Using Online Classes to Create Digital Learning Environments: Insights from CTE Instructors

Posted By: Chad Schron, Senior Director, Tooling U-SME on April 21, 2020

Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC)

In just the last month, our educational system has been completely transformed. Online education has become an urgent national necessity, and we are proud to partner with our nation’s educators to quickly pivot to find virtual solutions for students in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

To help share best practices, we are recording sessions with several Career and Technical Education (CTE) instructors as they provide insights and real-world examples of how to successfully use eLearning with their students. These interviews are an important resource to help schools quickly transition to a virtual learning environment. Today is the first in a four-part series, and we are pleased to welcome Conrad Mercurius, Coordinator of Advanced Manufacturing Technology from Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

 

Chad:

Good morning, everyone! This is Chad Schron and Meghan Shea-Keenan from Tooling U-SME, joined by Conrad Mercurius from Raritan Valley Community College. Today we will be discussing best practices in using e-learning and digital tools in the classroom. Thank you, Conrad, for joining us. In order to kick it off, why don't you give us a little bit of background information on yourself, your school and your program.

Conrad:

OK! I am Conrad Mercurius and I am a value stream manager for Nobel Biocare, which is a medical device industry. We do implants. I have been with Nobel since 2010. I became involved in the advanced manufacturing training and learning programs because of my frustration as a manager trying to hire new CAD/CAM operators and CNC operators in 2015. I was jumping up, screaming and yelling at everyone who was responsible for onboarding and training non-skilled workers to acquire the necessary skills to get into this sort of industry. What I was told then was that the high schools removed most of their hands-on training, most of their shop training. Therefore, the skills gap was getting wider.

There was an opportunity from Camden County College to work for a tech brand that was targeting manufacturing companies to identify what skills would be necessary to walk from zero to the first level, or what we call the entry level, into any general manufacturing career pathway. They took the DACUM (developing a curriculum) process, gathered about 20 employers, spoke about what we're tasked to do these skills and what was necessary for a student to be successful in the workplace. This yielded a certain curriculum, if you will, and the group dragged me in, saying, “If you're always complaining, probably you can support.” Long story, short story, I ran the first group, had 12 students, 11 of which were employed. I took five of those for my company. Raritan Valley Community College said we needed to do this on a larger scale. I became the program coordinator and started building the program. In the DACUM process, it was important for the employers to see some sort of related technical instruction included in the learning process, so that students would have an easier way of retaining the information.

RVCC, which is located centrally in New Jersey, was named the No. 1 community college for 2019. The programs that we run now are CPT, which is certified production technician, and welding, which is just MIG welding as an entry level. That's also recognized by the American Welding Society (AWS). We offer 3D printing on both plastic and SLA, which is resin-based. We're now a registered apprenticeship machinist program that goes through the NIMS (National Institute of Metalworking Skills) machinist program level.

Chad:

OK, great! Thanks so much for going through your background. It's a great example of someone who is not only recognizing the skills gap issues out there, but also getting involved and actually doing something about it. What percent of your program is actually online versus hands-on lecture?

Conrad:

It's a target for us to get to 70/30. Most of our students are tactile learners. With no scientific backing to what I will say right now, I find that tactile learners do well with this sort of learning process — with online, video, interactive, anything of that sort. About a 30 to 70 percent ratio.

Chad:

Why did you integrate online classes into the programs? Why was this an important part of your program?

Conrad:

Early on we noticed that in the classroom it was very, very important to have the students on the machine. And in doing so, it was important to go through what they will expect for the next day on issuing assignments, issuing homework and issuing practices. The online version worked well. There was a reading ability there, like an audiobook, that you would have the option of being read to you. Students were able to pick up on phrases, different terminology and nomenclature. They would come back and ask questions. Or pronounce a certain word and say, "I didn't know this was what it was.” There are some students who would turn it off and read it themselves. I thought it was perfect for our target audience.

Chad:

I think what you're describing is a lot of what we see out there as well as some of the best practices of that blended environment. Some is done online; some is done in the lecture and some done in the lab. What have you found to be most effective in the online format for the teaching versus what you're doing in the lab?

Conrad:

We have four modules, Machine 110, Machine 120, Machine 130, and CNC 140. After Machine 110, which is Introduction to Manufacturing/Introduction to Machining, we place our students into a workplace. They start as entry-level, either as part-time, an apprentice or as an entry-level shop worker. They can continue to do their hands-on while I communicate via online. They get their same lesson with an objective and a test, a pretest and a final exam. All of what we need to cover goes into that online learning. Also, all of our students are assessed by the NIMS credentials. All of what's required to pass that test is in that online learning.

Chad:

Great! With the online classes, there's what's called an LMS or the learning management system. How do you use the LMS as part of your program? What do you find to be most helpful in the report and learning management system?

Conrad:

I have seven instructors. I have about 89 students, 53 of which are high school students. It means many different classrooms. It's a competency-based program. We use every single report that's there. The one that I find I'm using more often is the student progress report. The student progress report gives me an opportunity to take that information directly from the Excel format that I download and put it in a pivot table. I can identify students who are falling behind, who are not meeting a certain target.

We're using certain lean strategies in the learning process. There is a daily management format. Then you know what the target is, you know if you missed the target, red or green. These reports help us with our meetings, and with our discussions with students. We make everything as visible as possible. A student will know I needed this project by the end of this month, and this is where I'm at with a project. These reports help us with our daily management. It does direct the student. And it helps also when we provide for final grading; our rubric is supported by the reports.

Chad:

What type of devices are students using or how are they accessing the online classes? Through a lab? Or do they have their phone, or tablets? What's the primary way that students are accessing the content?

Conrad:

We have Chromebooks, mostly laptops. We have some students now who will use their iPads. Some students, depending on what's going on, will use their iPhone or other smartphones. I think most students just want to see the capability, how far it will go, how much they can get out of each system. I would say 90 percent of our students use a laptop or Chromebook.

Chad:

What kind of adjustments have you had to make when transitioning to a hybrid model of blended learning, where you're doing both online and lecture? What have been some of the biggest adjustments that you've had to make using those models?

Conrad:

Adjustment based on the COVID-19 pandemic or adjustments when we started?

Chad:

I think both, actually. That's a good question. I think a lot of people who are new to this would be interested in knowing what you had to do at the very beginning, but then also anything you have that’s recent I think would also be relevant.

Conrad:

At the very beginning, let's just say I was privy all of the data to the DACUM process provided. Therefore, it was a decision that had to be made then. We didn't really have a best practice. The idea was to find what would work and what works, and so forth. An online version, for me, had to be included. Understand, though, that when we started off, I was using the precision technology book, and I noticed most of the material now is on Tooling U-SME. We were also using NIMS. Then of course I'm going to take credit for this, Tooling U-SME created a partnership, if you will. So, it all worked exactly in our favor.

It was important to find a way to allow students to go back in on their own and see certain things demonstrated and give them an opportunity to do question and answers. When I looked for any software that was available, this [Tooling U-SME] was the best. We also use Integrity. Integrity is this system that allows for an instructor to record himself or herself doing a particular thing. The students have access to that server, and they're able to download that video or image they're about to review before they actually go on a machine themselves or get tested. It also works in the format of a YouTube, if you will. The only issue, though, is that we found out after doing this for several years that there are actually some YouTube channels that did it much better than we did with our system. We set up cameras in the room and we would do our own sort of production. I need to do some good research.

The idea of moving online then, we knew we would use it. For me, I was using it in the classroom. It's a continuation. I was able to start a lesson and use some of the language from Tooling U-SME in the classroom, go over certain lessons, and then I would assign a certain amount of lessons to complete. We'll come back and we'll review it.

For competency-based students, it was perfect. It was on their time. Some students need more time than others. All of the lessons are assigned at the very beginning. Some students are able to do it in a month; some students needed three months. So therefore, it provided for different, what I call, hop-on and hop-off for certain students. Some students are able to go into industry earlier. Some students were able to learn and come back, and it was perfect in that realm.

COVID-19 created huge challenges. Understand that only 30 percent was done online. Now at 100 percent online, I've had to adjust in every way. One, I took a week to do retraining for instructors. We started to gather what exactly we were using as an online base. We’re starting to look at ways in which we can bring the classroom fully into the home. We have not completely done that. We've successfully started off with some things that we think will help the students. For example, there are some challenges we're having with the knowledge lab. And I'll talk about that as my only disappointment at this point. And the only thing that I would say that creates some sort of challenge for us on Tooling U-SME, which is the first I really see something that needs adjustments quickly. And the other thing you're going to run into is remote proctoring. I know NIMS is working on that. I'm assuming everybody knows what NIMS is, National Institute of Metalworking Skills. NIMS is working on remote proctoring, and that will help us also.

The challenge is that the students really need to have the hands-on. They really need to touch and feel the machine. We haven't figured out what we're doing with this hiatus if it's two months or so. There are students who were preparing for projects and preparing for credentials. We have to continue to maintain that knowledge base or else they’ll forget and then we have to do it all over again, and some students are slated to graduate in June. That's one of the challenges.

The other challenge we had was to get everyone on an interface that was working. We use Teams and that's been successful so far. Other colleges are using Zoom. I find that in terms of using the white space, the whiteboard, the flip guard, the flip grid, and attaching that to Kahoot and Yammer, Teams worked out very good for us. File sharing is good. In terms of instructions we are able to set up Teams, classroom team rooms, where we share data. So that, I think, is where we are now, considering what we're going through.

Chad:

Great feedback. What were some of the pitfalls or the challenges that you had when you were just starting to bring online learning into your classroom? How did you overcome them?

Conrad:

Understanding that we were working with tactile learners. There were a lot of students, adult learners because we targeted first the underemployed, long-term displaced, unemployed workers, and they were not computer-savvy. The online learning process helped us to assess where students were. I was able to assign a simple project or a reading exercise and it will give us a grading system on where the student is and what help the student would need. A lot of the adult learners were not familiar with the functioning of the computer. Using the online learning, we were able to bring students from zero, not knowing anything on the computer, to being functional. In fact, sending messages through Tooling U-SME really helped some of those learners to begin with.

Another thing we had was a new style of learning for a lot of learners. They've never done anything like that. They've never had to take a test after each lesson, and some found it boring. To combat that, what I had to do was just issue enough to get the knowledge transfer, and then bring the rest in the classroom so that I highlight the points of what to look for, what you're getting from it and how to take notes. I introduced a rubric that gave grading for notes that they took when they were online.

I would get those and be able to look at that. Review what they’re getting and give feedback. Also attack all of the questions that they tell you are the wrong answers in Tooling U-SME. They'll argue that to death. They'll say, "This is the wrong answer," and they keep telling me I'm wrong and I know I'm right. So that's a discussion, and if something comes up in that format, the same as MSSC does, we will send it over to Tooling U-SME to say, please check this answer that you have here because students will have a fit. It's that sort of thing that we ran into when we started off.

Chad:

How about feedback from parents or the administration or anybody else? Any feedback that you've gotten on using elearning in the classroom?

Conrad:

To parents it's good. Parents who we've really come in contact with, the same parents are able to follow up on their students’ progress learning. I have five years of carte blanche. Administration takes anything I say as gospel. They depend on me to make decisions that help the program grow. It has been super successful; it tripled in less time than was targeted. So the administration, I would say the leadership, probably 1 percent knows what sort of format we use. The others just know the program is working, and that's all they care about.

Chad:

Great. If you were to give advice to a new instructor who was just starting this journey, what would you say are some of the key steps to start down this path?

Conrad:

SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals, definitely SMART goals. I use the SMART goals system because of my own lean management. It has to be measurable. It has to be something where you have a target that works. In essence, know your audience. Know the material and what their learning objectives are. With the learning modules, they do a very good job of identifying the objective for each lesson. For instructors, I would say make sure it's material that you've gone to before.

What I find is that it's so easy to assign certain lessons for instructors that they don't even review themselves. I've hired a lot of instructors on a part-time basis, and I've seen that it provides you such advantages that you just assign the lesson and have the student complete it. The important thing is to know the material yourself. Another thing I would say is have a regular check-in. The online learning modules allow for you to interact with students while they're working. Be there; be available for them and communicate with them, and you get most success out of that.

Chad:

Well, great! Thank you so much for your time today. We really, really appreciate it!

Conrad:

Thank you. I hope I answered everything.

Chad:

There is no doubt manufacturing schools and educators continue to play a critical role in getting our nation through this crisis by preparing the current and future manufacturing workforce.

 

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:

Best Practices for Using a Virtual Learning Classroom for High School and Adult Students
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: Biocare, "Career and Technical Education", "competency-based education", COVID-19, CTE, elearning, manufacturing, "manufacturing training", "National Institute of Metalworking Skills", NIMS, Nobel, "online learning", "online classes", "Raritan Valley Community College", RVCC, "Tooling U-SME"