Dr. C. Hall “Skip” Jones discusses how a properly conceived and designed distance learning program can be an asset to any aviation training organization.

You are responsible for an aviation training operation that provides both academic and simulator training. The current training scenario at your facility probably looks something like this: The learners arrive at their scheduled time and attend academic training with a school instructor in groups as small as one or two or as large as a dozen or more. Following the completion of the academic training the learners are scheduled for their individual simulator sessions to complete the training program.

Training Issues

Onsite academic training issues for your firm include providing and maintaining the proper physical facilities, producing, inventorying, and providing continuously updated and current training materials, providing the required delivery technology and keeping that technology operational, and providing all the ancillary facilities and personnel that the learners require simply by physically being at your facility. It also involves providing qualified instructors, ongoing instructor training, quality control and assurance functions to ensure the continuous delivery of a quality product that is delivered by multiple instructors per the current syllabus with no weak areas, gaps, or holes from instructor to instructor and from course to course.

What would happen if the learners did not have to be physically present at your facility to accomplish the academic portion of their training and if that training was totally consistent in quality for every learner? Many of the factors already mentioned would either be considerably reduced or would be eliminated completely. So what would you use in place of the traditional onsite academic training? The answer is an effective, comprehensive, and documented high quality distance learning program.

The learner schedules his or her training, is provided access to the course which is delivered and evaluated online, completes the training and the course evaluations within a preset time frame, and receives a course graduation certificate. He or she then schedules the simulator portion of the training. The academic portion of the training is completed and their performance is fully documented before they ever arrive at your facility.

Advantages

There are a number of significant advantages to using a distance learning program:

  • If properly designed it can foster, enhance and evaluate critical and creative thinking skills.
  • Minimum direct instructor and company instructional personnel involvement is required.
  • Offers increased educational and operational flexibility.
  • Is rapidly becoming more accepted by the industry.
  • Is rapidly becoming more liked and often preferred by adult learners.
  • Is asynchronous (every individual learner can advance at his or her own pace).
  • Provides complete and uniform content control.
  • Provides complete quality assurance and quality control capabilities.
  • Provides complete course consistency with no instructor variability.
  • Provides absolute trackability and verification of accomplishment and completion to help avoid potential liability issues.
  • Provides ease of changing and updating the course to keep it current.
  • Provides the capability of doing either in-house or contract course development.
  • Provides the capability of using either in-house or contract technical course delivery services.
  • Once the course is designed and set up it is relatively inexpensive to deliver to a large number of learners.
  • Provides a high level of security for course and learner data.
  • Provides for learner centered course and program design.
  • Provides courses that are specifically designed to lead directly into scenario based sim sessions.
  • Learners can take the course from any location that is convenient for them.
  • Learners can take the course at any time that is convenient for them.
  • Learners can take the course at the pace that is convenient for them.
Disadvantages

There are also some disadvantages associated with a distance learning program:

  • Some learners may be unfamiliar with and/or uncomfortable with distance learning.
  • The training firm may encounter regulatory issues.
  • Technical requirements for course delivery can be significant if done in-house.
  • Requires competent course development personnel if done in-house.
  • Expensive for delivery to a small number of learners.
  • The training firm must be prepared to provide real-time tech support for the course delivery system.
  • There is no direct face-to-face interpersonal contact with an instructor.
  • There is no direct face-to-face interpersonal contact with other learners.
  • The learners must be self-motivated, self-directed, and good time managers.
  • The learners must be comfortable with the technology required (computer).
Effective Learning

Academically speaking, adults are not just grown-up children. Effective learning programs for adults cannot simply borrow the educational techniques that have been developed for young people. Many distance learning programs make no effort at trying to understand how adults learn in order to help them learn better. When rationales for learners are stated, learning objectives are provided, content relates to the learner’s experiences, problem-solving exercises and interactivity are common, and feedback is frequent and immediate, the program connects more closely with the principles of adult education.

Although it’s been around for centuries, adult education theory has been fine-tuned since the late 1960s when it was popularized by American adult learning pioneer Malcolm Knowles. He and his colleagues produced a series of principles concerning how adults learn (andragogy) compared to how children learn (pedagogy).

The general principles of adult education that relate to, and can be specifically addressed through distance learning include:

  • Adults must have an understanding of why they must learn the material presented.
  • Adults must connect their learning with their own experiences and be able to practice the new skills they learn.
  • Adults must be actively involved in their learning and not just passively listening.
  • Adults must master what they have learned and then be able to transfer that knowledge immediately.
  • Adult learning should be as task-centered as possible giving the learners the ability to think critically and solve problems that they will actually face in their real world activities.
  • Adults must feel respected and supported and they must be treated as equals in their learning experiences.
  • Adults must receive regular feedback and positive reinforcement on their progress.
Applying the principles of adult education theory to online course development can help the learners to learn faster and more effectively as well as help them to retain their newly gained knowledge and skills for a longer period of time. It also capitalizes on and enhances the adult’s interests in the learning experience.

Many adults will move quickly through the modules of a distance learning course and may do well on the projects, quizzes, and final exam, but unless the instruction follows many of the key adult education principles it is very likely that they will more easily forget what they have learned. The real goal of applying these principles is not to make training easier for adults (although it can make training seem that way) or more enjoyable (although it will likely have that effect) but to maximize the effectiveness of the online experience so that adults actually succeed in learning the knowledge presented and the skills taught and then be able to retain and implement them for a longer period of time.

Distance learning courses for adults that do not incorporate these principles can and do succeed. However, if they do not take into account the unique learning needs of adults they will fall short of ensuring the best possible performance. Adults have a wealth of experience to draw from and may actually know more about the subject matter than what they learn in the course. Adults learn best when they can think critically, solve problems, and think about and evaluate the decisions that are required in real-life scenarios.

Adult education principles are transparent to the delivery platform. However, adults can achieve a higher degree of retention and long-term performance with a distance learning course designed according to adult education principles. Not all adults are alike and individual adults differ in their learning needs. Distance learning can accommodate these unique needs. In most cases adults can advance through a distance learning course at their own pace to fit their work schedule and suit their personal learning requirements.

Adults learn best by doing, and the online environment is very well suited for presenting a scenario that requires them to think critically, solve problems, and analyze and evaluate the results. Instead of always dispensing the exact content they need to learn, a screen can introduce a scenario such as a common situation that a learner may confront on the job and ask the learner what he or she would do. In addition, immediate feedback in the form of suggestions can be provided on the completion of an exercise. The learner can click on the feedback button to open a list of suggestions that might validate, expand upon, or move the learner in a new direction from what he or she already knows. This automatic feedback capability provides positive reinforcement and does not penalize the learner for wrong answers.

Opportunities

A distance learning course offers numerous opportunities to apply adult education principles. By recognizing the various conditions under which adults learn best, a designer can make the course more valuable and more effective for adult learners. The course must state the desired skills and knowledge outcomes in the objectives and then relate them to the learner’s experiences and goals. Upon beginning the course, adults must understand what the learning objectives are as well as how the training is necessary to improve and/or ensure their competent on-the-job performance. Fulfilling this principle satisfies their need to know why they must learn the material, offers them motivation for learning what is expected of them, and appeals to their personal need to learn based on their current life situation.

To increase retention, any course that follows adult education principles must provide review questions and/or practice exercises after every few screens instead of just at the end of the module. In addition, the course must connect learning to the real world experiences of the learners. The course should include “what if” exercises so the learners can apply what they already know, find out what they should (and possibly don’t) know, and practice what they have just learned. With relatively inexpensive course design software a course designer can create simple but effective simulations that can very closely approximate the task to be learned.

Adults can also be empowered to use their preferred mode of learning. For example, a distance learning module can prompt the learner to choose among three available options to receive the same content: listening to an audio clip of a speaker, viewing a video clip of the same speaker, or reading the text. Simulations can also allow kinesthetically adept learners to build a diagram by dragging and dropping its various components into a template.

Any course that incorporates adult education principles requires that its learners be respected as adults, recognized as unique individuals, and treated as professionals. Adults should learn from, and not be ridiculed for, mistakes made during the course. They can be encouraged to be creative in their solutions to scenarios and problems since some processes and procedures can vary depending on the specific circumstances. Despite their years of experience, adults need immediate reassurance that they have understood the knowledge and can perform their new skills in the real world. Distance learning programs can provide that instant feedback as an extra shot of positive reinforcement.

Finally, applying adult education principles also engenders a high degree of self-esteem that results from taking a course that is challenging, relevant, and tailored to the way adults learn. After the course, learners are usually forthcoming with feedback that can be integrated into future courses to help make the experience even more rewarding for those adult learners who follow.

Distance learning programs have been demonstrated to be just as effective as onsite programs and have been accepted as such by the academic and corporate communities for many years. The aviation regulatory agencies have traditionally tended to be behind the power curve in the area of education and training but distance learning is becoming more widely accepted by that community as well. It has been the author’s experience that including the regulators in the initial planning and the ongoing course development, implementation, and evaluation processes will make the final approval process much easier.