Going Green with Online Education

July 01, 2009
July/August 2009
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Some of you may wonder, can online education really prepare individuals for jobs in the building trades or the building performance industry?

Let’s face it—computers have changed our world in a few short years. People are becoming more and more comfortable using computers to search the Internet for news, or for information on sports and the weather. We’re banking and bill paying; shopping on sites like Amazon, eBay, or Craigslist; making travel reservations; seeking medical advice; and conducting job searches. We’re looking up how to do just about anything, from recipes to car repairs to home repairs. In fact, many repair manuals, parts catalogs, installation or assembly instructions, schematics, diagrams, and specifications are available to technicians and professionals online. Our society embraces the Internet, and online learning is part of this movement.

Whether there is one student or a thousand students, online education can be a great asset to an organization experiencing the growing pains of delivering traditional education programs.
Not Your Parent’s Online Education

Some skepticism is understandable. Online education used to be little more than correspondence courses delivered electronically. But that is no longer true. The learning management systems used by online schools and colleges are so friendly—for both students and instructors—that online learning offers a richer exposure to the topics than was possible before. Courses include videos, graphics, charts, tables, animations, simulations, and games impossible to deliver in a standard classroom setting. Courses may be completely self-contained or may align with textbooks or other study guides. Enrolled students are encouraged to research via the Internet to discover current information, issues, events, and trends. Online students are more likely to spend additional time exploring topics without the constraints of scheduled classes. Online courses are more consistent in content and delivery than live classrooms—every time the course is offered to every student, it is the same course. The course does not vary from one instructor to another. Online exams are more consistent and are automatically graded with software that provides accurate and immediate feedback to the student.

So what’s green about online education? The most obvious thing is that it doesn’t require any travel. Students and instructors gather in front of their home or office computers to study and exchange e-mail, instant messages, and phone calls. No driving is necessary, which reduces CO2 emissions. And there’s more green to it than that. There are no buildings to heat, cool, furnish, maintain, landscape, or supervise. And there are no paper handouts, pencils, or pens.
Another benefit of online education is that there is no discrimination in the online learning environment. Students who are capable of participating in online courses are equal members of the learning community, regardless of race, color, religious belief, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or financial or social status. Students with different learning styles can learn at their own pace. The only limit is the student’s motivation and willingness to participate. Online learning environments also engage a variety of personality types. Students who are more self-confident and extroverted do not intimidate students who are shy. Online learning communities are created in the discussions. This gives students an opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with others who may come from any geographic area or demographic, expanding the students’ exposure to diversity.

What They are Saying . . .

Here are a few student testimonials in favor of online education for HVACR and home performance from the programs that I represent, HVACReducation.net and GrEEnCollarEdu.net:

“I’ve been exceedingly pleased with the Principles of Building Science course. You guys have done an amazing job and I am really enjoying the course. It has only boosted my passion for this industry.”

“I have enjoyed the challenge and opportunity to improve my mechanical and electrical knowledge in the field. It has enabled me to advance in my workplace to a position I could not have achieved without the course.”

“Loved that I could take this course on my own screwed-up schedule without threat of missing any material due to unforeseen circumstances.”

“It was great taking this course and being able to apply what I have learned in the field.”
Online learning demands less sacrifice from students and their families than brick-and-mortar education and is more accessible. Online students don’t have to wait in long lines to register or visit with their advisor, or walk through bad neighborhoods or dark streets to get to their cars. They simply send an e-mail or leave a phone message and receive an individualized response. Students have one-on-one access to student support services. Students study in the comfort and safety of their chosen learning environment (at their home, office, job site, or local library, or with their laptop computer literally anywhere). Many online courses allow learners to work at their own pace or to login and participate on a schedule that fits the student’s schedule. Individuals who choose online learning do not have to leave their homes and uproot their families to move near the school that offers their chosen course of study. (See “What They are Saying”.)

One other exciting aspect of online education is its ability to be scaled up or down. Whether there is only one student or a thousand students, online education can be a great asset to an organization experiencing the growing pains of delivering traditional education programs. This is a particularly attractive option in today’s transforming marketplace, and in the home performance field in particular; people seeking access to training and jobs are overwhelming many training programs.

As Always, Buyer Beware

Online learning is not for everyone. Online learners perform better if they have some computer skills, are self-motivated, know how to schedule their time, and take responsibility for their learning experience. The online classroom is not the best place for a student who needs a more structured environment.

And online learning has some limits. When students need to demonstrate the application of the learned theory—for example, in a technical field such as HVAC, remodeling, or building performance—there is only one way: face-to-face. This cannot be achieved online. However, many technical programs offer a blend of online theory and face-to-face application. Students learn the theory portion online and step into the learning lab or the field classroom for the hands-on practicum. Some blended programs are coupled with on-the-job training, apprenticeships, or internships where others provide mentoring. These blended program models bring together the best of both environments for optimum learning.

Traditional academic institutions are accredited for quality assurance. Accreditation of online education is still in its infancy. Students need to beware of advertising claims and seek out reputable organizations. For academic institutions and courses, look for regional accreditation that is current. For practical or technical courses, look for credentials from nationally recognized industry-specific organizations. There are numerous measures of excellence, depending on the content of the course work. There are also a few distance education accreditations that provide an assurance of quality. Students may also want to check for negative reports through the Better Business Bureau before signing a contract.   
Online education for the building trades and the building performance industry is a great way to go green!  

Patricia Leiser is the executive assistant to the CEO of HVACReducation.net and GrEEnCollarEdu.net.
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