Online training requires tools, accessories

What is needed in the way of equipment to successfully take advantage of instruction for contractors over the Internet.

While most of us like interacting with the people we meet in a live classroom, the cost in time and travel to attend on-site classes becomes a hindrance for many. Technicians that are accustomed to an active day in the field can find it difficult to sit quietly for hours on end, listening to an instructor.

Most speakers who have conducted seminars for contractors have seen members of their audience nodding off or fighting to keep their eyes open. It is not that the subject is boring or that the instructor's delivery is less than engaging, it is the lack of activity. These are people who are on the move all day long, working with their hands. Sitting quietly in a chair is something they do at the end of the day to relax.

Whether it is lack of time and money, or the difficulty of sitting through a day of instruction, there is an alternative. That alternative has been made possible by computers and the Internet. Individuals can now receive training at their own pace, in bite-size chunks, when it is convenient and without the cost of travel.

My father used to say, “Always use the right tool for the right job; it will make things go a lot easier and result in a better finished product.”

Just the other day, my son-in-law decided to paint his second-story deck. I ran across an electric spray gun supposedly designed for deck painting. It was marked down from $69.95 to one dollar at Home Depot. I bought three and gave one to my son-in-law. After a full day of fighting with the cheap sprayer as it sputtered, spit and quit over and over again, he finally borrowed his neighbor's compressor-driven spray gun set. He did more in an hour than he had all day with the bargain sprayer.

The same principle applies to Internet training. If you don't have the proper equipment, you are likely to become frustrated and give up on a technology that can provide you with a wealth of opportunity. Investing in the proper tools is always a good idea. They don't have to be the most expensive, but they do have to fit the job. Bargain basement tools are usually cheap for a reason. On the other hand, you don't need professional grade computer equipment to have a highly successful Internet training experience either.

Let's look at what is needed in the way of equipment to successfully take advantage of what is available over the Internet. First is the computer. Almost any computer will do that is less than five years old, as long as it has Internet capabilities. The speed at which the computer can process information is pretty much limited by how fast data can travel over the Internet. Older computers with slow processing speeds may lag slightly, but can get the job done. Make sure it comes equipped for the Internet. If it doesn't, you may have to purchase a special Internet card or adapter.

On the other end of the spectrum are the new notebook computers, palm computers and even small portable devices like Blackberrys and I-phones. Most of theses are Internet ready. Given the proper Internet connection, you can receive your online training in the field or on the road, but be prepared to deal with a very small screen.

A headphone is a good item to have. It doesn't have to be expensive or even a full headset. Ear buds can work just fine in many cases. Headphones make listening easier and you are less likely to be distracted by other things. Some online classes are interactive and allow you to actually talk over your computer (VOIP - Voice Over Internet Protocol). For that you will need a microphone. If there is one built into your computer you could use it, but it is best to use a headset with a built in microphone. This will eliminate annoying feedback that often occurs when using the computer microphone. If your computer is equipped with Bluetooth capabilities, you could use the wireless Bluetooth headset you use with your cell phone.

An emerging technology allows instructors and students to see each other via Web cams. There is no doubt that this media will continue to grow. Many new computers have a Web cam built in. Web cams that plug into your computer are also available at very reasonable prices. With this technology, instructors and students can see and talk to each other as well as view the presentation.

Next to an adequate computer, the Internet connection speed is the most important required item. It doesn't matter how fast your computer is, if you are still using dial-up, your Internet training experience is likely to be disappointing.

There are two major entities involved in getting an Internet connection. First is the company that provides the actual connection. This could be the phone, cable, satellite or cell phone company. They provide the electrical connection between your computer and the Internet. They get you “plugged in,” so to speak.

The second is the service provider. The service provider has the equipment and software that allows your computer to talk to others over the Internet. Once you are plugged in to the network, the service provider connects your computer to the Internet. They also provide other services like e-mail and web hosting. Often the connection provider and the service provider are one in the same, but you don't have to accept both services. You can elect to use a different service provider, but keep the connection if you feel more comfortable that way.

Speed is the name of the game. How fast can your connection receive and send information? Phone companies offer a wide range of speeds. Most can provide, at minimum, a dial-up modem connection. This connection uses your existing phone line and returns the slowest connection speed. It also ties up your phone line while you are on the Internet, so unless you have a dedicated phone line for your Internet connection, you will have to jockey between phone use and computer use. There was a time when dial-up was the only option. Dial-up is still the only option available in many areas, but faster connection alternatives are rapidly becoming available.

Just about any connection other than dial-up is referred to as high-speed Internet or Broadband. You will find that many online training programs recommend or require high-speed Internet connections. DSL is another form of connection that is available over the phone lines in many areas and is considered high-speed. DSL can be a hundred times faster than dial-up and does not interfere with the phone. You can be online (on the Internet) and on the phone at the same time. Within the DSL service you can order many different speeds. For most training needs, the lowest DSL speed is adequate. As you increase the speed, pictures and Web sites appear faster on your screen. Interaction becomes quicker and file transfers speed up.

Speed of information over the Internet is measured in bits per second: “k” represents a thousand bits and “m” represents a million bits. A typical dial-up runs at 56 kbs (56 thousand bites per second), often referred to as 56k. DSL may run 768 kbs or 1.0 mbs (million bites per second), often referred to as 1 meg (megabit). Much higher speeds are also available. As you can see, DSL is significantly faster than dial-up.

If your phone company does not offer DSL or you are looking for high-speed alternatives, some TV cable companies provide Internet connections. They often provide faster speeds than DSL. If neither of these options is available, check into satellite service. This service requires a small dish antenna to be mounted on the outside of your building.

So, with a good Internet connection and a computer, you will be equipped to take full advantage of the boundless educational opportunities found on the Internet. In future articles, we will discuss the various forms of online training, how to find them and how to interact with them.

Lawrence Drake is president of Teal Intl. Corp., which hosts www.heatlibrary.com, a Web site that gathers digital training materials from all across the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, refrigeration and plumbing fields, and makes it available to organizations and individuals. He can be contacted at ldrake@tealinternational.com or 970/774-6568.