Saturday, July 4, 2009

Going Green with Online Education

How can online education REALLY prepare individuals for jobs in the building trades or the building performance industry?Don’t they need to have lab work or hands on experience too? Here are some answers!

Let’s face it; computers have changed our world in a few short years. People are becoming more and more comfortable using computers for searching the internet for information like news, sports, and weather. We’re banking and bill paying, shopping on sites like Amazon, E-bay 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. We’re also keeping in touch with friends, family, and business associates through emails, e-cards, instant messaging, and the latest innovation social networking. 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. Online education is an outstanding tool that better prepares individuals for real working environments and the use of technology.

Online Education used to be little more than correspondence courses delivered electronically. But, that is no longer true! The learning management systems used by colleges, universities, and private schools is so friendly for the students and the instructors that online learning offers a richer exposure to the topics than ever before imagined. Courses are written and taught by enthusiastic experts on the topic, not just taught by a faculty member who is on staff. 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(s) 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. Test scores also contribute to the student’s final grade in the course without the element of instructor error or favoritism, providing unbiased immediate results.

So what’s GREEN about online education? The most obvious is the lack of travel. Students and instructors gather in front of their home or office computers or laptops to study, exchange emails, instant messages, and phone calls. There is no driving necessary which reduces emissions. And there’s more to the energy and resource savings. There are no buildings to heat, cool, furnish, maintain, landscape, or supervise. And there are no paper handouts, pencils, or pens, typically. Online education is truly the best practice in green education.

Another benefit is due to some level of inherent anonymity, 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 beliefs, 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 participation. Online learning environments also engage all personality types equally. Students who are usually shy or overly self-confident may participate at equal levels without fear. There are no bullies. Online learning communities are created in the discussions with an opportunity for students to exchange thoughts and ideas with others who may come from ANY geographic area, climate zone, or demographic category, expanding the student’s exposure to diversity.

Online education is also more inclusive and student friendly than regular classroom learning environments. 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 email 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, work, library, or with their laptop computer literally anywhere). Without all the distractions of a classroom environment, students focus their attention on learning. 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 uproot their homes and families to move near the college or school that offers their chosen course of study. They can keep their homes, families, and jobs; and their children can continue their school activities. Online learning demands less sacrifice from students and their families and is more accessible.

Having addressed a number of advantages for students, I need to mention that 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.

Online learning has some limits, much like a face-to-face classroom. When students need to demonstrate the application of the learned theory, for example in a career that is practical or technical in nature (such as HVAC, remodeling, or building performance), there is only one way—face-to-face. This cannot be achieved online. However, don’t be discouraged. Many technical programs offer a blended program of online theory and face-to-face application. Students learn the academic/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, like colleges and universities, are commonly accredited as a measure of quality. However, quality assurance via accreditation of online educational institutions is still in its infancy. Consumers need to beware and seek out reputable educational 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 coursework. There are also a few distance education accreditations that provide an assurance of quality. Consumers may also want to check for negative reports through the Better Business Bureau before signing a contract. Once you have a quality online educational experience, it’s hard to go back to a classroom.

· “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.” Anthony
· “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.” Charles
· “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.”

One other exciting aspect about 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 any organization experiencing the growing pains of delivering traditional education programs. This is a particularly attractive option in today’s marketplace where programs are being overwhelmed by those seeking access to education.

Online education for the building trades and the building performance industry is a great way to go GREEN!

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