Interview - November 2002
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EMAIL INTERVIEW  Tom Kenna & Ken Sinclair

Tom KennaTom Kenna is currently the Director, TAC Learning Americas, the product education activity of TAC Americas, Inc. He is a mechanical engineer who is experienced as a facility operation, maintenance, and design engineer, as well as a professional educator.

His educational experience spans more than two decades, teaching primarily in the fields of building automation controls, and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning applications. He has authored both live instruction and computer-based training materials, and teaches in both TAC and industry forums in these topic areas.

Thomas M. Kenna, P.E., Director, TAC Learning Americas

Web vs Face-to-Face Education

Sinclair:  Tell me about your experience in education.

Kenna:  I have been involved in professional education for the last 22 years, teaching facility engineers and operators about HVAC systems and controls. I've been in the facilities business almost 30 years and I've been a full-time educator for the last eight years. I also am a registered professional engineer. 

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Sinclair:  You must have seen technical education change in that time.

Kenna:  The fundamentals of education have not changed that much, but the tools we use have. In particular, the delivery method has changed very significantly, especially with the advent of the web and other digital means. By the way, most educator's refer to web-based training as "distance learning", and face-to-face education, as you have called it, as live, or instructor-based education. 

Sinclair:  What are the fundamentals? 

Kenna:  Education in the business world is about facilitating performance improvement. Fundamentally, effective business education must be targeted at creating competencies in specific tasks that we expect ourselves or our team members to be able to do to meet organizational objectives.

Good business education is based on what many people call gap analysis. We identify the tasks people perform in their business, identify what they already know, and then teach them the content they need to fill the gap. Although there are many tools and strategies to do this today, the basic process has been the same for a long time. 

Sinclair:  Have the new tools and strategies of education improved on this? 

Kenna:  In many cases, yes. Education and training requirements that are primarily software based can be done very well in a distance learning environment. In fact, the distance learning environment or purely computer-based training environment is in many ways superior to live instruction. For example, there are several sources via the Web that provide excellent interactive education experiences that also serve as searchable reference resources. So, instead of going to a one-shot seminar, a student can complete a distance learning course, and then refer to it as often as he or she needs to in the future. If the course is online, then the vendor may even make updates available to former students for a small subscription fee.

As you might expect, there are instances that live education is the preferred delivery medium. For example, many systems I deal with today require a blend of skills that require not only pure application software skills, but also the ability to make software interact with a physical environment such as building controls, lighting, etc. So while our students can use distance learning products to prepare for a portion of their job-related tasks, there is still no substitute for supervised live exercises in applying the combined software and physical products, as they would be applied in the real world. 

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Sinclair:  How else have these developments changed things?

Kenna:  These developments have actually made education better by giving us additional tools. But just like any other tool in your toolbox, it is important to remember that a new tool may be a complement for another rather than a replacement. Distance learning vehicles such as web-based education offer some exciting opportunities in getting the word out quickly in a corporate environment.

We have found these vehicles cannot provide certain live instruction benefits as I noted previously nor can they provide the networking experience that can be experienced in a well conducted class or seminar. The higher the level of educational objective into the realm of application, rather than just knowledge or comprehension of book learned facts, the more beneficial live instruction and student interaction are to the learning experience. 

Sinclair:  Can't these be done online, with chat type systems? 

Kenna:  I use chat systems all the time and they are great, but in the circumstances I mentioned they are not a replacement for human interaction and contact. They are however complementary to relationships and a great way to enhance online learning. 

Sinclair:  But the cost benefits of online courses are so overwhelming.

Kenna:  Yes they are. For material that can be delivered online you can't beat the cost and more importantly to some people, the convenience. The cost benefits however are only there if you have a very substantial audience. For example, an online course that teaches how to use a word processing software package has a huge potential audience. The vendor can invest a significant amount of funds to make that course very good and very interactive. Since the audience is so large, the vendor's investment is recouped at a very low unit cost, and the customer sees a great benefit-cost ratio. Product application education in my industry typically does not have such a large audience base, so it is considerably more challenging to develop a custom distance learning package at a reasonable cost benefit ratio for our students. What we do is take a combined approach, relying on distance learning vehicles for those subjects that our students need and are generally available in some web-based or computer-based education product produced by others. We then add custom, live instruction that specifically applies to the application of the solutions that we offer. 

Sinclair:  How can people justify face to face, the travel and costs associated? 

Kenna:  Again, it's really a case of choosing the right tool for the job. When you look at it that way it's often more expensive to not travel because your costs will be higher by attempting to use the wrong educational tool.

Remember, there are subjects that either are not conducive to distance learning, or are too expensive to produce for the distance learning environment. In these circumstances there is a little alternative to jumping on a plane. Much of this type of education will be specific to applying a manufacturer's product line or technology. 

Accepting this approach as our technical education environment, it is also important to remember the networking benefit a gathering such as a class or seminar can provide. An industry is basically a collection of companies and thus a collection of people. It is people and the education of them to a common goal that makes an industry tick. An industry needs to meet, debate, chat, network, socialize and do all of those soft things that we need as human beings. Industry gatherings that offer education content are great ways to combine skill and knowledge development with furthering business and commercial objectives, not to mention having a little fun. 

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Sinclair:  So you support using both online and face-to-face. 

Kenna:  Absolutely, they are complementary. Use them like we use tools in our toolbox; select the best tool for the job. You can hammer a nail in the wall with a screwdriver if you want, but I think we all know better.

Sinclair:  What events would you think warrant making an effort to attend?

Kenna:  Aside from specific manufacturer education classes, you should focus on events that are at the center of the industries that you work in. 

If you are into all of the aspects of HVAC then ASHRAE/AHR, is a must, especially the technical sessions and seminars that are offered. If you are very serious about security, go to ASIS or ISC depending on if you are end-user or dealer. 

If controls are a key part of your business, I understand the upcoming BuilConn forum promises to be a good place to go for all of the low voltage electronic systems found in buildings as well as integration. BuilConn is also a great place to learn about the impact of IT in our industry. 

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