I have worked in the electrical industry for nearly 15 years and I never could have imagined being in the position that we have all been thrown into. During my time in the electrical industry I have worked in many capacities; from maintenance and repair technician, project management for critical system upgrades, a technical instructor, curriculum developer, and now playing a key role for a private training company whose business foundation was based on face-to-face safety and hands-on training. In February, I was promoted to Manager of Content & Delivery at AVO Training Institute with a big agenda of my own that I was excited to get started on. Bringing our lab equipment up to par with industry standards, refreshing our curriculum, updating our delivery methods, creating classroom environments that are interactive from floor to ceiling, the list goes on and on. Also, a milestone plan was to develop a learning delivery offering where the instructor would be remote from the learners and provide the training through a virtual training platform. I had no idea that milestone would have to be streamlined in order to maintain a presence for our customers. The world’s population has faced adversity in many different ways as well as capacities and the current situation has done quite the number on how every person has had to make some form of adaptation to how they conduct their daily lives both professionally as well as personally. What this article is going to focus on is what to expect while attending virtual training courses that are delivered online and the benefits and challenges of virtual learning and also includes common asked questions and information to answer them as best as possible.
Education systems from Pre-K to the University level, virtual online training grew rapidly in order to deliver learning opportunities to their attendants and technical trades are no exception. Virtual online training permits the learner to have as close to the same experience as they would in a physical classroom; the majority, if not all, of the information is delivered live by an instructor and not a prerecorded session. Attendants have the ability to ask questions to obtain greater understanding of the topic or to clarify an area they may not feel they had fully grasped. Most importantly, attendants are able to discuss past experiences and share those with their fellow students which is vital for supporting community in the learning environment. How can this be done? Virtual training platforms offer chat windows and the ability to turn on microphones and webcams that can be used in order for the attendant to interact with the instructor and other attendants. Sounds good right? The sales pitch is easy until you get into an environment that you have never been exposed to. Even the newest aged technicians are used to face-to-face interaction that we have all grown accustomed to inside of a classroom; while attending a virtual online class, it is common that the learner is alone and that can dampen the learning experience. How can we fix this? The instructor is responsible for driving interaction while delivering the content and the attendant is responsible for interacting. What this means is that the instructor has different methods available to promote interaction with and from the attendants, but it is truly up to the attendant investing in the interaction. Understanding that remote learning differs from in person is perhaps the best first step, the second step would be to dive in and open up yourself to the new experience. The first time I taught a virtual online course, I had just over 20 attendants in the session. I explained the importance of their interaction for their and my own experience and without their interaction, I wouldn’t be able to identify if adjustments needed to be made in order for learning to be achieved. Because of their willingness, the objectives were accomplished and we even had fun while covering the safety information. If you find yourself attending a virtual online session, I encourage you to open yourself up to the new opportunity of learning. You may be surprised with the results.
Does virtual electrical training differ from traditional online?
One of the main differences between virtual and traditional online learning is the method of delivering the information. In the traditional online method, attendants will interact with information that is set in a set structure and the achievement of learning is dependent on the learner’s ability to absorb the information. The learner is not able to ask questions in order to grasp a deeper or relatable understanding from the material because of its rigid structure and capabilities. An attempt commonly made to offset this issue is having a forum built for “Commonly asked Questions” where the learner will can navigate in order to find more information; however, the learner may still find the information un-relatable to their experience or needs. Within the virtual online course, the information is delivered by a live instructor on the other end of the online platform. Attendants have the ability to ask questions via audio and chat capabilities that takes on the same form as asking a question in an in person classroom. This is where the learner can ask for a deeper understanding and the instructor is able to provide information or an experience that relates the material to the learner.
Are there any benefits to virtual online training compared to in person training?
A common feature available within the virtual classroom not found in the in person format is the ability to send a private message to the instructor and not the entire audience. Having taught dozens of virtual courses and hundreds of in person courses, this private messaging capability has shown its benefit. Sometimes students are embarrassed about asking questions or admitting their lack of knowledge in front of their peers during an in person course due to its open forum; however, in a virtual platform the learner can send a private message to the instructor. At this point, the instructor has the ability to either respond privately or can address the question in the open forum without revealing which attendant submitted the question. This truly provides an additional learning experience very everyone because others may have had the same question but did not want to ask the question.
Another benefit to attending a virtual course in comparison to an in person course is having digital access course documents. With the world being digitally driven, there have been cases where students have requested a digital of a course book or other reference material versus carrying back a hard copy text book. Another benefit of the digital materials is the reduction in course costs which AVO Training Institute ensured to give back to the customer and not profit off of them.
Do attendees eventually need to supplement virtual training with practical hands-on experience to maintain their training?
This is a great question and the answer truly depends on the type of training being sought after. Safety courses as an example are courses that typically do not require any hands-on exercises to be performed by students. Courses that cover testing of electrical equipment such as motors or circuit breakers and courses that need hands-on skills to be performed such as troubleshooting will require additional training. “Hybrid” courses take on a blended learning program that takes advantage of the virtual platform and then finishes the training up with hands-on training session that is typically conducted in person. The classroom portion of the training can be conducted through the virtual platform and then the student completes the hands-on portion with the instructor on location to ensure the testing or troubleshooting is conducted properly and safely.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made their stance clear that hands-on cannot be replaced with any other medium of training. Virtual Reality has been around for some time now and is a perfect example of how hands-on performance can be simulated but not replaced. While virtual reality cannot replace the hands-on, it can definitely supplement the effectiveness of classroom based training by simulating certain procedures, such as establishing an electrically safe work condition, so that learners can execute it accordingly. This eliminates the requirement for equipment that is capable of being interacted with that most companies and utilities cannot provide for the evolution and the performance would have to be done in a real environment.
Looking into the future, how can training take advantage to the technologies on hand to complete hands-on training remotely?
Two years ago I attended an online chemistry class where I was required to purchase a kit that included all of the lab materials for the class. With that in mind, AVO Training Institute is planning on developing hands-on courses that take advantage of the “kit” model so that the entire course can be completed 100% remote. The student will attend the classroom portion via a virtual classroom and be assigned lab hands-on assignments that they will later meet with the instructor virtually to demonstrate their hands-on performance. Courses that take on this model require extensive research and development to ensure that the learner achieves the objectives effectively even when done remotely. Developing courses with this model can be greatly rewarding to the student because they will have the opportunity to utilize an instructor in a one-on-one environment due to blocked scheduling. The blocked scheduling would restrict the instructor for a single student at a time instead of having to facilitate multiple students simultaneously during an in person session where a greater population is typical. The student would be able to ask questions and receive guidance they may not have had the opportunity within a group setting.
With everything, there will always be benefits and challenges. One major, and obvious, benefit to virtual training is the reduction in health exposure for all participants, their families, and co-workers. As previously discussed, a challenge presented in the virtual training environment is the loss of physical presence between them. Attendants and the instructor can feel isolated at times and as discussed before, everyone plays a vital role in breaking through that by participating. Another major benefit for the customer is that the training is delivered remotely. This further reduces health exposure to the employee during travel to a training location; without the requirement for travel, this also reduces the travel costs the customer would allocate in order to get the attendee to the training location. Even though the information is being delivered remotely, the learner is still capable of receiving industry leading training to increase their knowledge and skills.
Safety is the most vital element to providing a learning environment that a learner needs in order to be successful. When a learner feels safe, the foundation for learning has been accomplished. Training environments need to think with safety in the forefront and thanks to entities such as OSHA and the NFPA, we have always had great guidelines on how to do so. The integrity of an attendant’s health is truly a reflection on how safe the learning environment is; however, prior to a global pandemic there never had to be much thought into potential affliction caused by a virus. As a training professional, I can assure you that the health and safety of every individual participating in our courses has and always will be the number one priority.