Mid-March 2020 marked the start of mandatory cutoffs for large in-person gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, putting a hold on annual solar industry events.
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners’ (NABCEP) Continuing Education Conference was originally scheduled for later that month in St. Charles, Missouri; then it was delayed to July and is now a virtual event being held September 9–24.
“We just pushed it back to July and then when we realized that July wouldn’t work, we could have moved it to August, but people still weren’t comfortable with traveling,” said Sue McKeen, business manager at NABCEP. “We did send out a survey to see what our attendees prefer doing and the majority said they wanted us to go virtual. So, this made it very clear.”
NABCEP has administered credentialed continuing education coursework in the renewable energy industry since 2003. The NABCEP CE Conference is an event previously held over several days where attendees can visit sessions hosted by industry experts and leave with the annual credits necessary to be certified by the organization.
Representatives from renewable energy manufacturers and industry experts conduct sessions, giving attendees direct guidance on installation and operation of their respective company’s products; and the event gives industry members the opportunity to network on a smaller-scale than the product-release-focused Solar Power International (which has also moved online).
The switch from an in-person to a web-based event meant reconceiving how a hands-on, technically focused several days of coursework could be delivered from attendees at their computers. NABCEP CE’s usual 10-hour days of sessions are now spread over many weeks.
“We generally would have 10 concurrent technical sessions going on, so the 10 technical trainers are competing against each other at any given time slot,” said Shawn O’Brien, president and CEO of NABCEP. “We’ve cut that down to only four or five concurrently, so instead of having 40 people in their session, there’s a possibility they could have 150, 200 people in their technical training.”
Usually, by the end of the conference, attendees would have 21 hours of continuing education credits. Now, with an included year-long subscription to NABCEP coursework, they can get up to 106 hours. Most exhibitors from the planned in-person conference have remained on board.
NABCEP CE is being hosted on Instructure’s Canvas platform, web-based learning management software that’s being used by universities for remote learning during the pandemic.
“It gives the trainers a lot of flexibility in terms of branding their own space, adding content, having discussion boards and creating quizzes,” said Dan Pickel, director of certification at NABCEP.
The service has webinar overlays for presentations and integrates with popular web meeting services. Like webinars, sessions can be attended live or a recorded version can be viewed later.
“This is all so new. There are best practices but they’re not all set in stone,” Pickel said. “We want to see what other people are doing that works so that while we’re creating our virtual conference, we’re following those best practices and trying to make good decisions.”
Attendees can still arrange meetings with brands on the “exhibitor’s floor,” which will put them into a video call with the company. Annual events like the Women in Solar celebration will still take place and the Walter Ratterman Award for Creative Community Energy will be given out virtually.
NABCEP is working on creating incentives, or “gamifying,” aspects of the conference, rewarding points for actions like attending sessions and meeting with exhibitors.
“Whatever you are coming into the conference with, we want everybody to feel very comfortable when they log in and go to a session. We want to make it as easy as possible,” McKeen said.
While it is preferred to have the event in-person, O’Brien said the switch to online is informing how NABCEP will organize future conferences.
“Moving forward, there’s a strong possibility, if this goes as well as we’re anticipating it to go, that we’ll have the in-person event but also have a virtual component to it,” O’Brien said. “So, if we’re having it on the East Coast, someone doesn’t have to fly all the way from the West Coast to participate in these technical trainings.”
For more information on NABCEP CE and the organization’s regular programming, visit NABCEP.org.