Online training, distance learning or “e-learning,” has great potential to ease the burdens of bringing the new generation of aircraft mechanics up to speed. The approach is increasingly used today, but there are challenges, both practical and regulatory, for online training to realize its full potential.
For example, students attending a Part 147 school approved by the FAA for distance learning can take their general and theory maintenance courses online. But courses that require hands-on skill and performance, such as working with sheet metal and composites or repairing engines, must still be done at shops or lab facilities. And the FAA is concerned about several other aspects of distance learning: for example, ensuring the integrity of exams in remote locations.
Nevertheless, there is likely room for growth as online tools improve. Brett Levanto, vice president of the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), says FAA regulations themselves do not dictate any particular method for delivering initial and recurrent training. “The training program must ensure each employee . . . is capable of performing the assigned task,” says Levanto, quoting FAA regulations. But the FAA does often require that it approve training methods. So agency interpretation of its regulations counts when it comes to accepting training programs.
Here, “regulators have great flexibility to allow enhancements to any kind of training,” Levanto says. “The evolution of training methods is ultimately less about what the agency allows and more about how technology becomes better than humans at delivering knowledge and assessing capabilities.” The ARSA executive notes that the FAA itself has many computer-based training capabilities available through its academy in Oklahoma City, making it hard to justify refusing to give training schools similar flexibility.
In any case, major training providers are highly active online. Premier trainer FlightSafety International offers both self-paced online courses without an instructor and instructor-led training over the web. There are 35 online courses designed for mechanics, including ones on Pratt & Whitney engines specifically, aircraft engines in general, ground handling and servicing, FAA NextGen and maintaining reduced vertical separation minimum equipment, human factors and fatigue and safety management systems. More courses in soft skills and introductory, recurrent, update and advanced training are coming.
Marin Todorov, specialty and enrichment operations manager, says FlightSafety has seen tremendous growth in technicans using online courses to reduce travel costs and access training remotely. Online training also can help those having problems getting timely visas to attend an in-center course.
However, “certain hands-on topics are best taught in a classroom,” Todorov acknowledges. Training centers have highly useful devices such as flight and desktop simulators, engines and mockups. “In-depth courses such as initial and practical maintenance training are best conducted in centers, due to the complexity and length of the subject matter.”
Although there are difficulties in validating identities of online students, which is a regulatory worry, Todorov says there are solutions to this validation challenge. And his online courses contain many checks and examinations to ensure that students master content.
Moreover, FlightSafety is now expanding its blended-learning approach, which combines online and in-center training. The in-center portion also will enable instructors to validate individual competency with oral, written and practical exercises.
Another trainer, CPaT Global, recently launched in-depth online courses specifically for mechanics on Boeing 737NGs, 737 MAXs and Airbus A320ceos and Neos. This courseware supports Air Transport Association Level 1, 2 and 3 training, which means students can perform system, engine, component and functional checks according to manuals; diagnose faults; and understand how to replace components on specific aircraft.
This maintenance courseware consists of both HTML presentations and interactive teaching tools such as system diagrams. The courses are not instructor-led but are used by instructors in both airlines and training organizations. They are separate modules and “are very interactive,” says CPaT Vice President Greg Darrow. “For instance, you can pull out a schematic diagram of the 737’s electrical system, put it on the screen, see what comes off the busses and start the generator.”
CPaT customizes its online courses for each organization by adding or removing slides according to a customer’s needs. “Airlines and MROs like to modify their training,” Darrow explains. Courseware from aircraft OEMs will generally not allow this sort of customization.
One advantage of online training is simply saving time and money. An airline can save substantial sums by bringing mechanics to its home training facilities for a brief period after much learning has been done online at line stations where mechanics work. Even with free airline transport, per diem and hotel costs add up. Students can take lessons at home as CPaT course work on any iPad or other tablet PC.
Online learning is validated in three ways. CPaT’s learning system tracks and manages how students use the online lessons, including how much time they spend on each slide. “You can’t just click through it quickly,” Darrow says. “We give them a period of time to contemplate and interact with the material before they can hit the button to advance to the next slide.”
Second, as students proceed through lessons, they are periodically quizzed to reinforce learning.
Finally, upon completion, students are given system validation tests. CPaT provides 1,000 questions for each platform and training organizations can modify the question list to suit their own requirements. Questions are arranged in a randomized sequence, and generally tests are proctored to ensure each student is submitting his or her own unaided answers.
The validation test not only checks on student learning but assesses the online course itself. If an excessive number of students fail to answer certain questions correctly, it is a signal that either the course or the questions may be defective.
CPaT developed in-depth online courses for the 737 and A320 lines first because of the large demand for training on these aircraft. It will launch a similar tool for the Airbus A350 in 2018, and then move on to the Boeing 777. But scale counts in software development. The company has no intention of doing an online course for the Airbus A380, as there is not enough demand.
The company is also moving toward offering virtual and augmented reality-enabled instruction, but in a way different from other training companies. Darrow says there are lots of plans for augmented reality on goggles, “but the problem is this is not a scalable approach.” He cites one airline with thousands of mechanics to train that is buying only 10 sets of goggles, too few to be widely used in training.
So CPaT is developing an augmented-reality tool for an iPad. One version could be used for cockpit familiarization, while another could be used for walk-around inspections of the entire aircraft. “You will be able to walk around 360 deg. on the iPad, zoom in to see specific spots and get information on that spot,” Darrow says.
Get A Degree
The online approach is also being used for degree programs in academic settings. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) offers instructor-led online courses in electrical systems, airframes and engines for Part 65-certified mechanics looking for a degree to complement their training and experience. Bettina Mrusek, chair of ERAU’s maintenance master program, says, “These courses are definitely popular as demand grows and organizations look for college degrees.” Versions of these online courses for a master’s degree program have just been rolled out.
ERAU’s online courses are available globally, and students can take all courses at a distance. Apart from the time and economy of this approach, Mrusek says it can actually improve on the classroom experience. “It’s asynchronous, so students can take their time with answers. They can reflect on what they are saying. In certain ways, it results in deeper learning and better critical thinking.” And for many students, only the online lessons fit into their busy work schedules.
An instructor always leads the ERAU online courses, asking and responding to student questions. Some older mechanics may have difficulty with the online approach, but younger workers are generally very comfortable with it.
Students’ comprehension of the material is validated by assigning them research projects and having them submit a written paper on the results. The projects involve many aspects of the course the students have taken.
Mrusek expects online maintenance courses to develop according to the needs of the aviation industry. She predicts an online course in unmanned systems, and as aircraft technology evolves, new courses to address the new technologies.
ERAU is now starting to add virtual and augmented reality to its online courses. “There is lots of that in the works,” Mrusek says. “There are so many benefits. You can’t pick up a Boeing 777 or an engine and see what is going on and how the wires work. There are lots of exciting things in the pipeline.” But she believes the main limit to online training will be actual certification of mechanics. “That will have to be done in person,” she notes.