Games and Social Media Transform
Look over the shoulders of the apprentices in Tim Bell's classroom at the Evansville, Ind., training center and they're playing video games. They're chatting over instant messenger. It looks like the entire room is goofing off, wasting time and ignoring Bell — except he's in on the game, a simulator for wiring a transformer.
The game-like simulation is one new tool in a new apprenticeship curriculum from the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, the most significant update to the way inside apprentices are taught since it was created in 1941. The new program combines increased time in labs with greatly expanded use of computer-based teaching tools like videos, simulations and assignments. Evansville and six other training centers are the first to pilot it, but the new curriculum will be rolled out nationwide in the fall of 2014 for all first-year apprentices.
A combination of on-the-job experience and significant class time to cover theory and basics, apprenticeship training has changed little over the decades. It is, and will remain, the educational standard for generations of future inside and outside apprentices.
"The apprenticeship is a wonderful model, and that won't change," said Mike Callanan, executive director of the NJATC. "In essence our challenge is increasing the efficiency of classroom time. Our apprentices are off the job, not getting paid, not working for our contractors and it is vital that those minimum 180 hours a year in class are worthwhile and effective. We have no choice: we have to leverage technology."
Now students will spend less class time reviewing homework and sitting through lectures and more time in labs and group discussions. Students will complete all of their homework online and have access to a growing suite of videos and computer-based simulations — many designed to look and feel like video games — that teach core skills to aspiring electricians. The new curriculum was introduced in 2009 for the outside lineman apprenticeship, and there was a marked improvement in student performance, said Marty Riesberg, NJATC director of curriculum development.
"It was a huge success. That is why we are moving ahead as quickly as we can to introduce it to the inside," he said.
Callanan says the changes were driven by the speed of change in the industry itself. Journeyman wiremen have to know a lot more and have less time to learn it, he said.
"We have more topics to cover than ever before: renewables, building controls, advanced distributed energy systems, turbines, LED lighting and even crane control," Callanan said. "At the same time, on-the-job training is not what it used to be. When I went through apprenticeship, the journeyman could stop and show you something. Now, the margins are so thin, the job market so competitive, that too little on-the-job training is getting done."
The Death of Workbooks
The most obvious change might be the end of the physical workbook. All students will still have a reference textbook, but the 35 workbooks past apprentices plowed through over the course of a five-year apprenticeship will disappear.
"We never measured it, but if we didn't spend 75 percent of class time simply going over homework, it felt like we did," says Bill Ball, director of inside curriculum and electronic media at the NJATC. "There was just no other way to know how much they knew or how little."
Now, days before class, students complete their homework, instantly see how they scored and can even redo assignments and quizzes. Instructors get a report that shows the results for every student on a single page.
Bell has been an instructor at Evansville for more than 25 years. Now he requires his students to do the homework until they get at least 75 percent of the questions right. He says his students come into class better prepared and he can now see patterns that he wouldn't have if going over the homework in front of a room full of students.
"I look at that report and can see if everyone missed questions that use algebra," Bell said. "Then I'll go back and change the original lesson plan to make sure I explain it better to the next class."
To support the migration of the homework online, the NJATC also produced and uploaded dozens of videos explaining and demonstrating core concepts, including how magnetic fields are shaped around wires and how electric motors work.
Ben Maas became one of the first apprentices to use the new curriculum when he started at Evansville last year. He said the videos make a huge difference for him.
"Some people learn when they read, but I'm a real visual learner," Maas said. "With no electrical experience at all, seeing how it all works in a video was pretty useful. You just can't get that in a book."
The 21st Century Classroom
Now in class, the instructor may open up the transformer simulator on his laptop and connect a transformer. Everything he does in the simulator is projected onto a screen. Then students take over the keyboard and mouse, and try their hand, maybe with the assistance of the rest of the class, maybe not.
That week, the students read the chapter in the text book about transformers, plugging the detailed technical information into the intuitive model they got from the simulation in class. They will have access to the same simulator online and will complete a series of labs and assignments before they are in the classroom again.
"Out there, transformers will blow up if you make a mistake. It's a lot easier to learn when the stakes aren't that high," said Chris Thorsen, training director at Evansville. "We tell the students we want them to let the expensive smoke out on the simulator."
The curriculum developers created new ways of testing knowledge that only become possible with the interactivity of the computer. For example, instead of asking an apprentice to explain how to terminate the primary on a transformer, the online homework presents a diagram where students have to drag and drop the connections. Instead of asking what size conductor they need, they choose from images of the actual conductors and have to color identify the right cables.
"If you just put the workbook online without changing anything, it's not more efficient. It is easier to grade, sure, but there's no more learning. But add video, games and interaction — all the research shows — and you increase the depth and quality of the learning," Ball said.
Thorsen says he has concrete evidence that class time is being used differently.
"I know it's different because the cost of consumables went up. These classes bend more conduit and pull more wire. It isn't a great deal more money, but you could tell there was a difference," Thorsen said. "They're using it up and that's good."
To that end, the NJATC has developed a sophisticated suite of simulations, called "academies," to introduce complicated subjects and give apprentices practice before they hit the labs. Academies include everything from conduit bending to using multimeters to workplace safety, which introduces apprentices to working live circuits.
"This is the way apprentices learn today," Riesberg said. Maas, 21, put it more simply, "Reading the book can get a bit boring."
One module in the safety academy addresses arc flashes, potentially lethal explosions caused by uncontrolled release of electrical energy that occur most often in switches or breaker boxes.
In the simulation, the student can adjust each of the variables: how long it takes for a circuit breaker to cut the power supply and whether the electrician is wearing personal protective equipment. Depending on the choices, the on-screen electrician suffers anything from a minor scare to being bodily launched — almost off the screen — fire and smoke billowing from the motionless avatar lying on the floor.
After running the simulation a few dozen times, Ball said, the apprentice develops a deep appreciation and understanding of how quickly an arc flash can go from little more than a static electric shock to a lethal blast with the power of a lightning strike. It may be in the form of a game, but the lesson is extremely serious.
"We are taking some of our most difficult-to-understand concepts, and arc flash can be pretty hard to get across in books, and making them easier to understand," Ball said. "There is science behind it, but making it really memorable could save lives."
Ball said the safety academy was developed by Carnegie Mellon's entertainment technology program, one of the best interactive and game design programs in the country, using the data and standards from the National Fire Protection Association.
First Person Shooters
The multimeter simulation takes this game-like approach even further, adopting the visual idiom of one of the most popular genres of video game — the first person shooter. The typical first person shooter is played from the point of view of a central character, moving through a series of mazes and solving problems, usually involving either aliens or zombies, most often by baroquely killing them.
Instead of a space marine with a rail gun or a Nazi hunter with a chain saw, however, apprentices might be playing a maintenance electrician in an office building carrying nothing more intimidating than a clipboard and a work ticket. They maneuver their way through a series of increasingly difficult tasks. The first task is to replace the heating element on a water heater. The apprentice has to maneuver his avatar to the right room, choose the correct tool to determine if the equipment is faulty, use building diagrams to find the supply room and, ultimately, choose the correct replacement element from the stockpile.
"There are older guys my age who think this is a dog and pony show. I say to them, how do you practice with a 480-volt energized circuit? These simulations don't replace time with the equipment in your hand and were never meant to, but they make the first time an apprentice works with live wires much safer," Riesberg said.
As the apprentice advances through the program, the work tickets become more difficult. Instead of a specific piece of equipment failing, for example, the apprentice has to find out why a circuit breaker in an office keeps tripping. The final assignment requires an apprentice to check multiple systems throughout the building with little guidance or direction.
"Airline pilots do 95 percent of their training on simulators," Riesberg said. "If we can teach pilots to safely fly hundreds of people using simulators, we can use it to train electricians."
Much of the cost of developing the new materials was defrayed by partnerships with manufacturers including Klein, Fluke, Thomas and Betts and Milwaukee Electric Tool.
Rolling out the New Curriculum
Seven JATCs with more than 250 apprentices began using the new curriculum last year. A dozen more JATCs and new classes at the original seven mean close to 500 apprentices are using the new program this fall. The program will roll out for the other 266 training centers in the United States in the fall of 2014. Canadian law governing apprenticeships mean the program will not be introduced there yet, but many of the online tools will be available for Canadian and American journeymen taking continuing education classes.
This year, the NJATC is running a series of national events to introduce the new curriculum to instructors and local officers. Ball and NJATC Senior Director Jim Boyd are planning a 10-city campaign with full day seminars introducing the system to training directors and lead instructors.
The introductions are not complete technical instruction on the learning management system and the simulations. There will be a class — online of course — that all instructors will be required to take that covers that ground.
The first event of the campaign took place at National Training Institute in July. Callanan introduced a monthly webcast for instructors about the new tools they will be using in 2014. He also announced a series of advanced courses for instructors on how to craft teaching plans that work with the learning management system. A repeat of the tour next spring will target the rest of the instructors.
Callanan says the NJATC staff have been planning the transition for more than two years, and all the attention that went into creating the new tools will now be devoted to teaching the instructors how best to use them.
"Our challenge, honestly, isn't the apprentices. They are perfectly comfortable using social media, computers and online games in their learning. They don't want it: they expect it," Callanan says. "Our challenge is the 4,000 instructors."
"It requires a mindset change," Ball said. "It isn't about how we learned, it's about how today's apprentices learn. That won't be easy, but I don't question that, as a group, the instructors want to do right by the apprentices and right by the IBEW."
Bell says like any tool, what makes the difference is how it is used.
"If you are a lazy instructor, you could use it and teach the same way you always have and maybe spend less time on making sure they understand," he said. "But for the aggressive instructors, who love getting into the lab, now we can grow with what we're doing in class and we can turn out a lot better journeymen than before."
Mandatory classes for instructors begin next year, but anyone with questions is encouraged to reach out to their training directors now.
"Our competitive advantage in the IBEW has been the quality of the work we do," Callanan said. "This ensures that the 21st century IBEW journeyman will still be the best trained, most productive electrical worker in the world, bar none."