Pros and Cons of Virtual Training Spurred by COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a personal tragedy for many of us, with the loss of family and friends. It also has been a financial disaster for many sectors of the economy, with massive layoffs, particularly in the transportation, entertainment and hospitality industries. This has been a devastating year for many businesses and their employees.

The internet, through Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms, allows learners to view and participate in programs from their computers at home or even on their smartphones while in the field. Photo by roromanlily at Flickr.com.

Tree care, in large part, bucked this trend, with many companies having a busier-than-average year. It seems while everyone was home, they noticed their trees and decided to have removals or pruning done. Tree services were suddenly faced with an increased workload, while also managing scheduling difficulties due to workers missing days while isolating due to infections from, or possible exposure to, COVID-19.

Tree companies also were faced with the challenge of trying to multiply the number of vehicles going to a job to maintain some semblance of social distancing. At least for much of our work, social distancing is the norm. Climbers are usually isolated in their own “cubicle” we call a canopy. Chain-saw operators have always socially distanced to protect other workers from a rotating chain rather than a virus.

Many tree services were hiring new workers to help fulfill the production demands at the same time other occupations were laying off employees. Bartenders and wait staff found themselves tending rigging lines rather than bars and feeding brush rather than people. Some found they liked this change in employment and are now working their way up in the operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a personal tragedy for many of us, with the loss of family and friends. It has been a financial disaster for many sectors of the economy, with massive layoffs, particularly in the transportation, entertainment and hospitality industries.

But with the influx of new people came the need for training. New workers needed to know how to safely and efficiently feed a chipper and to understand the company’s command-and-response communication system and the hazards of the work site. There is also the continual need for all tree workers to update and sharpen their knowledge and skills. But how do you accomplish this in the days of social distancing? The answer has been distance learning.

Distance learning

Computers and the internet have made distance learning a possibility that only two decades ago would have been near impossible. Some older readers will remember the correspondence courses offered by associations and organizations such as the National Arborist Association, the forerunner to the Tree Care Industry Association. You were mailed lessons via what we now call snail mail, then completed assignments and quizzes and mailed them back. It was slow and cumbersome and could not be done at the scale needed today.

The internet, through Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms, allows learners to view and participate in programs from their computers at home or even on their smartphones while in the field. There are a multitude of conferences that have gone or are going to this format rather than the traditional convention hall. Conferences in the age of COVID-19 have gone virtual.

For clarity, “virtual” refers to live experiences in real time. These are synchronous. “Digital” refers to on-demand, asynchronous offerings. In this article, distance or online learning or training may include either one or both.

There are some advantages to this new approach. No one must get on a plane or in a car and travel long distances to a convention center. You can watch presentations on your own schedule – no need to be in a room at precisely 10 a.m. on Tuesday. It can be asynchronous learning; everyone does not have to be on at the same time. This reduces the impact of training on work schedules. Employees can access the training at night or on weekends.

Another advantage is the array of arboricultural topics available online as podcasts, webinars or conferences. Associations, training companies and even equipment suppliers are all offering educational materials online. You can watch a webinar on electrical hazards from a training company in Michigan, attend a seminar on tree planting from a conference in Washington and listen to a rigging podcast from an equipment supplier, all from your home – and all on the same day, if you like to binge train!

There are a plethora of arboricultural topics available online as podcasts, webinars and conferences. TCIA offers a variety of podcasts available at podcast.tcia.org.

But there are some challenges with this new approach. Prerequisites for access to these training platforms are digital skills and devices. You need access to a computer or smartphone and the internet to access these educational platforms. While these have become almost universal, there still are people who have limited or no access to the internet or do not own a computer.

You also must know how to navigate these platforms. While Zoom and other platforms are fast becoming familiar to many, there are still people for whom this is a foreign landscape. They are still learning the basics – including muting audio and turning cameras on or off!

Another major challenge is motivation. Distance learning requires learners to have a high degree of autonomy and self-motivation. Learners must have organizational and time-management skills to complete this type of training. The data from university-run, open online courses is not encouraging. Admittedly, these may attract a larger number of the “just curious” rather than committed learners, but fewer than 10% of people who start a course finish it.

Distance learning also means you need to focus, not multitask. It is easy to have the course running in the background while you check email and text messages or do other tasks – and I know of some who have run them on their phone while they are doing tree work at the same time! Not that this is restricted to online programs. Remember looking around while you were sitting at a conference and seeing how many people were checking their phones (guilty!) during presentations? It is just a lot easier to do during online programs.

So how to meet these challenges?

First, more educational offerings need to be shorter and not completed over months, but instead over hours or even minutes. The new term is “micro-learning” – shorter episodes that focus on a specific topic within a subject; i.e., how and where to set wedges rather than covering the entire tree-felling process. The material also should be delivered in a more gamified environment rather than simply viewing a PowerPoint, and with quizzes as random pop-up bubbles during the viewing to maintain attention.

Not every subject can be segmented into micro-learning, and some programs need to be longer and more in-depth. TCIA’s new electrical-hazards training format, for example, is one of those.

Micro-learning, by design, is a small, bite-sized segment of learning that can stand on its own and be linked into a sequence of other stand-alone segments. It is in that type of linkage that more in depth programs are supported. TCIA will launch its EHAP eLearning in this format early in 2021.

As an incentive for participating over a longer period, many webinars and digital courses offer participants digital badges and completion certificates. But there is some concern that, with the proliferation of computer-generated certificates, there may be certificates generated and issued without standards or industry oversight. That oversight will be critical if such offerings are to retain their value.

Face to face

Arboriculture is not only learning “about,” but also learning “to.” Distance learning is a good and convenient format for acquiring knowledge. It is not a good means for learning new skills. Distance learning provides familiarity with skills, not competency. You can see new techniques or tools, but to gain competency, it is best to have someone showing you the technique as they talk through it and have you practice with them as you talk though it. Chat rooms are useful, but they do not compare to standing next to a trainer as you practice a new skill.

This past spring when schools across the country shut down, hands-on training became hands off, and most faculty and students agree it was a failure. It did not matter whether it was to replace an outdoor soils lab or an indoor chemistry lab, it was not even close to the in-class experience (with some exceptions, as a few schools were prepared).

Teaching any skills that could injure you if performed wrong was out of the question. YouTube has increased the number of self-taught, “I learned how to do this on YouTube” offerings, and they are a great means of seeing how to do something. However, it is a poor choice for the novice to learn how to climb a tree, for example, and what is being taught may be wrong!

We have YouTube videos on just about every technique and tool for tree work. The problem is, there is limited quality control on this platform. Anyone can post, and the result is that you can find videos that might serve better as examples of what you shouldn’t do than how to do it correctly. I watched one today with three different violations of the Z-133 safety standard in the first 50 seconds – a climber running the chain saw one-handed while pounding the wedge with the other hand on a dead lead, being supported by only a climbing line and providing no warning when the piece fell, let alone a command and response.

When such content is going to be incorporated into any distance learning curriculum, it is up to the course designer to ensure the videos used are vetted by industry experts to be considered for actual educational content/reference. I guess the takeaway is that people should enroll in industry-recognized training programs and not be the weekend warrior looking to the internet for tips and tricks.”

The other problem with a video is, it is still passive – you are watching somebody, not interacting with someone.

Face-to-face interaction provides greater clarity and improves understanding of the skills. The old phrase, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand,” is a good start for arboricultural skills. However, we should include “under competent supervision” following the last two. Some skills must be taught and practiced face to face with someone competent with the skill, not viewed and practiced alone.

Other professions have critical skills – ones that must be performed with precision to avoid injury – such as the aviation and medical fields. These fields have simulators to represent real-life experiences. Putting the learner into a lifelike setting and situation captures their attention and allows them to practice skills, but without real-life consequences. If you do it wrong, no one dies, but you can learn from your mistakes and improve from the experience.

Simulators

Simulators are artificial representations of complex, real-world processes. They almost always are a simplification of the process, but this can be a benefit, as it allows the user to focus on a skill without distractions of the real-world environment. The degree of fidelity, or realism, is astounding for some of the medical simulators. Many involve a mixture of computer technology tied to a lifelike patient/manikin. I used one for practice helping in the delivery of a baby with different scenarios. Deliveries are the most common EMS emergency, despite what might be shown on TV, and simulators are a great means of practicing something you might perform only once in the field.

Medical studies have noted that regular practice on a simulator improves patient outcome. Practice improves long-term memory and decision-making skills. Modules with different scenarios allow for a wide variety of skill training and practice.

There are even knot-tying simulators for surgical suturing. The arboricultural industry can access animated knot tying, but we still do not have a simulator that allow users to tie a knot and climb with it. We may get there in time.

We already have virtual-reality (VR) chain-saw tree felling and limbing as a game using wands and a headset. Stihl’s Chain Saw Simulator has the participant holding a chain saw, which adds to the VR realism and practice. Some, however, are far more of a game and not training. Farming Simulator has players conduct tree-felling operations, from felling to limbing to chipping, but these have low fidelity. If you tried to fell a real tree with one continuous cut, the outcome would be far different than what happens in this game!

The saw simulator is a Stihl-developed training concept and a core component of its digital-training offering. It combines the use of real chain saws with a virtual application (mixed reality). The simulator enables users to become more proficient in using saws, all while cutting costs through the virtual-reality concept. Photo courtesy of Stihl.

Conclusion

The new environment for training has many advantages. Lower participation cost, flexibility in attendance and the range of topics are just some of the pluses to being online. While there will always be a place for conventions, I suspect we will not entirely slip back into our old routine, nor should we. The online format is an excellent means to improve everyone’s knowledge about the various fields of arboriculture.

But we have a way to go to improve our online training. I have seen an improvement in the delivery of many programs over the past six months. There is a steep learning curve for instructors, and it’s going to take a bit more time for all of us to get it right.

I also foresee the day when simulators become more common in our field. This will allow us to practice our new skills in a safe, virtual-reality environment. The consequence of a mistake will be simply a reset, rather than a trip to the emergency room, or worse. This will not happen until we improve fidelity in many of these “games,” but we will get there.

There always will be the need for face-to-face skills training. Many of our skills will need to be taught by an instructor with a small group of students. This often is as simple as a co-worker teaching a technique or process – many of us learned the work while working – or may involve a professional trainer, of whom we are fortunate to have many in our profession.

The future will be a hybrid of all three formats – online, simulators and face to face – and that’s going to benefit us all. But there still will be additional value to meeting in person, and hopefully that will be this fall at TCI EXPO!

John Ball, Ph.D., BCMA, CTSP, A-NREMT (Advanced – National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), is professor of forestry at South Dakota State University and a Board Certified Master Arborist.

Bryan Dalton is TCIA’s director of training and credentialing.

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