For civil and structural engineers looking to update or refresh their skills using the latest 3D design engineering software, there is a new wave of continuing education called blended learning. Busy engineers working to hit project milestones often do not have the time to spend three or four days out of the office attending classes, but yet they still need to upgrade their skills and stay current with the latest software releases. Combining self-paced, online learning with regular online, instructor-led group lab sessions allows people to work at their own speed, yet still take advantage of expert knowledge when they hit a roadblock.
The concept is not new to many fields. Health care, retail, education, and government have all adopted blended learning. The first reason is usually compliance. Did the company provide adequate training to staff? The second is for tracking purposes. Many industries offer home study courses online, but have found it difficult to know whether a person has actually completed or understood the materials. For human resource reasons, online learning combined with in-class sessions and a structured beginning and end date make more sense because its possible to track who attends and who completes each course.
All of that information can also help a human resources team understand which personnel have what level of competence in a particular program or area. In some industries, education is tied directly to pay and job title. While civil and structural engineering are not generally compliance driven, talent management and retention are two big motivators for providing new skills training. The trick is making it work for busy professionals scrambling to book billable hours.
Flipping the classroom
Blended learning flips the traditional classroom model. In a face-to-face setting, the teacher typically stands at the front of the class and demonstrates a list of commands and functions, showing how each works within a complete process. With blended learning, people leverage online curriculum and exercises to study on their own to learn software functionality and methods. Then, when they meet for the online virtual lab sessions, students can take advantage of the instructors knowledge and proficiency for tougher questions, helping them fill in any gaps.
Blended learning offers efficiencies in both directions. It optimizes instructor expertise and caters to learners needs. Courses run using an online Learning Management System (LMS), into which students sign in to access their courses. Then students can work wherever they want so long as they have an Internet connection. The LMS leads them through each module and provides access to an instructor and other students who are taking the same course. The best success with a blended learning offering comes from providers who allow direct contact with instructors and guarantee a 24-hour turn around on any questions.
From a purely financial perspective, blended learning makes more sense than in-person training. Following are some of the cost items to take into consideration:
- Do you pay people to travel to courses?
- Is air travel necessary?
- Do they require accommodation?
- What is the cost of their downtime?
In the end, costs for blended learning for the same number of people would likely be about half as much. As well, participants interface with the materials for a much longer period, while keeping up with their daily workload, allowing them to apply the concepts learned in class to real world projects.
Are webinars an alternative?
Maybe you are using audio conferencing or webinars to get around the costs of face-to-face training. By choosing an online delivery method, you have already reduced costs in terms of travel, accommodations, and venue. In addition, most webinar-based training sessions are recorded and people can attend by watching the recording anytime. The cost to host a webinar is relatively low, with services accommodating 100+ participants for a monthly fee ranging from $50 to $100, depending on the features.
However, over time, most firms have come to view webinars as good for demonstrations, introductory purposes, or in-depth discussions on a specific topic within a broader course of study. As a replacement for quick lunch and learn kinds of training, or for demonstrating how to use software, webinars are great. But for longer courses, where there is a lot of material that the learner needs to engage with actively in order to understand it and gain proficiency, instructor-led online training with hands-on exercises and assignments helps students develop their skills in a structured environment.
For more in-depth courses, an online system leaves the bulk of the learning to students, who can access the system any time and progress through a course at their own speed. LMSs are designed to enroll learners into courses, manage the presentation of course materials, and track progress. The administrative functions that an LMS provides are more sophisticated than webinar communications systems offering compliance tracking and certification.
Isolating or integrating?
Sitting alone, working on a computer sounds boring, but a good course will include a lot of rich content, including video demonstrations that help illustrate concepts and the execution of certain tasks. It feels like watching how-to videos on YouTube with much better production values, organization, and related assignments. In addition to videos, descriptive audio and screen shots help demonstrate the software in action. Whether auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners, individuals can absorb the information in the way that best suits their learning style.
One of the big benefits of blended learning through an LMS compared with individual, self-paced online learning is access to fellow learners throughout the course. Working with design engineering software, there are always many different ways to solve a particular problem. Shooting off a question to the other people enrolled in a course can turn up some interesting results that help learners understand new ways to look at the same challenge. This creative exchange facilitates cross-pollination and discussion among peers who are all working on different projects and come with varying levels of experience.
All in, blended learning offers a viable new way for engineering professionals to fit upgrading their skills into busy working lives.
Kevin Kuker is vice president – Services Operations, with IMAGINiT Technologies (www.imaginit.com).