Trades training goes virtual

Trades training is hands-on by nature, but post-secondary institutions have created “hands-off” education options to keep apprentices on their path while ensuring the health and safety of apprentices and instructors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When your career requires being physical, but the COVID-19 situation means everyone is physically distancing themselves, it causes a huge shift in how apprentices learn their craft. 

By its nature, trades training is largely a hands-on endeavour, so ensuring the health and safety of apprentices and instructors during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to post-secondary institutions (PSIs) creating “hands-off” education options to keep students on their path. 

For many PSIs, this means adopting online instruction, so they can continue to provide the education that apprentices need while maintaining social distancing rules set by the provincial public health office. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many training providers were already delivering some trades programs online, either entirely or in a blended model with some in-class training. Last year, Vancouver Island University (VIU) partnered with Selkirk College and College of the Rockies to develop and offer a pilot Level 2 hairstylist apprenticeship program that consisted of 12 weeks online and one week in-person. The program now includes Coast Mountain College, Northern Lights College, and Vancouver Community College with the first full provincial offering starting on March 23. The main change in the curriculum is that mannequins instead of models are being used for many of the practical assignments.   

But VIU’s hairstylist foundation program is normally a 43-week in-person course, so VIU and 66 students needed to adapt quickly.

“Working together as a team, we have brainstormed ideas on how to deliver the foundation program online, so the students achieve the same learning outcomes,” said Joanne Slocum, Department Chair of Hairdressing at VIU. 

The foundation program is using one of two online learning platforms, depending on the campus location. Instructors have set up discussions to engage students and keep them connected and have created practical and theoretical assignments as well as demo videos to help students practice. Students can then create a video or take a photo of their practical work, self-assess it, and then submit it for instructor feedback. The platform also allows for written and multiple-choice quizzes. Classes also “meet” with their instructor using video conferencing twice a week.  

“The reaction of students has been positive. We feel they are appreciating the connection with us and their classmates,” said Joanne. “We were fortunate to have delivered the Level 2 online program last year and know how successful it was for students.  That gives the students and us lots of comfort during this transition.”

Pacific Vocational College (PVC) has been preparing for virtual delivery and virtual classrooms for four years and was able to transition to online instruction quickly. Students taking plumbing, sprinklerfitting, or gasfitting join the virtual classroom during regular class hours, and the instructor delivers a live lecture, during which students can ask questions via voice/webcam or text. Courseware and assessment tools are delivered electronically with real-time answers and feedback, and they’re also given practical assignments, which they upload to their classrooms when completed. 

“The transition from classroom to online learning has been extremely smooth,” said Jeremy Wu, a Level 1 plumbing apprentice at PVC. “The platform for virtual classrooms complements PVC’s online self-tests and materials quite nicely, and I have no trouble asking questions or getting help when needed.” 

Spencer Clinton, a Level 3 plumbing apprentice enjoys having his program online for many reasons. “It saves me two hours of traffic, which gives me more time to study, extra sleep, and the comfort of my own home. We still get to have our teacher talking to us just like a regular class—he goes through the textbook and draws examples on his virtual board.” 

SkilledTradesBC has also seen and participated in the virtual classroom. 

“I was very impressed with the online platform that PVC has. It was very interactive and allows for a lot of engagement from the students,” said Kyle Kozak, SkilledTradesBC Apprenticeship Advisor. Kyle recently did a virtual presentation at PVC to give apprentices information about the trades program and how to access financial supports. “There’s a huge need for online training at this time, as well as in the future. It makes trades training more accessible for a larger portion of apprentices and has the potential to provide more flexible training options as well.”

And we may see more online training modules in the future for trades education. VIU and BC Institute of Technology (BCIT) recently received a research grant from BCcampus to collaboratively investigate open education resources for trades programs in B.C. Researchers Sally Vinden (VIU), Tim Carson (BCIT), and Chad Flinn (BCIT) will be meeting with trades instructors across B.C. to identify the barriers to both using and developing digital training resources. The goal is to provide a strategy and action plan to support faculty in getting started with electronic learning and teaching. 

To find out if a specific trade program is being offered online, visit your training institution’s website.

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