listening to the community to learn what they need and want. The second part of the institute is a resources section, which is a curated library of white papers, articles, videos, and conference presentation materials that are all tagged and filtered. This way you can look at specific topics and sort through which materials are for beginners and which are for experts. It allows you to learn the way you want without having to wade through hundreds of things that do not matter to you. The goal is to have a robust platform for accumulating content that users may want without making it too hard to get to the content that is actually relevant to each user. The third part of The BACnet Institute, along with the courses and information, is the community section. This section includes an “ask the expert” feature that is targeted at end users, facility operators, owner/operators, building engineers, etc. They can ask a question and our panel of experts will answer it. The panel provides input, comes to a consensus answer, and then that answer is posted on the site. For us, it’s important to have a consensus answer instead of seven different answers.
The NEWS: Why was it important to have a structured and formal model for BACnet questions?
McMillan: Having a structured model for community help seems like the right way to provide answers to users. However, there is a different kind of forum in the BACnet Institute for developers who are technical people. We realize that technical people work a little bit differently. Rather than a question-and-answer format, it’s an open forum where anybody can comment on anybody’s post, which encourages collaboration from the community. We don’t believe we need to moderate that forum in such a structured way.
The NEWS: What steps did you take to actually develop the first courses for the program?
McMillan: We got to the first course by having the education committee, which is a dozen volunteers at BACnet Intl., look through what topics different audiences might need to know. They divided the space into different audiences and topics, and the committee then created a matrix of which audiences will most need to learn which topics. We then took our survey data to see which topics to cover first, with BACnet Basics being the obvious choice to start off with. We have two more courses in the works, but we really feel that, from here on out, we will be guided by the people who take the first course. We will send them a follow-up email about the course, asking them how it was, what they liked/disliked, and what they would like to see next. We will take that feedback and move forward. Our goal is to develop the course set and the library with feedback from people who actually use it. We believe it will move quickly because there is a definite need that has been expressed.
The NEWS: While developing the courses, was there a trial-and-error period?
McMillan: The courses are developed by professional instructional designers, so they know how people learn. They take content from the experts, move it to language for the audience, and then figure out how to present that to an audience in an interactive way, so they actually learn it. That’s what makes it a long and expensive process. It was definitely a learning experience for us that we hope will make future course development faster and less expensive.
The challenge now is to get people to understand that this option is now available. The BACnet Institute is launching here [at the 2017 AHR Expo]. We have our own database of 10,000 interested people. We will do some promotion on different websites, and we are talking to people who have an interest in educating an audience, so our goal is to make a compelling case that audiences need to know this and allow it to grow organically.
The NEWS: Are there any similar options already out there for learning about BACnet?
McMillan: The BACnet Basics course is completely new and something that has never been done elsewhere. The curated library’s material largely exists in places, but finding what you want can be challenging, so we think this will be a great way to have access to a large amount of information in one place. The “ask the expert” feature is unique as it allows users to post questions and seek answers, but not any that are reviewed by a panel of experts and then given a consensus answer. We think that will be a major help to users.
The developer forum has been around since the early days of BACnet in a list server at Cornell University (the server is called BACnet-L). It has worked well, but it is a list server, so there is no history. There is no collection of responses to a question. You have to sort of filter everything out. By moving to The BACnet Institute forum model, you can get more structured interaction. Someone who comes in two years from now as a new developer doesn’t have to ask the same questions that have already been asked. That information is all stored and accessible. We expect people who are currently using BACnet-L to come here. We also found someone who archived each BACnet-L post over the past five years, and we have added that archived content to our forum. That way, there is a backlog of answers in there immediately. We also want The BACnet Institute to be a global resource. Content is available in English today, but is capable of being multilingual and will become multilingual when that makes sense. We really think it will become the answer to the question, “Where can I learn more about BACnet, even if I’m not a developer?”
The NEWS: Can you provide details on The BACnet Testing Laboratories certification program?
McMillan: This topic is really of interest to manufacturers. To the users, nothing is changing. For manufacturers, things are changing in a very positive way. In the early days of BACnet testing and performance work, The BACnet Intl. group and its predecessor created the BTL model. The products were tested in accordance with the technical requirements of BACnet and would be formally listed on the BACnet Intl. website.
At the same time, companies in Europe needed the same result, but the nature of the process in Europe required them to do something that was more of an ISO-certificate of conformance. It’s the same type of technical work and the same type of testing, but it was just an additional verification and a document signed off by an appropriate agency, saying it is a certified product. Having both of those things led to two problems. Because there are two processes and they are both run by technical people, there is a pretty natural tendency to diverge. Divergence isn’t good, especially for manufacturers. The other problem from a practical matter is that users might reasonably ask the question, “Which one is better?” Of course, there is no actual answer to that question, but it’s natural to wonder, so we wanted to eliminate those problems. We spent a couple of years bringing all the requirements for formality and reporting that are in the certificate program over into the BTL mark and BTL listing program. As of January, we have integrated the two programs. You can no longer get just a certificate or listing. You apply for BTL certification through the BTL certification program, and you get it all. From a supplier point of view, that means you don’t have to manage two programs or pay two fees. We have lowered the cost, made things simpler, and eliminated any potential for confusion or misunderstanding for suppliers or users.
The NEWS: Was there any benefit to having two separate processes to begin with?
McMillan: Not at all. They each met the needs of their regions, but at the time there were not the resources to figure out how to do both together everywhere. The process took three years because of the difficulty of combining these processes. There are a lot of things that had to be worked out because they were different. But, they were different as they were heavy in detail rather than substance. The substance was largely the same, but the paperwork, forms, beliefs, and processes became different. Now, as BACnet grows, other groups want to be testing organizations. We have created a process by which we recognize testing organizations and maintain them all as being equivalent. It’s a great problem to have with so many interested parties, but it makes the process take time. We have four test organizations now instead of two, and we will likely have five by the end of this year. This BTL certification process has made it easier to justify creating test organizations around the world. The integration has been great for all parties involved. We are excited about the future for both the BACnet Institute and the BTL certification program.
For more information on The BACnet Institute and The BTL certification program visit www.bacnetinternational.org
Publication date: 3/27/2017