Water Environment Federation (WEF)

Distance Education: Past, Present, and Future

Alternative training technologies are being evaluated with increasing interest in distance education and online training. Evaluations show the benefit of distance education because of limited staffing, shrinking budget dollars for travel to short schools and conferences, and the convenience, availability, and quality of online training selections. In many industries today, distance education has become the staple for training new employees and management trainees. The water and wastewater treatment plant operations field is beginning to evaluate these alternatives, as the cost of technology is more affordable and the availability of this type of training is becoming more widespread. The following review of historical training will provide an introduction to this presentation, followed by a study of current practices and suggestions for future improvements in operator training.

This presentation will include steps to evaluate and implement an online training program for water and wastewater treatment plant operators. Included are planning parameters, program design, software selections, server and system requirements, an evaluation of the efficacy of online versus classroom training, drawbacks and problem solutions, and the compatibility of Learning Management Systems (LMS).

I will provide a comparative study of four leading online providers within the water and wastewater field. The study will include a comparison of online to classroom, pro’s and con’s, cost, and benefits. In addition to the provider comparison, the review includes comments and suggestions from operators, state administrators, utility managers, and training coordinators to provide an overview of the transfer of knowledge. The discussion of the challenges facing online training includes problems of standardization of LMS, issues in course development, and the development of systems for tracking and monitoring students’ performance. As continuing education programs continue to evolve, questions for these challenges include how the training is accomplished, how well the training is retained, and what tools are utilized in training.

Many times we look at education and training without really understanding the benefits associated with the requirements. Why did it start? When did it start? Why is it important? Is training a benefit or a burden to operators?

Where did Operator Training begin? Pioneers of training included Dr. John Austin of Clemson University, Dr. Ken Kerri of California State University-Sacramento, Dr. Bill Engel of the University of Florida’s TREEO Center, Ken Hay of the USEPA, and the National Environmental Safety and Health Training Association, formerly known as the National Environmental Training Association (NETA). The awareness of our environment, actions to begin cleaning it up, and the initial wastewater construction grant program began during the Nixon Administration in the late 1960’s. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, formerly a division of the Department of Interior housed as the Division of Water Quality, was formed as an executive agency in 1970.

In the early 1970’s, Congress and the Nixon Administration awarded millions of dollars of funding through the USEPA to construct wastewater treatment plants to begin the clean up of our waterways and environment. As these facilities were under construction, the thought of who will operate these facilities, change the chlorine cylinder, and record the flows emerged as a challenge. Ken Hay of the USEPA undertook the task to create a plan to train operators. His discussions of whether to utilize university instructors or experienced operators to become instructors were the basis of the training programs. The evaluations of theoretical vs. practical training became a main focus of development as Hay laid out the four key steps for Operator Training the Need-to-Know Criteria, namely, Must to Know, Should to Know, Nice to Know, and Related Information.

The 1977 Clean Water Act gave Hay the funding to develop the Need-to-Know criteria through the development of State training centers and training manuals. Ken Kerri created the Instructor’s Manual, which later was revised and organized as a correspondence course. The approach that Hay and Kerri took was to “keep it simple” and pinpoint the Need-to-Know criteria that operators across the country would understand and utilize. In 1972, the USEPA developed the first technical manuals that are the foundation of today’s start-up manuals, O & M manuals, and procedures for staffing and certification of treatment plants. These manuals are referred to as MO # 1 through MO # 8. They were perceived to be technically orientated and related to the engineering and design facets, rather than the fundamental and operational aspects of training. As an alternative,Ken Kerri created the California State University- Sacramento correspondence courses which were originally funded by USEPA and written for operators to provide a practical approach to operating wastewater treatment plants. In the 1980’s Ken Kerri developed drinking water manuals that mirrored his original work with Hay of the USEPA.

Ken Kerri received his doctorate degree from Oregon State in 1965 in Sanitary Engineering and has been referred to as the “father of the water and wastewater correspondence courses”. Dr. Kerri began his career in water and wastewater treatment in 1956, working for the U.S. Public Health Service as an assistant Sanitary Engineer. A true friend to the operating community, he has developed and administered training programs for over forty years, and published numerous books, presentations, and programs.

Prior to the development of the Sacramento courses, the University of Arizona and Clemson University developed correspondence manuals in the late 1960’s. In addition, Texas and New York State established the first Operator Training Short Schools and created training manuals in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As the USEPA funded State training centers, the Need-to-Know criteria were developed for:

  • Standardized criteria
  • Pollution Abatement Technology
  • Hands-on training
  • On-the-job training

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