EPA casts a web of training
When the Environmental Protection Agency set forth new requirements for storm water management in 2003, many communities looked to the agency for guidance. They found it on the Web.
The new rules affected 5,000 communities nationwide, said Nikos Singelis, senior program analyst at EPA's Office of Wastewater Management.
EPA officials started traveling around the country doing two-day workshops.
People in more remote communities would also have to do some traveling to get to the workshops. It was time-consuming and expensive, especially for smaller municipalities, Singelis said.
The agency began exploring the idea of Webcasts as a way to offer training to far-flung communities. The Office of Wastewater Management launched its first Webcast March 16, 2006.
Attendees need a computer 'with a relatively speedy connection and headsets of some kind,' Singelis said. 'You don't even need a phone.' The instructors, however, are patched in through a phone.
Webcasting provided EPA with a way to be more interactive with its audience, taking and answering questions, Singelis said. 'Just giving them a thick guidance document doesn't allow for that.'
The agency hasn't documented the savings from its Webcasting program, but 'you could easily imagine that the savings are pretty substantial' in travel costs and staff time, Singelis said.
EPA averages about 1,400 participants per Webcast, although that number has been as high as 5,000.
But with such a large group, the give-and-take that would be found in a classroom setting is limited. 'We build in three or four or five question breaks,' Singelis said. The audience types in questions and the presenters try to answer about six questions during each break.
Webcasting also lets the agency poll the audience. They respond to a series of questions, and the Webcast can instantly show a graph of their responses.
The Webcasts are archived at www.epa.gov/npdes/training so people can go back and listen to them again if they wish. The Webcasts can also be downloaded onto an iPod or other MP3 player.
EPA does a survey at the end of the Webcast, 'a customer satisfaction kind of thing,' Singelis said. One of the questions asks if the Webcast was as good as or better than a live training event.
About 90 percent of the audience says that the Webcast is as good as live training, he said.
'I don't think it replaces live training events,' Singelis said. 'But I think it's a very good tool for reaching out to people, particularly audiences such as local governments, where it's hard to get out and talk to them face to face.'