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By Howard Birnberg

 Isn’t technology wonderful? Well, not always, but it does provide project managers with an opportunity to learn, enhance skills, meet continuing education licensing requirements, validate their role/skills as project managers, and meet many other needs. And, much of this can be acquired without leaving your own office or home. Online learning in its many forms can be extremely beneficial to project managers, limit the impact on their billable time, reduce the burden on their already overloaded schedules, and can be very cost effective.

Webinars

Webinars are offered by many providers on a huge range of topics. For example, both the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) provide webinars ranging from detailed technical subjects to project management topics. Typically 60 to 90 minutes long, they offer webinars nearly every week. Registration fees are often paid based on a “site” and/or the number of people signed up at a site and range from $100 to several hundred dollars.

ACEC and ASCE pay their webinar speakers a reasonable honorarium and, as a result, offer very high-quality presentations. Other organizations such as the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) do not pay speakers. It has been my experience that most knowledgeable and recognized presenters expect to be paid.

Webinars are also available from organizations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI), from building product manufacturers, from software producers, through university extension programs, and from many others. Unfortunately, many webinars are generic in nature and are not specific to the construction industry and to engineers/architects in particular. While generic programs may be of great benefit in specific situations, they are often not sufficiently targeted to meet engineering or architectural project managers’ needs.

Well-prepared and delivered webinars offer the great benefits of learning without the time burden and expense of leaving your office. Project managers and other professionals often like the “bite-sized” content delivered in the 60 to 90 minutes, the timing of webinars during lunch periods (depends on your time zone, of course), and the reduced cost compared  with attending other types of programs (no travel costs, lodging, meals, etc.)

However, there are, some negatives to webinars. The face-to-face exchange of information and views obtained at traditional luncheon programs, seminars, workshops, lectures, etc. is difficult or impossible with webinars, even with conferencing capabilities such as Skype.

I regularly serve as a webinar presenter for several construction industry professional organizations. As a presenter, I miss the audience feedback and interaction. My presentations and the content delivered in front of a live audience often evolves during the program based upon the questions and reactions of those attending. I find this flexibility lacking during webinars as I must stick to a script.

Online courses

As is true of webinars, there are numerous providers of online courses. Some are simply expanded webinars; others are fully developed professional development courses offered by well-known universities. Some of the professional societies either currently sponsor or are developing multi-week courses.

For example, ACEC offers a nine-week project management course called “Laying the Foundation for Superior Project Managers” (contact Andrew Fort, ACEC, 202-347-7474, afort@acec.org for information). The course offers PDHs as required for continuing education hours for engineering licensing renewals in most states. The registration fee is about $1,000 — lower than many other online courses and much more modest than charged for university for-credit courses.

Online university extension courses typically do not offer credit toward a degree; however, many apply toward a university-offered certificate program. A few years ago, I conducted a project management online course at Michigan State University (MSU) as part of a certificate program offered to professionals through the College of Human Ecology. Unfortunately, the certificate program was terminated due to a reorganization of the MSU colleges. Professionals who were part of the way through the program had no recourse for completing their certificate.

There are some drawbacks to online courses. The registration cost is much higher than webinars and the time commitment greater. The opportunity to mingle and exchange experiences, opinions, and information with classmates is more limited than with in-person classes. A well-developed and structured online course should include some opportunities to work as a group (through email, telephone, etc.), incorporate case studies to encourage the exchange of information, provide a set time to communicate with the instructor, offer prerecorded material delivered by the instructor, and include an extensive bibliography.

Other considerations

For engineers and architects living or working in more remote locations, on long-term assignment to jobsites or client offices, or seeking specialized training and education, webinars or online courses may be the only viable alternative. For young professionals, online programs may provide access to information not otherwise available. With online training, design firms can offer staff a valuable benefit at a reasonable cost without undue burden on billable time.


Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers (www.apminfo.com) and lead consultant for the APM subsidiary, Project Management Consultants. He may be reached at 312-664-2300 or hbirnberg@gmail.com.

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