Academy Instructional Teams Exceed Expectations Using Virtual Training

Story by Daniel Gilbert (AMA-020)
Photos courtesy of the Instructional Systems Specialists and Adjunct Instructors

At the beginning of March 2020, the global health crisis caused a societal swing into the technologies of telework and cyber communication. Seminars and staff meetings now occur online through video conferencing, and schools use teaching techniques that include computer screen sharing. As an education organization experiencing worksite relocations, the FAA Academy needed new modifications to deliver just-in-time training to students. Moving to an innovative mindset, a team of four Training and Evaluation Branch (AMA-023) employees and two adjunct instructors responded with resilience to search for solutions. "We all just threw our laptops in our backpacks and started working at home with what we had," said an Instructional Systems Specialist (ISS).

John Espinosa, Management & Program Analyst and Workshop Adjunct Instructor (AMA-020) working from home

Right after the emergency onset with the pandemic, the Training and Evaluation Branch began planning and implementing virtual training workshops with help from the Distance Learning Branch (AMA-024), the Regulatory Standards Division (AMA-200), and the Training Services Support Division (AMA-020). Fortunately, the familiarity with remote learning already established a transferable technology baseline. Using work-issued laptops and iPads for hardware, and pairing some existing software with Zoom, Huddle, and Skype, the team was able to launch its first virtual workshop within weeks. "The fact that we were already using virtual delivery platforms like Blackboard Learn, Adobe Connect, the Academy Virtual Training Network (AVTN), and on-location virtual training studios to deliver blended training, it was second nature for us to think outside the box," said Casandra Hughes and Jeff Fluker, Instructional Systems Specialists in the FAA Academy. "We started organizing a contingency teaching plan in early March of 2020, and delivered our first virtual course on March 31, 2020."

Rich Schrum, Operations Manager – FAA Academy Virtual Training Network and Workshop Adjunct Instructor (AMA-024) working from home

To transition with social safety standards, teaching and training agencies need qualified virtual instructors. As part of its course catalog, the FAA Academy offers a Virtual Instructor Training (VIT) certification that provides foundational skills for teaching within a live, online environment. One of the team’s most notable innovations was streamlining the previous VIT schedule. Originally, the 25-hour course disbursed all of the self-studying and instructor training time over a span of five weeks. With the restructured version of VIT, students spend five hours per day on their coursework for five days straight, and complete the 25-hour certification up to 80% faster. "Without deleting any of the content, we were able to deliver the training in less time, as requested by our customers, and we did it with a high level of effectiveness," said James Smith, Training and Evaluation Branch Manager.

Cassandra Hughes, Instructional System Specialist (AMA-023) in telework status
Jeff Fluker, Instruction System Specialist (AMA-023) in telework status

Considering the challenges of leveraging resources, expanding bandwidth, and home equipment limitations, the virtual training methods are showing proven productivity. Preference for face-to-face interaction between management, peers, and participants still exists, but the overall feedback received from the FAA Academy Evaluation System (AES) is outstanding. "Almost 100% across the board, positive favorability! The students’ comments most often address that the workshops target exactly what they need to prepare them to function effectively," says Fluker. A student even described the virtual workshop format as "one of the best instructions in the FAA."

Melody Schobert, Instructional System Specialist (AIR-942) in telework status

With intentions to avoid a work stoppage and reduce the risks of physical contact, the virtual training workshops quickly evolved into a high-demand item. "There seems to be a dramatic increase in acceptance and awareness of the versatility and viability of virtual training among FAA employees," says one Instructional Systems Specialist. The Training and Evaluation Branch is currently receiving requests from air traffic controllers, aviation safety inspectors, technicians, and training coordinators to provide more targeted teaching.

Since the initial improvisations, the Training and Evaluation Branch has sourced 76 virtual training workshops to over 700 field employees. Based on current trends, the team believes that distance-learning opportunities will continue to increase. Although not every course converts virtually, the FAA Academy is working towards effectively delivering training content through quality online platforms when feasibly possible. "Converting training courses now can prevent a work stoppage during the next big crisis or national emergency," explains Smith. Every workshop starts by prioritizing student engagement to develop the most holistic delivery, and the team is optimistic that this approach will benefit the FAA’s future.

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