Businessman looking through Virtual Reality glasses with EXPERIENCE inscription, new business concept

We have all faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and learned a lot in the process. At least that’s been our experience here at MEMA Technical Education Center.  Like many of the other businesses and schools in the State, on March 16, 2020, our school was hit with a Statewide lock down that we were neither ready for nor prepared for. In fact, up until that point MTEC has always prized itself as being a face-to-face hands-on training for technicians. It’s one of the qualities that sets us apart from other HVAC training programs.

It is for this reason that transitioning into a digital learning program at the flip of a coin was so difficult to do. MTEC was faced with major obstacles. Many of which we have been able to overcome, but not all.


Online Platform

The easy piece of the puzzle was finding a platform to teach. After looking into many platforms, MTEC decided (as many other organizations had done) to give ZOOM a roll, at least for the time being. We ran a Basic Principles and Practices class, which requires 0 hours of lab time. Aside from a few minor hiccups that were anticipated in the very first class, it went great and the students were happy. However, we had one problem. When it came time to test, Bryan had no way of setting students up to test without giving out his proctor number. In the past, the instructor would go around in class and enter his code individually for students.  So even though we ran the class online,  the program still required the instructor to drive to the location of each student and remain present through the testing process.  MTEC has since come up with a new strategy to test by remoting into the student’s computers to enter in the proctor numbers. PERC has worked with us to star out the password so that this would be an option for us. That said, additional administration assistance during the ZOOM classes is needed in order to make it happen successfully.

Lab Time

Perhaps the most obvious of challenges is coming up with a solution for hands-on lab time.  Each module that MTEC offers comes with a curriculum that requires a minimum amount of hands-on training and lab time. Oil requires it in order to test for licensing, Propane doesn’t (but we believe it should!).

Yet, even in the cases where lab time  doesn’t have to be done in order to get licensed, this has never been the MTEC way. We want every student that goes through our program here to first and foremost come out of our school as confident, well-trained technicians ready to be used in the field and second having received the education that they paid for.  This is something that MTEC cannot do without a hands-on program.

Discussion took place. What would the best way of creating a digital program for lab time be? As you can imagine, there is a strong motivation on several accounts to do this. Even before the Corona Virus hit, MTEC has been searching for a way to train technicians or members in more rural parts of the Sate. For some technicians, driving into Brunswick every day is not feasible. For others, the extra expense of lodging was financially not an option.

We talked about using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), but neither was a short term option for digital learning during COVID-19. Both were long term solutions that would take a lot of time, research, and money. We talked about creating a mobile lab where we could travel around to train and offer lab time. However, the cost in conception and salary for the extra travel alone would outweigh the proceeds digging heavily into the budget. And again, the solution is a long term solution.

The hands-on solution is such a big piece of what we do, and it truly is where the technician training happens. Anyone can take the CTEP courses and or take a State License Exam without MTEC, but the one on one hands-on piece you can only get here. That’s what the members and students pay for and what they rely upon.

The following is a list of required lab time:

Oil heat: We have to offer a minimum of 75 hours  of lab time in order for them to fulfil the requirements of the Maine Fuel Board. If they did all digital and no lab time, the hours of apprenticeship before obtaining a journeyman’s license will double (from 1000 to 2000).

Propane: 40+ hours of lab time. If they do not get lab time, they can still get their license from the State, but they will be entering a field having memorized a bunch of codes with 0 troubleshooting and 0 execution . This is very troubling considering the possible dangers of incorrect propane handling.

AC/Refrigeration – In AC/Refrigeration MTEC students get around 25 hours of lab time. Again, there are no regulations in place here and anyone can test and receive their universal 608 license without lab time. However, it’s important to note that they are able to do so without any class time at all.  So, this problem far exceeds that of lab time.

MTEC continues to integrate digital learning techniques into our program. We will be running more classes on ZOOM when we can and getting used to this method. In the case that another round of COVID hits, we want to be prepared to run classes even if at a minimum without lab time. That said, we continue to research methods for a creating a digital equivalent of lab time. Your suggestions are welcome as thinking outside the box on this one is absolutely a necessity.