The case for hands-on training

A recent supplier of mine has been considering a move to 100 percent eLearning and web-based distance learning, including technician training. While this is understandable given the expense of instructor time and travel, it represents a potential shortcoming for our technicians.

This is not the first time I have seen this strategy presented, as it has happened even in the automotive world. In all cases so far, these organizations found they had to leave some “live” training in place.

Certainly, the nature of vehicle service training would suggest that hands-on practice in a non-critical situation (that is, not risking damage to a vehicle actually used in a fleet) is necessary. But there are additional factors to consider.

Online Learning

Online learning certainly has its place, even in service training. Knowledge transfer and acquiring some critical thinking skills – such as using a schematic and a service scenario and drawing conclusions – can be accomplished in well-designed programs.

Too often, however, online training is simply a repackaging of what used to be an instructor-led presentation.

But assuming the online training is well-structured, there are still holes to fill in the transfer of skill sets.

Lacking Elements

What is often lacking in online service training is the feedback loop, which is necessary for full development of psychomotor skills.

Some well-designed programs will provide diagnostic or service scenarios with programmed feedback based on the choices or drag-and-drop moves a student makes. Synchronous eLearning can provide a live instructor to give feedback where necessary.

But neither of these is a complete substitute for the instant, real-world feedback a student gets after performing a procedure on the actual product.

In a computer-based scenario, the student is often operating in a “perfect world” where component access and additional on-vehicle issues not related to the original symptom can be a factor.

While selecting the correct tool, the correct components to remove or repair and the correct path through a problem can be accomplished in a simulated scenario, it is, again, not a complete substitute for using the tool in a real-world situation.

Skills Learning

One must also consider the learner as well. While today’s technician is increasingly computer literate and more able to draw conclusions from online training scenarios, many still learn best by doing.

Even in computer-based learning with a full drill-and-practice component, hands-on activity outside the scenarios is often a critical final step.

In my surveys over the years, through the development of more and more robust eLearning, technicians have consistently placed hands-on training at the top of the list when it comes to learning preferences. Outside of the transfer of psychomotor skills, most technicians have simply found the hands-on experience to be more engaging.

Counter Arguments

The counter argument I often hear when I support the retention of some hands-on component in a training curriculum is the use of simulators. Many point to how an airline pilot does almost all of his or her training in a simulator.

First off, these simulators cost in the tens of millions of dollars, well outside the training budgets of nearly all fleet companies. Secondly, the trainee in these types of simulators is still using the actual controls and equipment they will encounter in reality.

While it’s not far-fetched to envision such simulators being available to the vehicle service technician, we are not there yet.

In defense of eLearning, it does play an increasingly crucial role in most training curricula. But for today, some hands-on component must remain in place.

Stephen Howe is a field trainer and technical training consultant for United Rentals, the world’s largest equipment rental company with approximately 900 branch locations in North America. Howe is also a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC), a global organization of training managers from automotive aftermarket, OEM, supplier, service tool and training companies.