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With almost every state requiring mandatory continuing professional development, engineers are looking for ways to hone and upgrade their skills on a continuous basis. While inclination is not usually lacking, time is often a problem. Today, new online ways to learn make it easier than ever to squeeze skills development into a day busy with projects and home life.

One of the categories of learning that can benefit engineers at any point in their career is learning how to use software. Because software is so pervasive in all forms of engineering, understanding how to use the latest editions with new features and methods only makes sense. And, especially when learning software skills, the online environment makes perfect sense.

E-learning offerings bundle together step-by-step procedures, hands-on lessons, review questions, and quizzes to track progress. All a learner needs to do is sign up, sign on to the Internet, and get going. While some people like the traditional printed training guides and e-books, learning in the cloud will appeal to those who live online and expect a commensurate level of service.

Simple is better — What is increasingly clear about cloud learning is that ease of access is a prime driver. There is no software set-up on the learner side. Create an account, pay, and sign on. A person can be set up to start learning in less than five minutes. Because the investment in time to set up is so minimal, companies sign people up to learn about software just to find out whether or not it does what they need it to do before investing in it across the entire firm. The course will take learners through exercise after exercise as they complete them. So one person might complete a course in two days, and the next person might take two-weeks due to their schedule.

Interactivity wins — With 20 years of experience creating engineering content, we learned that instant feedback can make a big difference in terms of keeping people motivated to go to the next assignment. Engineers and design professionals want to be able to learn when and where they want, and online learning options allow them to learn anytime — not necessarily when an instructor or lab is available. To accommodate this, quizzes self-score and report results immediately, so there is no downtime for people to wait for an instructor to grade an assignment.

Just-in-time training — A lot of people sign up for a course and during the time they are working through it, a particular work-related challenge crops up. If the topic is covered in the online course, a built-in search can help that person find just what they need, just in time.

Bookmark progress — Some of the pitfalls associated with self-paced learning include learners starting and stopping with little continuity. This might happen because a learner has a busy week or two and can’t stick to his or her own schedule. The key is to make it easy for them to re-engage with the material. Things like starting the course again at the point where a learner has left off make a difference. Not bookmarking where a person is in a course is a waste of their time. Make sure that any course you take shows you where you have been and where you are going so that you know how many more hours to plan for to complete it.

On completion of all the course quizzes and attaining an overall score greater than a predefined percentage, learners will receive an official Certificate of Completion, which they can email to human resources as proof of professional development. Making these things easy for busy professionals is important.

Reduce training costs — Gone are the days when 20 people travel to a hotel in a remote location to learn how to use software in week-long sessions. Travel costs associated with training are now nearly non-existent. Additionally, downtime for personnel to participate in face-to-face sessions — from a billable perspective — is no longer a major issue. Companies do not have to hire trainers to get the basic training for most software packages now that e-learning puts this within anyone’s reach.

However, most companies do compensate employees for their professional development efforts since they benefit both the employee and the firm. Firm principals, in conjunction with human resources, should work out a typical development path for professionals in a particular discipline, then look for courses online to support that path. Many providers offer cost-effective bundles that include training in multiple software program “families” that make sense from a professional and cost point of view.

Keep up with the software — Software manufacturers are continuously adding new features and functionality, which can be excellent because they help engineers solve real-world problems. But, we all know updates can also be a pain. Sometimes whole categories of features are moved to a new location in the software and made accessible through a new menu, which is at best unfamiliar and at worst completely non-intuitive. Keep up with the latest editions, or learn more about the version in use today by learning in the cloud. Take a course on the version up from the one used at your firm to see whether or not it is worth upgrading.

Put the cloud in perspective — While all this sounds great, it is important not to mistake cloud learning for a solution to all training situations. Online courses simply can’t know everything about the way your business works, or about how you collaborate with clients and subcontractors. Custom training remains the best option for companies that are engineering non-standard software workflows and devising methods for collaboration that use technology. Cloud learning is best for people seeking to learn tools and features in software that will make them more skilled at performing those tasks.

For busy engineering professionals, cloud learning is a good option for software training. Accessible anywhere, anytime, it facilitates professional development in a way that fits each person’s unique availability.

Michelle Rasmussen started in the Air Force working in the civil engineering unit as a surveyor, designer, and construction manager in the early 1990s. She has worked for both municipalities and consulting engineering firms as an engineering/GIS technician where she completed transportation studies, environmental impact studies, and drafted subdivision and site plans. She has been training people on Autodesk products since 2000 and is currently an author for ASCENT (www.ascented.com) where she writes books for Autodesk infrastructure software products such as AutoCAD Civil 3D, Autodesk InfraWorks, AutoCAD Map 3D, and Autodesk Navisworks.

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