Training alternatives: Online university-based education in instrumentation & control

Feb. 15, 2018
The case for online university-based education in instrumentation and control.

I have seen engineers and technologists thrown into the world of process instrumentation and control (PIC) with little or no

Bergotech's N.E. (Bill) Battikha

knowledge of this engineering specialty—and they were expected to perform immediately. At best, they may have taken a course in control theory, which is very rarely (if ever) used in a plant environment.

PIC typically represents a substantial cost to an average industrial project. It’s a high-tech discipline critical to the success and survival of a plant, and yet it is typically learned “on the job.” Many people working in the discipline lack the proper training needed to make appropriate decisions. An error could result in a very expensive or hazardous situation.

Many of them don't know the basics. Over the years, PIC personnel have come to me with questions such as, “How does an orifice plate work? With a square root output? Why?” and “How can I describe all this logic? In a logic diagram? What’s that?”

Worse, I have seen so-called experienced PIC personnel facing a ground loop problem because both the transmitter and receiver had their signals grounded. The solution they took? They went back to the vendor of the receiver and asked to have the equipment isolated from ground. In other words, a modification to an electrically-approved off-the-shelf product. The cost of modifying the circuit boards on these fancy receivers and obtaining the required approvals—and there were 20 of them—was astronomical. The experienced personnel and their supervisor had never heard of a loop isolator. Unbelievable, but true.

My examples could go on, filling a few pages. However, I will stop here as the topic of this article is not about listing my complaints. But you can understand what is typically encountered due to lack of knowledge, which is due to the lack of good training.

This is not the fault of the people doing the work. They were never properly trained. The result of this lack of training is poor performance and longer times to correctly implement control systems in a competitive environment squeezed by tight budgets and stiff competition.

There are two main problems facing the need for training: time and money. Time is a problem because organizations operate with a skeleton staff and therefore, it is very hard for a manager to let an employee take time off for training. Money is another problem as budgets are tight, and global competition does not leave much room for “extra” spending on training. In addition to course fees, there is also the cost of traveling and accommodation expenses to a location where face-to-face training is provided.

Besides the time and money issues, many engineering associations have now implemented a requirement for continuing professional development (CPD) for its members. Under such a requirement, members must provide a declaration of competence combined with a reporting of how they are maintaining competence in their discipline. So, adding to the time and money issues, we now have CPD requirements. What can be done?

Compare training solutions

Training is available in different formats, each with its advantages and disadvantages. It can be provided in the classical form of face-to-face in regular classrooms. However, face-to-face teaching is relatively expensive due to the student having to travel to a remote location (where the class is conducted). In addition, the employee is absent from his/her workplace.

A multitude of face-to-face courses are available from equipment vendors and manufacturers, training companies, universities and technical colleges. The majority of them are not in a sequential format to allow a person to start with the basics and move on to more complex topics. In addition, and quite often, these courses are either too theoretical, or are geared for someone who already has a reasonably good basic knowledge of PIC.

Self-teach programs are another format of training, available either from self-teach books or from software loaded onto personal computers, some which are interactive. This solution is probably the lowest in cost. However, without an instructor available to answer questions, it is up to the student to understand the information at hand and, more important, to have the self-discipline to proceed and complete the learning process independently. At the end, self-teach programs do not typically provide proof of successful completion and understanding by the student.

How about those who want to learn about PIC in an organized fashion, in a condensed time frame, from a practical point of view, with limited training funds and without the (almost impossible) absence from work? The solution is instructor-led quality online learning. This approach provides training without the student having to travel, keeping the personnel on site and costs reduced to a relatively affordable minimum.

Online education allows a student to progress at a relatively convenient pace. With good instructional material fit to the course, students learn and complete quizzes and exams to confirm their acquired knowledge. This approach, with an instructor to answer questions, provides an incentive to finish the study program. It is followed by a certificate obtained on successful completion of quizzes and exams, and is relatively low in cost while keeping the student available at work since the online sessions are typically held in the evening.

Instructor-led, university-based

I have been teaching university-based online PIC courses for about eight years. I have learned through trial and error as well as through students’ comments and suggestions that the most effective approach for a quality PIC online course is to present it in three modules spread over a year. Such a course would cover the different facets of PIC from a non-mathematical and practical point of view. The spread over one year allows the students to gradually apply and practice some of the information learned. It also avoids students’ information overload.

Including theory such as Laplace Transform, Bode Plots and the like in a PIC practical course has little value in day-to-day plant operation. And speaking from personal experience, this type of theoretical information would be forgotten shortly after the course is completed.

To the best of my knowledge, such online, instructor-led, university-based PIC training programs are presently being taught in North America by three institutions. All of the three use the same award-winning reference book published by the ISA and titled, “The Condensed Handbook of Measurement and Control.”

In the United States, the course is offered by: Penn State University - Berks (phone# 610-396-6221) and University of Kansas Continuing Education (phone# 1-877-404-5823 or 785-864-5823).

In Canada, the course is offered by: Dalhousie University Continuing Education (phone # 800-565-1179 or 902-494-6079).

These three organizations offer a university certificate that is awarded after the successful completion of the three modules, including all quizzes and final exams. The three modules of these certificate programs amount to approximately 150 classroom hours. The universities recommend that participants attend Modules 1, 2, and 3 in their sequential order, however, some of the students, due to their prior knowledge of PIC, take the modules in a different order and have successfully passed all quizzes and exams.

Pros and cons

I’ve successfully instructed face-to-face PIC courses for more than 10 years in many industrial plants, at ISA functions, and at several North American universities. Then, and due to a substantial drop in student enrollment following the financial problems of 2018-2019, I started online training at two universities. At the beginning, I was hesitant about the potential effectiveness and success of online training. I have now changed my mind. In addition to avoiding the effects of cost and time lost away from the workplace, online training has proven to be effective and practical for the students. A five-fold increase in the number of students occurred with the implementation of the online course compared to the face-to-face it replaced, proving its success and benefits.

Online courses have their limitations. They can replace many face-to-face courses, but not all. For example, online learning can’t provide hands-on training such as control equipment maintenance. Dedicated training facilities provide such training, often at a vendor’s facility.

The main benefits of an on-line university-based and instructor-led certificate program are:

  • Employers benefit from lower employee training costs (which include no travel expenses), as well as no absence from work (since training is provided in non-working hours).
  • Employees acquire quality education and a university certificate, while avoiding travel, and therefore maintaining their work and personal responsibilities and activities.
  • Universities reduce training costs (since there is no need for required training space), and there are no instructor travel and accommodation expenses.

Online PIC training, when accompanied by a good reference book, quality course notes, quizzes, and exams, provides students with the knowledge and confidence needed to grasp this field of technology.

As a final note, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. You'll find it more expensive.

N.E. (Bill) Battikha, PE, president, Bergotech / [email protected] 

About the Author

N.E. (Bill) Battikha, P.E., has more than 40 years of experience in PIC, working mainly in the USA and Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and is a member of the Delaware Association of Professional Engineers. Throughout his career, Bill has gained a lot of experience in management, engineering and training. Bill has generated and conducted training courses for many universities in the USA and Canada, including Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin, Kansas State University, the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University. He co-authored a patent and a commercial software package. He also wrote four books on PIC, all published by the ISA, with the third one (The Condensed Handbook of Measurement and Control) twice awarded the Raymond D. Molloy Award as an ISA best-seller. Bill is the president of Bergotech Inc., a firm specializing in teaching online engineering courses in a variety of disciplines as well as implementing university-based online programs. For more info, or to contact the author, please visit