Best Practices for Using a Virtual Learning Classroom for High School and Adult Students

Posted By: Chad Schron, Senior Director, Tooling U-SME on April 23, 2020

Atlantic Technical College and Technical High School in Coconut Creek, Florida

Schools and colleges across the nation are already in their second month of conducting remote classes. Online learning opportunities have become essential to students, at every level, to continue their education during the COVID-19 crisis. We are proud to offer our nation’s educators the tools and support they need to quickly implement virtual learning at technical high schools and colleges.

To help streamline this process, we are recording sessions with several Career and Technical Education (CTE) instructors. They offer unique insights and real-world scenarios of how they have successfully used elearning with their students. These interviews are a helpful resource to guide schools as they transition to a virtual learning environment. Today’s interview is the second in a five-part series, and we are pleased to welcome Kevin Finan, machine tool technology instructor from Atlantic Technical College and Technical High School in Coconut Creek, Florida.



Good afternoon, everyone. This is Chad Schron and Meghan Shea-Keenan from Tooling U-SME, joined by Kevin Finan from Atlantic Tech College. Today we'll be discussing best practices for using elearning and digital tools in the classroom. Thank you, Kevin, for joining us today. To kick it off, would you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your school and your program?


Sure. I was very lucky many years ago to attend a technical school in Ireland, and we did technical drawing, woodworking, machining, engineering and of course all the regular academic classes. After high school, I went into a four-year apprenticeship program. The first year was in college in Ireland. The second year was actually in Berlin because it was a German company. And then the last two years were a combination of the company and the college. After that I spent the next 20 years working as a machinist toolmaker in the United States—New York first and then Florida. About 10 years ago I went back and got a degree in math education in the U.S. Seven years ago, a position opened up at Atlantic Technical College (ATC) and Technical High School here in Florida. The campus is just a little bit north of Fort Lauderdale. It's kind of cool that I started off in a technical school as a student, and 25 years later I ended up teaching at a technical school.

The program at ATC is unique in that it offers a high school embedded in the technical college. ATC is a magnet high school in the Broward County Public Schools system. The technical college adults can attend as well, and they do. It is the biggest technical college in Florida. In the machining program we have 12 juniors, 12 seniors and 12 adults. The juniors come in the morning for three hours, the seniors come in the evening for three hours and the adults are there all day. The high school students in general, but not exclusively, move on to the engineering school.

It's so helpful, especially for those of us who grew up on the shop floor, to work with engineers who have some machining background. You don't need to turn the engineer into a machinist; that would take too many years of training. But it is so useful when they have some understanding of how things get manufactured. In Germany, an awful lot of mechanical engineers went through a machining program. It was not a four-year apprenticeship, but a smaller internship, just to give them some concept of machining. Most of the high school students, when they finish the program here, go to engineering colleges in Florida or the Southeast region. The adults in general go straight into industry, and we help place them.

I think we all realize that right now, there's a big demand in the U.S. for machinists. The average age of the machinist and toolmaking population in the U.S. is considerably older. There's a big demand to get more people into this trade. Our program had a wonderful teacher before me, Mr. Brahs, who was there for 30 years. He did a great job and thankfully got a lot of help from local companies down here. A lot of the companies hire the students. One company just donated $5,000 to our SkillsUSA competition or fund. SkillsUSA is a wonderful program, but it's very expensive.

Thankfully, in the last couple of years, there's a lot more talk about trades, which is a positive thing. I'm obviously a little biased in that I went to a technical school. There's still that perception, unfortunately, that a technical school education is less. I try to explain, especially to parents, that I didn't get less education than my sisters because I went to a technical school, I actually got more. I got the technical classes, and I still got the AP history and AP math classes. I got the best of both, which is wonderful!


Thank you so much for the great background. How long have you been using elearning as part of your programs?


I was very fortunate, when I started seven years ago, that the previous teacher had already introduced Tooling U-SME classes. He had it up and running, and he handed it over to me. Since the Tooling U-SME classes were already set up, and because I was new to education at that time, I decided to stick with this program. Very quickly I was able to figure out that it allowed me to spend more time in the shop. I love online learning!

I love Tooling U-SME, not just because I’m talking to you. I love it for a lot of reasons that we'll talk about later. One of the big reasons is it allows me to spend more time in the shop, because this is a machining program. The way it’s been set up, it allows the students to take all the theory-related material and do it to a large extent independently. There's always going to be a certain number of topics that you have to reinforce with lecture. A very good example, which I give to other teachers, is learning to use a vernier caliper. You can watch an online video about that, which is great, and I encourage all the students to do that.

Then there are certain topics that lend themselves better to a hands-on demonstration. All those years in industry, that's often how we learned things. Nobody sat us down and gave us a lecture about how to square up a block. You understood the theory from theory class. Then when you get onto the machine shop floor you can really explain it to somebody. Trade people in general learn by doing. I think most of the population does. Tooling U-SME is very useful in relation to that.

I think the other amazing thing about Tooling U-SME is all the contacts. My predecessor gave me Therese’s name from Tooling U-SME. The amount of customer service and help that was provided continuously, but particularly after my first three months, was very useful. There are a lot of products out there, but for new teachers, especially under the circumstances that we're under now, I would strongly encourage them to look at Tooling U-SME. So much of it is already in place and customer service is huge. When you have 24 to 36 students in front of you and they're saying they have an issue with technology or an issue with something outside of a machining teacher's school, it's wonderful to have that number to call and get answers within 10 or 15 minutes. The transition for me was easy, and I was very fortunate to have the Tooling U-SME program set up prior to my arrival.


Thank you for the compliments. I think what you’re describing is using it as part of a blended learning solution, which is what we're seeing a lot of our successful teachers out there doing. It's not a replacement, but it's a nice complement to what you're doing with the hands-on and with lab work. Could you dive into, in a little bit more detail, how you do that, and what topics you find lend themselves to this approach? How do you blend the online with the hands-on? I think that's one of the keys to success in these programs, and we're seeing the top instructors do a really great job of it.


Yes. The trick is you have to go into the Tooling U-SME account and look at it from a new teacher's perspective. That was one of the first things; I looked at the amount of material available in Tooling U-SME and how it's categorized under different departments. Trade people are very practical. One of the first things we have to teach the students is safety. Teachers next week, including myself, will be doing 100 percent online training. For a teacher starting, even next week, you can go into the Tooling U-SME lessons and pull up the department for safety. In there, you're going to have a certain amount of lessons you can pick from.

Depending on the depth of your course and the time restraint, you're probably not going to have the students view every single Tooling U-SME lesson in safety. But you can definitely pick out the ones you feel are relevant and have them look at those lessons. The way it's set up is that half the program is theory and half of it is hands on. A student would have to do those lessons first, particularly in relation to safety. Then after he or she has completed those lessons, they go into the shop and start applying what they’ve learned. Currently, with what we're going through, the whole country is learning a lot more about PPE. When I talked to the students last week, a lot of this language, that is not in general use, is being used a lot more right now. That's just one example; safety.

The next lesson very often, say from a machining background, would be blueprint reading or measurement. There are things you have to know and there's not much point machining something if you can't measure. We get paid to make good parts. It's very much up to the instructor to pick what classes he or she wants, with measurement being a very good example. The students watch the lessons in Tooling U-SME about measurement—whichever ones the teacher has picked. That may have been on Wednesday morning. The teacher knows on Thursday morning he or she is going to bring students into the machine shop and they're going to square up a block. They’re directly applying what they’ve learned from the theory class. You may not know every nuance of using a micrometer from a lesson, but the lessons will show you the mathematical rules of using a micrometer. You understand 25 thousandths, 50 thousandths, 75 thousandths, but that doesn't make you competent at it.

All apprenticeships since the beginning of time have been based on competencies. Then when you get on the shop floor, there's a certain feel, a bit like music. You have to practice using a micrometer to become competent using it. One of the things I love about Tooling U-SME is that the instructor has a lot of controls. Years ago, my instructor would have given us that lecture.

Now, 30 years later, Tooling U-SME is giving that lecture about the micrometer. Then students are out on the shop floor with the teacher doing the application of that. That gives me a lot more freedom. When my adult students are doing the theory, I'm out on the shop floor with the high school students; the seniors are doing the application. Then in the evening that would flip. The adults will be out on the shop floor because they would have done the theory. It allows the teacher to spend more time on the shop floor, where I think it is more relevant. I'd say most people teaching trade programs are trade people themselves. That's something that we're very familiar with, with our own training. It's the demonstration that the supervisor and then senior guys in the shop were showing us. It fits very much into what most of us spend 20 to 25 years doing before we came into education.


I think that's really good feedback on how you're blending the training program there. Describe a little bit about how you use the LMS or the learning management system within your program, or some of the reports you find to be helpful as you manage your program.


One of the things I like about Tooling U-SME is it has an awful lot more resources probably than I use. I think that might be useful for a new person right now. One of the things I try to explain to the students when we do projects is to make sure that you know the beginning was first. It's a great way to assign lessons to the students and we'll probably talk about that later. In relation to the reports, obviously you get the grades, and due dates for the students. You can set a cut score, so they have to meet a certain score to continue. I can also check how much time the student has spent in the program. Very often, with my high school students, I'll set requirement times. I’ve got wonderful students, but it's amazing how sometimes they can read a whole lesson in five minutes. It gives you an awful lot of control. You can visually see from the instructor's point of view when the students logged in; when they logged out. Would that be an appropriate period of time for them to have really learned the material? We have to explain to students that when you're doing anything technical, you're not taught like a novel. You're not reading page by page and moving on. One of the other things Tooling U-SME allows the students to do is keep notes. It's those main functions that I use. I know there's more than that, but I haven't really branched out beyond these functions. For any other teacher who did want to get more detailed information, there's an awful lot more available. Tooling U-SME would be a great resource for them.


Well good. To make you feel better, I don't think there's anybody out there who uses all of the features and functionality. Somebody uses each piece of it, but nobody uses all of it. That was very helpful. How do your students access their classes? Is it via phone, tablet, laptops? What methods are they using to access the content?


When they do it in class, we have 30 computers, so they all have desktops there. But it depends on what group of students you’re working with. If we’re talking to a high school teacher, which is me, one of the great things about it is the kids are very comfortable on their cell phones. I remember a young lady who is actually graduating as an engineer in a couple of months. She told me a long time ago when she started, she used it on her cell phone, going home on the school bus. The high school kids are obviously more comfortable with using Tooling U-SME classes at home on their laptop or their cell phone. The adult students tend to use it on their computer. The fact that you have access to it everywhere, in any place, is wonderful.

Last week, I was having a group chat with the students, reminding them how lucky we are to have Tooling U-SME during these difficult circumstances we are experiencing. Even Monday, when we started 100 percent online, the students were up and running. They were ready to go from day one. Even students who are out sick with a cold or whatever, don’t have to fall behind. They can be at home doing their Tooling U-SME lessons, which is great.


Maybe you could tell us a little bit about some of the changes to your programs in light of all of the events that are going on. Obviously, you've had your program for many years, but now given all the things that are going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, can you please share some of the ways you've adapted your program?


I wouldn't want any new teacher to overstress about the fact that we happen to have ours set up already. The things I would say to him or her is to go slowly, step by step. It's very doable for them to set up Tooling U-SME and to not, in this case, be drawn into all the bells and whistles. From a trades point of view, it's very practical. You need to have access to your students, or your students need to have access to Tooling U-SME. You need to be able to assign them the lessons and grade their work. Which is all very doable. I never like to say easy, because easy is relative to how comfortable you are with certain things. But Tooling U-SME is very user-friendly. So, I'm very fortunate because all my theory is already set up, because of Tooling U-SME.

Regarding the hands-on part or the secondary part of the program, that's what I spent the last couple of days getting comfortable on. Here in Broward, in Florida, all the technical public school teachers are going to be using Blackboard. The students will be able to visually see the teachers. As they’re doing their Tooling U-SME lessons over the next two weeks, they will still be in a classroom setting every day. Blackboard is not of course as nice as our machine shop, but at least students will be able to see the instructor. They'll be able to post questions and talk to each other, which I personally think is very important.

I love online learning for pretty obvious reasons. Most of us don't have a milling machine in our kitchen. Even for non-trade people, that interaction with others is still very important. I think this blend of people using their theory time, rather than, say, one person lecturing, works because we all learn at different rates. This is the great thing about Tooling U-SME. Janine can watch the Tooling U-SME lesson and get it the first time. Kevin might take two or three times to go back over it so he can learn at his own pace. I'll continue to use Tooling U-SME, and I would encourage any other teacher to start using it. With Blackboard we won't be able to square up blocks, or drill holes, or do turning work or CNC work on our Haas machines. But this current situation will end and when we do get back to the classroom setting, we will have already covered the theory. I joke with the students that when I retire, I'm going to go back and take the class myself. Machining is like music, it's a never-ending thing. You can never know it all. It's impossible. It's just too broad. Over the last couple of days, I was just reviewing some Tooling U-SME lessons myself. It's an amazing resource. For a new teacher, not only is there the online lesson where an instructor talks, but you can read the material as well. There are also video resources, and those videos have been aligned to the lesson. Those resources can be very useful.


So, what are some of the pitfalls or challenges that you've had, using Tooling U-SME? And how did you overcome them?


Again, I was kind of lucky that Tooling U-SME was already set up when I started teaching. Change is hard. It does take time to get familiar with the platform. Thankfully, through a lot of support from Tooling U-SME, I don't think there were a whole lot of pitfalls. I think it's very important for the instructor to explain very succinctly and very clearly what's required by the student up front. If you don't get that clear up front, it can be a problem. Trades people, in general, are very good at details. One of the things I would strongly encourage new teachers to do is to really spell it out and go in there with the students. Make sure that they’re totally comfortable with it. They have to buy in.

We work very hard on following that kind of procedure. The adults, to a large extent, went through an education system where you had a teacher lecturing in front of the class. People just got very comfortable with it. Sometimes with the adult population there's a little bit of pushback about, "I'm required to read this material and learn it?" It's important to make it clear that yes, that's actually what you're required to do. We're going to be there to help you and if you don't understand any particular topic, we'll explain it, but only after you've put in a good effort. It's moving away from that very traditional method of teaching. I joke with them, for machining class, you should go home a little bit physically tired cause we're standing a lot in machining, but you should also go home a little bit mentally tired. You only get out of it what you put in. I don't care how good that teacher is, if you're not engaged and if you're not reading the lessons, or for a lot of us reading it two or three times and taking notes, and you’re not actively involved in it, that can be a problem. Tooling U-SME is wonderful, but it's not magic. It's not “I'll just sit here and watch the video and I'm going to be a machinist.” It doesn't work that way.


Great. If you were talking to a brand-new instructor who was just getting into this, what are some of the key steps that you think that are important to launching an elearning program within a classroom?


I would keep it very basic right now. I would tell the teacher to first relax. People have a tendency, when they’re very familiar with stuff, to oversimplify it. I think the first thing instructors have to do is get a Tooling U-SME account, and then go in there. Let's say they have three classes. Let's call them OCPA, OCPB and OCPC just for want of a better title. Set up those classes and then assign students to that class. That's the first thing that's going to make their life so much easier.

Then the second thing teachers should do is set up the classes themselves. So, you might have an Intro to Machining, Machining I and Machining II, whatever you choose to name them, and assign lessons from Tooling U-SME into that class. With those two things, you really are well on your way to success.

The last part is, you have to link the class. You then would assign students that class that you set up, let’s say Intro to Machining. Once you do that, all the students will have all the lessons that you put into that class. For now, that's really as far as I would encourage a teacher to go. If he or she wants to go further, that's fine.

Again, in machining or in industry, it's very important to execute. For now, with the time frame that we have, I think what I just outlined is all you need for the student to be able to go in there and start learning. I would keep it as basic and as streamlined as possible at the beginning. When this crisis has passed, you will have a lot of time to add on all the bells and whistles.


Great! Thanks, Kevin for going through all of that. Anything else that you think is important that we didn’t cover?


The resource videos that the teacher can see and the student can also see are very useful. For trades people, the material is there to read, and you can also listen to Tooling U-SME, which is wonderful. The other thing Tooling U-SME has is PDF files that the students can download and store forever. The other thing that’s really important is that the student can work at his or her own pace. In South Florida and many parts of the country, English is not necessarily always the student’s first language. So the fact that the instructor speaks in the videos, but you can also read them, is very beneficial! Tooling U-SME also has lessons in Spanish, and I think some other languages. This is very useful for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Certain students with disabilities are allowed to have extra time.

We get a lot of visitors into the machining program at ATC, including education professionals and those wonderful men and women with PhDs. I remember one time they came in and I had a Tooling U-SME lesson open, including the introduction with all the vocabulary words. It's not just material from a trades point of view. It's set up in a way that people who’ve worked their whole careers in education very much appreciate. It wasn't just thrown together overnight. It took many, many years for Tooling U-SME to develop it. A lot of our students have IEPs and some of our adult students also have learning disabilities. It gives everybody an ability to work at their own pace and go back to the material, which is really critical. Nobody can know all this information. You can go back to it yourself at any time.

And I suppose the last thing is the customer service. The older I get, the more I value it. You can have machining or online students or whatever, and that’s all wonderful. But you need to be able to get help when you need that help, and when you have 24 students sitting in front of you, within a reasonable period of time. People have to be understanding. Nobody can drop everything and help just that one person. But over the last seven years, there’s not just one or two times I feel Tooling U-SME has been good. My experience for the last seven years is that the help is there when you need it, and that is critical.


Kevin, thank you so much for the kind words about the program. Thank you so much for sharing a very successful program. I know there are lots of instructors out there, who are new to this world, who will really benefit from the best practices and all the information that you shared. Thank you very much!


You’re very welcome.

Technical colleges and high schools play a huge role in solving the shortage of trained manufacturing professionals entering the workforce. Comprehensive, user-friendly, online learning tools will be essential to building the manufacturing workforce going forward.


If we can provide assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 866.706.8665.

You may find the rest of the blogs in this series here:

Using Online Classes to Create Digital Learning Environments: Insights from CTE Instructors
Using Online Learning and Hands-On Experience in a Competency-Based Machinist Program
Blending Online Learning with Hands-On Experience: A Proven Approach
Online Learning Is Here to Stay: Buy In, Get Started, Love It

Tags: ATC, "Atlantic Technical College", "Atlantic Technical High School", Broward, "Career and Technical Education", COVID-19, CTE, elearning, manufacturing, "manufacturing training", "online classes", "online learning", "Tooling U-SME"