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Online vs. Classroom vs. Hands-on Solar Training

Posted by: april
July 2, 2010

Liz MerryBy Liz Merry

Originally published by Solar Today "Ask Ms. Liz" Columnist, republished by Renewable Energy World:

People learn differently. You may be a great book learner, while I have to touch and move something around to get the book information to make sense to me. Or perhaps having an instructor present the book information through lectures and slides is most effective for you. Or you might prefer an even balance between all three - reading, in-person instruction and hands-on training. 

Call me technically challenged, but it turns out I am in this last category. I don't fully grasp technical information until I've read about it, had it explained in person and then had a chance to practice with the equipment (or software) involved. Maybe that's why I was a philosophy major in college.

It is a big commitment to complete all three types of instruction on the single subject of photovoltaic technology. Maybe you feel confident using only one primary mode of instruction. Now that I've tried all three methods with one of the best PV training schools in the country (Solar Energy International, or SEI), here are some pros and cons for each:

Online Learning
With online classes, you get graphics, lots of text, interactive learning tools (sometimes) and regular feedback. I like that, in the online course, you have exercises, quizzes and tests to help you reaffirm and confirm you really understand the material. These techniques aren't always available in a classroom or hands-on course.

The potential downside of repetitive feedback activities is that if you are good at test-taking and don't watch yourself, you will breeze through the course thinking you've learned something when, really, you've simply answered the exams correctly.

For online courses, it's up to the students to self-monitor their understanding of the material and not just complete the schoolwork.

Other benefits of online education: being able to learn at your own pace, access to an instructor and other students (at least through a discussion forum) and, of course, the convenience of studying in your own home in your pajamas.

Online courses lend themselves to using the internet in real-time to do additional research and/or shed light on a particular problem. There is no cheating in online education, as you only cheat yourself if you don't learn, so having the internet available as your universal library during study time seemed very valuable.

My experience with an SEI online solar design course was very good, but I didn't end the course confident that I could buy all the system parts and then explain how they go together. It was an excellent conceptual review.

Classroom Learning
As an instructor, I like to think that classroom learning is the ideal method. You have a textbook for background information, lecture slides to frame the concepts and highlight main points and (hopefully) a good instructor who conveys the information in an intuitive and entertaining manner.

In a classroom setting, you benefit greatly from the other students. A good instructor will pace the class and recruit participation, balancing students sharing their knowledge with each other and having their own questions answered. This is easier to achieve in small- to medium-sized classes (10-20 students).

The downsides of classroom learning include the time constraints and having to travel. You usually have a limited time to complete the reading and homework, and if you fall behind during the course, you may become frustrated with the topic itself, as well as the course you were taking. Also, one-week courses don't allow enough time for you to process and re-confirm the information. You may find that a few weeks after a classroom course, you understand the material much less than you thought you did just after the course ended.

Hands-On Training
The benefits of hands-on training can't be overstated for anyone wanting to work in the solar industry. This is a construction-based technology, and most people don't have first-hand experience with construction. Getting your hands busy with wiring, bolting, bending and clipping is highly satisfying after you've taken the time to book-learn how the equipment works. And your completion of such training demonstrates to your potential employers (and to yourself) that you are committed to this business.

The problem with hands-on training is that it is hard to find - and even harder to find from experienced installers who are also good instructors. A good hands-on instructor won't just demonstrate every skill and then direct every action. After ensuring everyone is clear about safety and the general objective for the lesson, an experienced instructor will give students the opportunity to practice teamwork while tackling design and mechanical challenges. A good instructor will encourage students to practice each of the skills involved instead of just the tasks in their comfort zone.

One of the best things about my hands-on training class as SEI in Paonia, Colo., was that I made mistakes. Not big or dangerous ones - but simple things that really helped me learn.

So if you're serious about solar, a hands-on training component should definitely be included in your PV training plans. It really sheds daylight on the online and classroom-based information (pun intended).

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