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From the time Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a provincial state of emergency on March 17, 2020, Rick Stevens and Dianne Powell knew COVID-19 was a serious threat to their Oakville, Ont.-based aviation groundschool business.
For 31 years, AeroCourse has been offering advanced programming – including Instrument Flight Rating (IFR) and Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) courses – and runs 50 to 60 classes every year. Countless professional aviators have either attended an AeroCourse groundschool or have studied for their exams using one of the company’s own manuals.
But the new realities presented by the pandemic made in-class instruction impossible. With about 60 students already registered for March programs, it was time to act quickly.
“We contacted everyone registered for courses,” explained Powell. “Our courses are usually non-refundable, but we offered everyone a refund in these exceptional circumstances. They had the option of a refund, an online course or they could put it on hold for a later date.”
Roughly 40 per cent of students opted for an online course, so Stevens and his team of instructors got to work designing a suitable program, virtually overnight.
“We have been thinking about doing it for many years,” said Stevens, who is also a senior captain with Canada’s largest airline. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to do it and how it would be structured. We saw it as something to look at in the future. When the pandemic hit, the future became right now.”
A virtual classroom
AeroCourse adopted a virtual classroom model, where course material is taught live and students can interact directly with the instructor and each other.
Stevens and his team worked hard to identify the appropriate teaching platform, eventually selecting the locked educational version of Zoom. It offers the ability to add annotations and video if an instructor connects a tablet, and a “raise hand” button to promote student interaction.
“We were very fortunate that the platforms existed for economical entry and ease of operation,” said Powell, adding that she sends students some useful guidance material before each course.
AeroCourse ran its first virtual class on March 27, an ATPL course with nine students. Immediately afterwards, it ran an IFR groundschool that included a student who is also a well-known professional educator in the Canadian aviation community. Lynne McMullen, director of business development at the Seneca College School of Aviation, said she enrolled in the four-day IFR course as a refresher and gave full marks to the AeroCourse team on program delivery.
“The instructors managed the time well, providing breaks at good intervals,” McMullen told Skies. “They delivered a good mix of face-to-face discussion, slide presentations and use of tools to provide supportive visuals . . . The pace of delivery was good, easy to follow and well supported by the use of references and guidance through the appropriate documents.”
To date, AeroCourse has successfully completed a total of five classes. In general, enrollment is capped at 12 students to ensure personal attention and adequate time for feedback.
As a training partner to Brampton Flight Centre, AeroCourse has also taught larger groups for both IFR and ATPL courses.
“We reached out to them because they couldn’t do any instruction and we gave them a modified course solution,” said Stevens. “We were doing a total of eight to 10 shorter day sessions with tutorials. It’s a bit of a challenge in some aspects, with the larger group, but we’re able to split them in half and manage it with the tutorials. I’ll do the class and then have a junior instructor do the tutorial.”
Regular breaks are crucial and AeroCourse has found that capping the virtual instructional day at six hours seems to work best. This means that courses are often extended by about a day beyond the normal in-class schedule. While Stevens and Powell were a bit worried that some students may not be as tech savvy as others, they said all have done well given some advance preparation.
“Student feedback has been really positive,” reported Powell. “We sent out a survey and 100 per cent of students felt they got what they needed from their virtual course. Forty-five per cent ranked the virtual seminar excellent, with another 45 per cent calling it very good. All said the virtual classroom was an effective way to communicate the material.”
While students also said they missed classroom camaraderie and interaction with fellow students, some also commented that the online format saved them a great deal of money on travel and accommodations.
Daniel Zombori, a student in Brampton Flight Centre’s Integrated Airline Transport Pilot Licence (IATPL) program, said he’s enjoying the online format.
“There’s something to be said about being among familiar faces; it keeps me in the learning mindset despite being at home, away from the school,” he told Skies. “Rick and his team have been fantastic in making sure it feels like a real class by maintaining consistency with times, breaks, and what we’re doing ‘in class’ on any given day. For me, personally, it’s also nice that I get to cut out my 120-kilometre round trip commute to school, giving me more time to study.”
Challenges and refinements
Rolling out a virtual classroom has been a learn-as-you-go process, said Stevens. A total of six AeroCourse instructors are now teaching via Zoom.
“It’s been trial by fire. We actually practised with each other. We’d spend time practising on Zoom and having other people give suggestions. We are all learning together.”
A flight instructor since 1981, Stevens believes online classes are an excellent option to keep students connected and engaged. While he, too, misses personal connections in the classroom, he said AeroCourse will be making the most of its new capability post-pandemic.
“I think we’ll start offering the virtual course for those who can’t come to the in-person courses. It would be a transition over the next little while. The second thing we’re seriously looking at is offering a virtual pre-course to bring people up to speed before they attend one of our three-day courses, which are time constrained.”
He also said the virtual format offers great potential for partnering with other flying school and college programs.
Powell added that AeroCourse is also investigating what additional equipment it might need to make virtual programming run a bit more smoothly.
They’ve identified several best practices that have helped refine their virtual programming, including an on-screen timer to count down breaks, the use of an online waiting room, and distributing a contact cell number in advance so that if someone’s connection drops, they can text to say they’re waiting to rejoin.
“The feedback we’re getting is that students really like this interactive virtual format versus just watching videos,” said Stevens, adding that AeroCourse has also been able to drop its tuition fees slightly.
But the main lesson learned over the last three months has been about staying flexible in order to meet students’ needs.
“We can be a lot more efficient with an online course,” said Powell. “We recognize students need more time to do it online, so we can offer two weekends in a row, for instance. And then homework is assigned during the week in between.”
Zombori said he enjoys the homework assignments as they provide an opportunity to collaborate with friends, which he misses from the classroom. He added that AeroCourse instructors review the assignments and provide ample time for student questions.
Since there are delays across the country in booking Transport Canada exams, AeroCourse has also designed online review days that help a student refresh their knowledge prior to taking a test.
While the pandemic may have hastened the opening of its virtual classroom, AeroCourse is embracing a new way of teaching for the future.
“We feel this is a great option in many ways, both for these courses and to add special courses like an introductory meteorology course or an FAA conversion course,” concluded Powell. “It also allows those who can’t travel easily the option to gain this important learning. We will be adding more virtual courses to our list for the fall.”