This paper discusses various national, state, and provincial perspectives on distance education as it pertains to treatment plant operator certification and continuing education. The Association of Boards of Certification, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Environment Federation, the American Water Works Association, and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators provided their perspectives from a national level. State and provincial perspectives were obtained from certification program officials from 39 programs. The national organizations contacted advocate operator education utilizing all means deemed appropriate by individual certification programs to meet the diverse needs of today’s operators, including online distance education courses. They mentioned several advantages to online programs but cautioned potential users to consider the disadvantages as well. Of the 33 certification programs surveyed that require an operator to complete a certain training course or courses prior to becoming certified, 85 percent have approved traditional written correspondence courses for the initial training, but only 58 percent have approved online distance education courses. Eight-six percent of the programs requiring continuing education have approved both traditional and online courses for that purpose. Even though these programs are allowing their operators to utilize online distance education courses, they cited evaluating the plethora of courses now available as their biggest challenge. These programs also listed several advantages and disadvantages of online distance education courses to themselves and the operators. Because most programs surveyed accept distance education courses for initial training and continuing education, one can deduce that the advantages to the programs and the operators outweigh the challenges and disadvantages.
What is distance education? At its most elemental level, distance education is a planned learning experience in which the education provider is in a different geographical location than the student. The main purpose of this paper is to discuss various national, state, and provincial perspectives on distance education as it pertains to water and wastewater treatment plant operator certification and continuing education. National organizations that provided input into this study about distance education include the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the American Water Works Association (AWWA), and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA). State and provincial perspectives were obtained from certification program officials from 39 programs.
Historically, most distance education was accomplished through written correspondence courses. The education provider sent the student material to read. After reading the required material, the student would complete a written assessment and mail it to the education provider. The education provider then scored the assessment and determined whether or not the student passed the course. This type of traditional correspondence course is still being used by operators today. One well-known traditional correspondence course provider in the water and wastewater treatment industry is the Office of Water Programs at the California State University, Sacramento (aka “the Ken Kerri manuals”).
In recent years, distance education has expanded beyond traditional written correspondence courses to include audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, audio/video conferencing, computer-based training, webcasts, asynchronous online courses, and combinations of those formats. There are training modules available for water and wastewater operators utilizing most of the previouslymentioned formats.
One rapidly expanding category of training is online distance education. There are several platforms for online distance education, but one seems to be the most prevalent in regards to operator certification training and continuing education: computer-assisted learning (CAL). In this format, the computer essentially acts as the instructor. When students log on to the website, they receive information from the computer via print, audio, and/or video. In some courses, students receive credit for each page read, audio file heard, and/or video watched. The computer keeps track of time spent in the program and/or components viewed and awards a certificate of completion when the required amount of material has been accessed or the required amount of time has been spent in the course. Some course providers have coupled computer-assisted assessment with the CAL material. In these courses the student is not awarded credit for the course until he or she successfully completes a computer-generated assessment covering the material. For the remainder of this paper, online distance education refers to CAL courses.