In a workshop, it’s difficult to ensure that all the students are getting the concepts; there’s not much time for them to practice what is being taught; there is a limited time for questions; and variation in students’ personalities and learning styles means that some students can dominate the discussion. Online, a course is spread out over a number of weeks, and students engage on their own schedule and spend as much time as they need to master the concepts. In addition to the videos created by the instructor, there are supplementary readings from books and the Web, and most importantly, there are homework assignments where the students apply what they have learned, to see if they’ve learned it. An online message board allows each student to post questions or comments at any time, and post their homework solutions so I and others can comment and discuss.
My mental model comparing the workshop format with the online format is that the workshop is a menu, and the online course is a meal. We incorporated a final project in which students are asked to design a zero net energy house, submitting plans and elevations, a wall section, an HVAC plan, R value calculations, and an annual energy model. The calculations are done in a series of simple calculators I put together in Excel. 60% of the students registered for the course have completed this final project, a high number for an online course. It appears that they do more, the more you ask them to do – amazing! And the feedback from the students has been overwhelming – they are so excited to be able to assess how their choices affect performance, with quantitative tools to answer their what-if questions. It’s a “how-to” experience that lifts the student to a significantly higher level of practice.
I’ve found it incredibly satisfying to guide this group of professionals through this course. As you may imagine, I’ve learned a lot through teaching it, too. It was a lot of work to assemble the course – I made twelve hours of videos (narrated slide shows) as the backbone of the course – and then of course there is monitoring the class message board for questions and looking at the homework assignments the students upload. The students get the value of others looking at their solutions and asking questions.
My plan over the next year or so is to add a course on Deep Energy Retrofits; Mechanical Systems for Low Load Buildings; and Fundamentals of Solar Energy. I'm also trying to recruit other instructors who are truly masters in their fields to join me.
I'd like to list the graduates of this first course (those who finished all the homework including the final project - quite a few other folks completed everything except the final project):