Will online virtual training be the new normal?

Sept. 15, 2020
The benefits and challenges of using remote learning for electrical training.

Having worked in the electrical industry for nearly 15 years, I never could have imagined being in the position that we have all been thrown into with the pandemic. During my time in the electrical industry I have worked in many capacities, from maintenance and repair technician, project management for critical system upgrades, technical instructor, curriculum developer, to now playing a key role for a private training company whose business foundation was based on face-to-face safety and hands-on training.

The current situation has drastically affected how every person has had to adapt their daily lives both professionally and personally. This article focuses on what to expect while attending virtual online training courses; the benefits and challenges of virtual learning; and also commonly asked questions and information.

For education systems from pre-K to the university level, virtual online training grew rapidly in order to deliver learning opportunities to their students, and technical trades are no exception. Virtual online training permits attendees to have a similar experience as they would in a physical classroom; the majority, if not all, of the information is delivered live by an instructor and is not a prerecorded session. Attendees have the ability to ask questions to gain greater understanding of the topic or to clarify an area they have not fully grasped. Most importantly, attendees 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 trainee to interact with the instructor and other students. 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 the 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, which can dampen the learning experience.

How can we fix this? The instructor is responsible for driving interaction, while delivering the content, and the attendee is responsible for interacting. What this means is that the instructor has different methods available to promote interaction with and from the attendees, but it is truly up to the attendee 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.

Does virtual electrical training differ from traditional online?

One of the main differences between virtual and traditional online learning is the delivery method for information. In the traditional online method, attendees will interact with information that is in a set structure and achieving learning depends 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” for the learner to navigate in order to find more information; however, attendees 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. Students have the ability to ask questions via audio and chat capabilities just like asking a question in an in-person classroom. This is where the learner can ask questions 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 that is 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 can either respond privately or address the question in the open forum without revealing which attendee submitted the question. This truly provides an additional learning experience to everyone because others may have had the same question but did not want to be the one to ask.

Another benefit to attending a virtual course is having digital access to course documents. With the world being digitally driven, some students are already requesting a digital version of a course book or other reference material versus carrying a hard copy textbook. Another benefit of the digital materials is the reduction in course costs, and many trainers pass those savings through to the students.

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. Safety courses as an example are courses that typically do not require any hands-on exercises to be performed by students. Courses that cover the 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 a 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 (OSHA) has made its 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 hands-on, it can definitely supplement the effectiveness of classroom training by simulating certain procedures, such as establishing an electrically safe work condition, so that learners can execute it accordingly. Virtual reality also can eliminate the requirement for physical equipment that is capable of being interacted with, in cases where companies or utilities cannot provide a physical environment for a student performance evaluation. 

How can Future training take advantage of the technology 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, many companies (including AVO Training Institute) are developing hands-on courses that take advantage of the “kit” model so that the entire course can be completed 100% remotely. The students will attend the classroom portion via a virtual classroom and be assigned hands-on lab assignments, which they will later virtually demonstrate with the instructor.

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 for the students because they will have the opportunity to work with an instructor in a one-on-one environment due to blocked scheduling. The blocked scheduling would restrict the instructor’s time for a single student, instead of having to facilitate multiple students simultaneously during an in-person session. Students would be able to ask questions and receive guidance that they may not have gotten 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 coworkers. As previously discussed, a challenge presented in the virtual training environment is the loss of one-on-one contact. Attendees and the instructor can feel isolated at times, and 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.

Safety is the most vital element to providing the environment that a learner needs in order to be successful. When a student 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 NFPA, we have always had great guidelines on how to do so. The integrity of an attendee’s health is a reflection on how safe the learning environment is; however, now since the global pandemic, much more thought must go into the potential effects of the virus and how it will affect the learning environment. Regardless, the health and safety of every individual participating in training courses should be the number one priority.

About the Author: Ralph Parrett

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