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Learning on Your Terms

The evolution of the virtual chalkboard has accelerated as demand has increased for the convenient, learn-at-your-own-pace access to continuing education units, new technologies and methods, industry-specific degrees, and more. Online curricula are expanding with developments in all sectors of the electrical industry. There’s always a rush for license renewal coursework and new Code content, such as significant triennial changes to the National Electrical Code (NEC). Green-oriented techniques and alternative-energy creation and distribution also are broadening the development of coursework and tools. Educational programming experts say it’s not just electrical contractors and apprentices pursuing online options. Demand also is increasing for the supplier network that positions the Internet as the ultimate platform for delivering manufacturers’ product training and other complex information.

Growing into its own
According to the United States Distance Learning Association, online education has significantly increased, with more than 96 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities currently offering online learning opportunities. The number of students engaged in online learning is expected to exceed 2.6 million. A recent U.S. Department of Education evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning found that, on average, students using a combination of face-to-face and online learning performed better than those only receiving face-to-face instruction.

The energy industry has quickly connected with online solutions to maintain and attract a technical work force. The Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE), a signature initiative of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), is a national alliance that has expanded beyond standard job training to provide online programs that are contextualized, credit-bearing courses leading to certificates, associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees for industry career paths in electric utilities and nuclear power.

“Unlike what’s available through other online adult education providers, our online education is built by the industry for the industry and is geared specifically for technical careers in the energy industry,” said Christine Carpenter, EPCE director at CAEL.

Representing more than two-thirds of the energy and utility industry, EPCE’s joint efforts develop and sponsor online curriculum with qualified accredited high schools and colleges and universities, such as Bismarck State College, Clemson University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Like many online ventures, EPCE’s success correlates directly to student engagement and highly interactive content that features educational animations, simulations, innovative web labs, discussion forums and threaded dialogue posts.

“At the undergrad level, it’s a little more difficult to make online programs effective, but for practitioners who are trying to add to their skillsets or get new knowledge, I think it’s very effective and can provide instructor feedback,” said Tom Korman, associate professor of construction management at California Polytechnic State University where administrators recently established a master of science (M.S.) degree program in fire protection engineering (FPE) offered both on campus and online.

Additionally, online learning enables the educator to assess student progress in real-time.

“Its diagnostics and other capabilities provide a more efficient, almost programmatic, personalized learning solution that allows for more time to focus on lab and hands-on work versus sitting in a classroom,” Greg Clayton, vice president of the technology professional business unit with Delmar, part of Cengage Learning.

Geographical limitations have always been a driving force behind online education for contractors, said Greg Mankevich, executive director for the National Electrical Contractors Association’s (NECA) Management Education Institute (MEI).

“Our courses are sponsored by chapters, and some geographic areas can’t get enough students to attend a live course,” he said. “Online provides another avenue for that learning.”

Using online resources, MEI has partnered with BlueVolt, a learning and management system, to create and launch several courses, including Contractor 101, which covers the fundamentals of electrical contracting and the organization of contractor business and management operations.

The methodology that Mankevich believes was born out of necessity is gaining momentum, despite an industry dynamic where training is often an afterthought in good economic times and a budget reduction in tough economies.

“ECs can get less expensive online training, and it can be done at their convenience, as opposed to a specific time where you have to be away,” Mankevich said.

Blended learning bridges gaps
Don’t look for online learning to replace traditional bricks and mortar for electricians anytime soon. Developmental costs are expensive, and courses can be tricky to test market.

“If a live seminar doesn’t do well, upfront costs are minor. If online doesn’t do well, you’ve already made a significant investment. The whole idea behind the online situation for us is that it supplements the live courses,” Mankevich said.

Those factors have given rise to the trend of “blended learning.” A hybrid that marries face-to-face instruction with online components, blended learning helps students with content through more than one learning style, said Lisa Bordeaux, BlueVolt director of sales and business development.

“With a blended approach, students are actually more prepared when they come in, and their ability to build on that baseline is significantly improved,” Bordeaux said.

Bordeaux and Mankevich applied the theory with MEI’s basic estimating course using online techniques to condense class instruction by four hours.

“We put together an online introduction covering the Manual of Labor Units. Now everyone starts at the same level knowing background information and definitions going into the live course,” Bordeaux said.
Cengage Learning created a web portal, www.informationdestination.com, to provide blended learning applications and tools specifically for the construction industry.

“The blended learning approach breaches the fear that some educators and industry leaders have about making a big change to online. It’s considered risky to change from a tried-and-true method of education to something that is very different but potentially a lot better.” Clayton said.

Clayton pointed out that an increased emphasis on blended learning is possible partly because of the customer.

“Today’s customers are not the same type of students we saw coming into the industry roughly 20 to 25 years ago. These students were born in the information age, and they’re accustomed to working with technology. It’s not as big of a jump for them as it is for the educators,” he said.

The National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (NJATC) also is recognizing that delivering learning content to electronic devices is second nature to new International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and NECA students.

“We know this is a generation that is growing up with gaming, and they may not even do homework on a laptop or desktop. It might be on their phones,” said Bill Ball, NJATC director of inside curriculum and electronic media for learning management systems (LMS).

Ball and NJATC officials studied available research and identified that blended learning could have significant impact for its nearly 40,000 apprentices in 285 training centers nationwide. In addition to the typical online courses, NJATC LMS will include enhanced interactive exercises, animated real- world training called academies, and various training calendars displaying student schedules, local training events and educational opportunities from training partners, such as Klein Tools, Milwaukee Tools, Thomas & Betts, Fluke Corp. and Lutron.

Traditional classes and hardcopy textbooks are accompanied by the opportunity to do homework online for the first time in five decades. Corporate training partners are helping facilitate the new instructional design that will electronically convert approximately 19,000 questions from the roughly 50 workbooks an apprentice will use in five years.

“Online is going to flatten our world. It will allow apprentices to learn from each other through other efforts like chatworlds, virtual tutoring and epublications,” Ball said, adding that the method will allow students to experience blended learning features with LMSs, including trackable assessments and social learning enhancements.

Other Online and On-Site Training Modules
Contractors can also seek out online training modules from a number of manufacturers and distributors. Here are a couple of examples.

Graybar and Schneider Electric offer online e-learning courses that are available anytime, anywhere. Attendees receive expert instruction, directly from the manufacturer, ensuring accurate, up-to-date materials. Courses are available on electrical distribution equipment, arc flash, NFPA 70E, electrical safety, PLCs, drives, communications, power management and more (http://schneider-electric.syberworks.com/graybar/index.htm).

Another site is https://www.gelearningcentral.com, where users can gain knowledge in several areas. It’s a one-stop shop for professional and technical skills development. Industry professionals can access continuing education courses on-site at the GE Lighting & Electrical Institute, through requested CEU programs, and online. Learning Central offers a wide variety of free e-learning courses that you can take online, including circuit breaker basics, value selling and switchboard basics.

A contractor’s perspective
There’s no argument among online learning providers that blending virtual material with class and lab work that offers live interaction and hands-on training is still needed in construction trades. Wilson Construction Co., an outside line contractor specializing in pole, transmission and switchyard work, partners with BlueVolt to develop employee orientation, wellness and corporate aircraft etiquette training along with energy distribution skills programs.

“You can complete a lot of forklift modules in the online series, but you really need to drive the forklift. We also do poletop rescue training, and you obviously can’t do that completely online,” Wilson said.
Safety content has been a natural fit for the Portland, Ore.-based firm. When company officials determined that half of their recordable safety occurrences were attributed to employees under one year of service, it established a consistent new-hire safety initiative.

“We can see our incident and accident occurrences going down which is a dollar-saver in terms of worker compensation and lost-time days over the last two years,” Wilson said.

Delivery options mushroom
With no one-size-fits-all learning solution, it is anticipated that the use of database-oriented applications will continue to stretch online content delivery.

“The other piece that’s becoming popular with practitioners is the use of online tools and tablet technology on the job site. We’re seeing a new market developing, and it’s starting to mushroom as the hardware makes information more accessible,” Clayton said.

Wilson Construction is exploring the option of supplying foremen with smart phones.

“We’re looking at possibly pushing a safety question of the day to cell phones in the morning as a way to interact and learn daily,” Wilson said.

BlueVolt’s Bordeaux and staff are bullish on game-based and mobile platforms.

“The modality for training is evolving. Learning from other people through some sort of social environment using today’s devices and being able to share your experiences are more technologies that we see on the horizon,” she said.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at mcclung@iowatelecom.net.

Some Online Learning Resources
California Polytechnic State University—fpe.calpoly.edu
Cengage Learning—www.informationdestination.com
EPCE/Council for Adult and Experiential Learning—www.cael.org

About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer

Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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