Workforce reductions are forcing survivors to do more with less, and budget cuts can make traveling to get the necessary training on new subjects difficult. E-learning may be the alternative for the electrician who wants to increase his value in the struggling economy.


The letter “e” used to be just another vowel. It may have been the most commonly used letter in the English language, but it was just that — a letter. In the Information Age, though, it's come to represent a new medium by which tasks that used to be based in a tangible, real-life format have been converted to a series of electronic pulses. It's the prefix of the new era — attach it with a hyphen to the beginning of any word (e-mail, e-commerce, even e-dating) and transactions that once required the post office, shopping mall, or restaurant and movie theater, respectively, can now be carried out via a computer and an Internet connection. And every time someone has said, “You'll never be able to do that on a computer — it just wouldn't work,” the code has been written, the software developed, and the Web site has launched to make once-impossible things…e-possible. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that training for electricians has succumbed to the digital conversion.

Anything is possible.

While explaining the virtues and possibilities of e-learning, Darin Hartley of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Certification Institute tells the story of a would-be pilot who learned to fly without ever logging an hour in a real plane. “I want to fly jets,” the young man told an Air Force recruiter. When given the chance to fly a test simulator and then a trainer plane, he completed both tests as if he had been flying for years. Baffled but impressed, his new fans at the Air Force asked him how he did it. How did he learn to fly a plane so effortlessly without ever having left the ground? His only training came via Microsoft Flight Simulator.

“People say, ‘How could you learn to fly an airplane sitting at your desktop?’” Hartley says. “The fact is, you can learn just about anything using technology.”

Journeymen electricians who put in their four years in apprenticeship training, learning the hard way that the black wire is the live one, may take issue with that statement, but Hartley says it's all a matter of overcoming preconceived notions and firmly entrenched beliefs about how learning works. “People are too easy to jump the gun and say, ‘That can't be done with technology,’” he says. “Well, maybe it can — have you really thought about it, or have you just bought into the notion that you can't do it?”

As the director of ASTD's E-learning Courseware Certification (ECC) Program, Hartley has spent the last two years developing criteria for determining the strengths and weaknesses of e-learning course offerings and applying them to programs seeking the ASTD's certification. Along the way, he's seen just about every conceivable method of presenting e-learning. Unlike other “e-disciplines,” electronic learning doesn't necessarily mean “Web-based.” In fact, anything that uses technology, including CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, constitutes e-learning.

The common thread in all technology-based learning methods is the computer, and they can be divided into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous. The former requires students to stick to a syllabus and schedule, much like a college course, and often involves chat sessions, messages boards, or some other form of regularly scheduled interaction with an instructor. Distance education programs that offer graduate degrees via the Internet fall into this category. The latter offers a more autonomous learning environment in which students can begin the course at any time and work at their own pace. Several manufacturers and organizations offer training modules for proprietary technology or continued education credits (CEUs) that can be taken online or downloaded to the desktop. The majority of e-learning programs designed for electricians are asynchronous.

The rise of the machines.

Although it was evolutionary leaps in computer technology throughout the last decade that have made e-learning possible, corporate belt-tightening and budgetary concerns have made it popular. In the past when an electrician wanted to broaden his skill set by taking a course on, say, wiring installations in hazardous locations, more often than not he'd have to travel to the training facility, which would require taking time off work, purchasing a plane ticket, and paying for food, hotels, and incidentals while on the road — not to mention the course itself. Such real and perceived costs are commonly shouldered by the employer, but in a depressed economy few companies have the expense budgets to support those trips. Making matters stickier, however, is the fact that widespread layoffs have forced fewer people to do more work, thereby necessitating more training.

“If you're in a company that has double-digit product and service growth and you have less people doing more work, you can't be in the classroom all the time that you need to be,” says Hartley. “So there has to be an alternative.”

That paradox has created the perfect environment for e-learning. Computer-based training eliminates the aspect of travel, cutting costs drastically, and the “anytime, anywhere” nature of asynchronous courses makes it possible for trainees to complete their studies at home, maintaining productivity in the workplace. The courses still cost money — generally between $50 and $150 — but for companies looking to get more out of their employees while controlling travel budgets, e-learning presents a win-win situation.

Some tech-savvy companies and organizations even believe in e-learning enough to facilitate and host the training. IBEW Local 164, Paramus, N.J., recently completed work on two Web-enabled facilities to provide its members with Internet-based telecommunications networking training. Electricians tired of cable pulling and basic wiring jobs have the option to take a free six-week course that will prepare them for certification in the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) program. Although the course includes elements of synchronous training like a once-a-week in-class session with an instructor, students still have the freedom to study the material on their own time and at their own pace. “It's self-paced — they can do it when they're home and they can do it when they're away,” says Paul Lagana, assistant director of Local 164's telecommunications program. “We have a lot of traveling technicians who go all over the country and the Tri-State area, and as long as they can get Internet access, they can continue their education. They don't have to be confined to one classroom at one time in one location.”

Still other e-learning programs have come about in response to new requirements placed on electricians. After California passed legislation requiring all electricians to be licensed in the state by Jan. 1, 2005, Delmar Learning launched journeymanprep.com, an asynchronous computer-based course that offers practice tests and Code calculation modules to prepare electricians for the journeyman exam. After purchasing the $49.95 program via the Web site, users download it to their desktop and quiz themselves with timed tests that draw upon more than 2,000 quiz questions from the company's catalog of Code material.

Further reading.

As with most e-learning programs, journeymanprep.com was envisioned as a supplement to other avenues of available training. Greg Clayton, director of the professional business unit for Delmar Learning, says that the nature of the electrical industry requires electricians to seek multiple forms of training. “Electricians are probably the most well-trained of the tradesmen,” he says. “They get a lot of continuing education and they're always having to get themselves updated on new Code releases and methods and technology, so most of them will probably enroll themselves in some type of course, like a prep course.”

In fact, the majority of e-learning courses available act as supplements to the core training that electricians need to do their jobs. The nature of technology-based courses lends itself better to educating learners on the basics of topics, with the Cisco training module serving as an exception. Without an instructor to guide or facilitate discussion, most asynchronous e-classes are ill-equipped to tackle complex topics that require more than just reading and memorizing material.

The supplemental approach is what the NJATC had in mind when it developed Web-based classes and computer-based training (CBT) modules for apprentices and journeymen electricians. Although he says he wouldn't be surprised if the majority of an apprentice's training is shifted to the computer several years down the road, A.J. Pearson, executive director of the NJATC, still believes in the hands-on training that a classroom setting provides. “We're still doing the traditional student workbook that they have to complete for their apprentice classes,” he says. “They still have to go to the classes and go to their lectures and labs and demonstrations.”

However, the NJATC is experimenting with Web-based courses, namely Math and DC Theory, but because of bandwidth restrictions, it has had difficulty implementing the kind of interactive training it wants to provide its students. Until that bandwidth becomes available, it's relying on the CD-ROM format for its CBT program because of the medium's ability to support audio, video, and other interactive devices that can better engage the learner. “We're trying to stay on the cutting edge of [e-learning],” Pearson says. “When it's possible to have these kinds of interactive courses online, we certainly want to be there.”

The shepherd and the flock.

As more courses migrate to the Web and CD-ROM, most educators agree that both the student and teacher's roles will change. Most members of today's workforce had little or no access to autonomous computer learning in their formative years of schooling, and as a result may have trouble adapting to the different approach necessary for e-learning. In the absence of an instructor, students in asynchronous courses are left to their own devices, forced to be their own teacher.

“People are very used to passive forms of learning,” says ASTD's Hartley. “For years they've engaged in what I call ‘lean-back learning,’ or sitting in the classroom and being spoken to. With computer-based learning and technology-enabled learning it's a little bit harder to do that. You can't just plop back in your chair and have information poured into you. You really have to get engaged in the content.”

Because the delivery method is so different and the importance of learning to keep up with the changing needs of the job market is so high, Hartley believes anyone preparing to take an e-learning course would benefit from first taking a class on how to use technology for learning purposes. He likens such a class to the introductory courses many college freshman take to adapt to the advanced study skills necessary for succeeding in the college environment.

As an instructor for the Cisco Web training course offered by Local 164 in New Jersey, Randall D'Angellilo knows what Hartley is talking about. In fact, he has firsthand experience on both sides of the desk — in order to become an instructor he also had to take the course. Even though his students have an opportunity to ask him questions — unlike trainees in a strictly asynchronous program — he believes the onus is on them to learn the material. He stresses the importance of reading all the material and taking full advantage of everything the Web module has to offer. “Having taken the course helps me to focus on parts of the curriculum that myself or my students may find important,” he says. “And from my experience with the exam, I can pinpoint topics that I know for a fact were on it.”

Lagana describes the instructor's role in the e-learning environment as more of a guide than a teacher in the traditional sense. “The student is expected to handle the burden of 80% of the course, and the instructor is there to help guide them if they get stuck on some technology or if they don't understand some issues,” he says. “The students have to get the text in their head, and they have to pass the quizzes.”

Hartley believes this change in the student's responsibility will also translate into a new role for the instructor as e-learning progresses. No longer the “sage on the stage,” the teacher will be able to step back and facilitate learning, pointing students in the right direction and allowing them to be their own teachers. “Instead of pontificating on the stage about what they know, they're going to be shepherds and they're going to help people. They're going to teach people how to get the information they need when they need it.”

And although Hartley doesn't believe instructors or the training room itself will ever become obsolete, he says self-contained learning using technology can cut out almost a third of the time that's often spent on getting-to-know-you exercises and introductory material that not everyone needs or wants. “I hate to say it, but there's a lot of wasted time in the classroom,” he says. No two people learn at the same pace, and by allowing students or trainees to tackle the material on their own, e-learning courses make it possible for the more advanced students to skip over subjects they may already know and understand.

Quality control.

The Web is uncontrolled territory, full of equal parts information, innuendo, and falsehood, where anyone with a knowledge of HTML can set up shop and claim to be an authority on any given subject. So with all of the options available, how do electricians looking to keep up with changes to their trade know what to look for when choosing an e-learning program? The obvious first step is to be sure the course was designed or is sponsored by a credible source.

For tougher questions concerning instructional presentation, ASTD developed its E-Learning Courseware Certification program to help would-be trainees make the distinction between a good course and a bad one. “We've been in the classroom since we were three or four years old, so we know what makes up a good or bad learning experience there,” Hartley says. “Most of us haven't been using e-learning since we were that age, so it's harder for a lot of people to make decisions about what sound instructional learning is using technology.”

Most of the ECC's standards for judging the quality of an e-learning program examine the technical qualities of the delivery method and the ease of interface: Is it easy to navigate through the program — can the learner move from one page to the next without getting lost? Is the format of the program legible and consistent — does it use several fonts that can confuse the learner? Does the program offer help menus — the e-teacher, so to speak — that can guide the learner through rough spots?

One feature Hartley stresses the importance of is remediation: when students answer quiz questions incorrectly, do they have the option to see why they missed them and what the right answers are? You may learn by making mistakes, but if you don't know what you did wrong, you won't have the chance to correct it. Delmar Learning's Clayton says that's one of the strength's of journeymanprep.com. When apprentices miss a question about the NEC, they can click on a link to expose a box with the correct Code reference and a brief explanation. “You're not just taking questions and missing them and not understanding why you're not getting them right,” Clayton says.

Another feature that can improve e-learning is made-to-order curriculum. Almost all computer-based training courses allow learners to move through the program at will, but a more complex course will quiz users at the beginning and tailor the material to their strengths and weaknesses. Subjects the users already have a firm grasp of will be eliminated altogether and greater attention will be placed on the concepts they have difficulty with. “Contrast that with a classroom,” Hartley says. “When you're sitting in that classroom and there are, say, 10 learning objectives and you know eight of them, how many are you going to have to sit through? You're going to get the whole thing because the assumption is that everybody needs it because they're all there.”

One thing that isn't important is the “wow” factor, or how fancy the program's appearance may be. “What we're looking for is the end result,” Hartley says. “Is learning happening? Is there a solid chance that learning is going to happen based on the instructional design methodologies that are in place? The key is that in the end it's a quality learning experience.”

Just as you'll probably never stop receiving a hardcopy version of EC&M, electricians who want to continue their education will probably never stop using books altogether. Besides, who wants to lie in bed and study from a computer? But what Darin Hartley and proponents of e-learning hope today's workforce realize is that the computer isn't something to be afraid of. Just because you think it can't be done, that doesn't necessarily mean someone won't figure out a way it can. “As we get better and better about figuring out how people learn using technology and as technologies evolve, people are going to want e-learning more,” Hartley says. “There's not going to be an option for it except to take off.”




Sidebar: Is E-Learning For You?

Some requirements for e-learning are obvious: Do you have your own computer? Does it have a CD-ROM drive? Do you have access to the Internet? But some criteria for determining whether you're well-suited to computer-based education are a little more specific. The Energy Providers Coalition for Education, which offers several online programs through its Web site, www.epceonline.org, suggests electricians interested in e-learning ask themselves some tough questions before getting started:

  • Are you willing to commit significant time and energy to enrolling in a program?

  • Are you comfortable learning without face-to-face interaction with an instructor?

  • Are you able to budget your time in order to meet deadlines?