College flight schools are adapting to learning environment changes by implementing virtual reality options, wellness checks, social distancing, mandatory face mask usage, and other personal safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic.
Three top aviation educators shared drastic changes that are underway as colleges and schools that specialize in flight training prepare to resume classes with a modified educational experience for students, instructors, and staff.
Aviation International News Editor in Chief Matt Thurber hosted a webinar April 28 with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Assistant Dean and Department Chair of Flight Kenneth Byrnes, CAE Chief Learning Officer Chris Ranganathan, and Fulcrum Labs Senior Vice President of Brand Experience Craig Joiner. The group discussed how the aviation learning environment had drastically changed in the past 60 days since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Flight training at the Daytona campus ceased in mid-March after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued stay-at-home orders. “We completely switched to online training, even our [Part] 141 ground schools,” said Byrnes. ERAU plans to restart training flights soon in Florida and Arizona pending guidance from state, local, and federal governments. Mitigations include instructors and students wearing face masks during flights, additional aircraft disinfection procedures, and students and staff adapting familiar aviation procedures for indoor use: “We actually have hold short lines at every office where you have to announce your presence” before proceeding. Byrnes said Daytona air traffic controllers are wearing face masks while they are on tower duty and there haven’t been significant issues with radio communications or understandability. There are plans to research “mask fatigue,” a phenomenon that requires further study but could coincide with extended face mask use. “I do see wearing masks in the cockpit for the foreseeable future,” he said.
The college is maximizing live streaming, the use of 360-degree cameras in the teaching environment, and other technology to get ground-bound students familiar with aircraft, procedures, and regulations. ERAU’s virtual reality lab includes a seminar on preflighting a Cessna 172 in place of having students in close proximity to each other on the ramp. Byrnes said 360-degree camera views of aircraft in flight with voice-overs by instructors were especially helpful to explain flight maneuvers step by step. It’s also a quality assurance program for the instructors because it helps them become better teachers, he noted. The school is also on track to continually improve courseware, instructor guidebooks, lesson scripts, and videos to keep them current and topical.
The school is allowing flight operations for instructional staff to meet instrument and night currency requirements so that the college can be ready when training for students resumes. The return to full flight status will be accomplished in phases beginning with local students who haven’t left campus. Those returning from other locations will be vetted and training will ramp up as conditions warrant. When students do fly in an aircraft, their flight scheduling will be spaced out to keep them socially separated in the flight operations facility and on the ramps.
“We’re keeping the numbers low and spreading the activity out” so individuals’ paths don’t cross, he said. “They’re wearing masks as well, and every day they get a wellness check,” which includes a temperature check, a Q&A on encounters with others, and the issuance of color-coded wristbands that are checked throughout campus.
Ranganathan, who joined the webinar from Australia, said CAE has switched to virtual training when possible and the company is working with “authorities worldwide” for guidelines “to adapt to local conditions” that make the learning environment safe for students and teachers. “We’re getting better at it” as the days go by, he confided. He agreed with Byrnes that the aviation industry remains an attractive profession but predicted the recent commercial aviation downturn could last “about three years. It’s a great industry to get into” but “timing is the key.”
Fulcrum Labs provides online solutions for higher education and corporate training, and Joiner said the company noted a “dramatic uptick” for an adaptive learning platform “coming from Part 147 aviation maintenance schools. They really need an online learning solution ASAP.” He added that “many institutions had already expressed interest in seeing what those tools can do, and the urgency for the crisis has accelerated those desires.”
Joiner noted that aviation technician students are used to a more “dynamic, hands on approach” to maintenance procedures, which can be challenging—but not impossible—for instructors in an online situation. The teaching specialists recently helped the Aviation Institute of Maintenance program move into the online learning arena. He said the Virginia-based school with 12 locations “flipped the switch” for an adaptive training platform about four weeks ago and is now “100 percent online.”
Joiner’s vision for the future of aviation education includes a “blended experience between VR and in-person” training. With continued advancements in technology and the embracing of online solutions, he predicted that the industry is “going to come out of this even stronger than before.”