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Using a Learning Management System to Augment Lineworker Training

“You can’t learn how to climb a pole by looking at a computer screen.” 

That’s a sentence that has been repeatedly used in our industry to discredit web-based learning. And it’s true; in any skilled trade, neither distance learning nor classroom work alone can replace the skills and confidence gained from practicing tasks and building up muscle memory in the field. But does that mean there’s no place for distance learning? Absolutely not. When properly used to augment a field skills training program, online training can speed the development of skills, make your training program more efficient and keep your crews in the field longer.

Three Different Approaches

In 1984, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom performed a study of three different teaching approaches. The study’s baseline was conventional training during which students listened to a lecture. A mastery approach was added to a second group, requiring students to demonstrate proficiency with the topics covered following the lecture. Student retention rates increased by a full standard deviation over lecture alone. A third group of students received individual, one-on-one tutoring. This group demonstrated a two-sigma increase in performance over the mastery approach. While it’s unsurprising that individual tutoring is the most effective way to train, we know that most companies can’t provide a 1:1 ratio of instructors to students. However, a mixed online knowledge and field skills training program delivered and tracked with a learning management system can enable results at nearly the individual tutoring level with the more limited resources of a classroom environment.

Now, we all know the value of kinesthetic learning – that people learn best when they are physically engaged as part of the learning process. In our industry it is necessary. But let’s also consider that without a thorough knowledge of how electrical principles work or an idea about how a delta or wye system operates, being able to climb a pole or use line tools not only becomes useless but potentially quite dangerous. Put another way, a lineworker’s mental grasp of how a job is done is just as important as the physical grasp of the actions required to safely do that job. Testing knowledge with a learning management system identifies potential weaknesses relative to an apprentice’s skills proficiency.

It’s true that the more of one’s senses a person engages, the more likely they are to retain information. For instance, reading effectively doubles the amount of information we retain from attending a lecture alone; adding audio/visual demonstrations triples the retention rate over reading. Combining these learning methods together compounds the benefits. Online training can reach all these senses. A training video with colorful illustrations and 3D visuals demonstrates skills performed to industry best practices, while a student follows along in a workbook that adheres to the same structure as the video but conveys the material from a slightly different perspective.

A Key Benefit

Consistency is a key benefit of training with a learning management system. Different instructors have different approaches to teaching a skill, often to varying degrees of effectiveness. This isn’t an attempt to knock any lineworker who is a field-grizzled instructor; it’s simply to recognize that over the course of their career, a lineworker develops any number of shortcuts and tricks of the trade. These may not always translate to an apprentice who is learning the skills for the first time, and some of these shortcuts may not be fully informed by changing industry best practices or regulations intended to keep lineworkers safe. 

Online courseware, on the other hand, is developed according to industry best practices and demonstrates a job done consistently the same way, every time. And if a company performs a task a slightly different way, that becomes an engagement tool the instructor can use to pause the lesson and have a conversation with the apprentice: “This is the way we do things at our company, and here is why.” It not only qualifies the way the task is done but ensures that the company can defend it in context with industry best practices.

What’s more, since the material is online, an apprentice can learn from virtually anywhere, whether that’s via a hotel Wi-Fi connection or on a smartphone sitting in their truck waiting for inclement weather to pass. An entire reference library is available at the apprentice’s fingertips without bulky materials to keep track of. The benefits don’t stop with the apprentice, however, since this flexibility means crews can stay in the field longer without potentially expensive travel and lodging to accommodate lengthy time in a training center classroom. They get the “book learning” out of the way on their terms, and they don’t have to gather at the training center until they’re ready to apply the knowledge they’ve learned.

Temporal Flexibility

Another benefit of learning management system delivery is the temporal flexibility of the courseware. That is, when a course is broken down on a more topical basis – with videos of three to five minutes in length rather than a lengthy presentation – an apprentice can better compartmentalize and digest each topic. Quizzes sprinkled throughout the course engage the apprentice in an interactive way, and they also serve as a tool to gauge how well the apprentice is grasping the material. If the apprentice is having difficulty understanding the concepts of a three-phase transformer connection, for example, the learning management system can determine where the learning difficulty exists and present the struggling apprentice with reinforcing information or explanations. 

A learning management system has an inexhaustible supply of patience and never gets tired of repeating a video demonstration as many times as a student needs to understand core concepts. By the same token, advanced students who are showing a full grasp of the information may be offered additional enrichment topics to further their understanding of the material. The point is, the apprentice can build their knowledge on their own terms, ensuring that they understand key concepts before they even get into the training center to practice skills.

Once apprentices do get to the training yard, following a brief review and a question-and-answer session about any concepts they may not be clear on, the instructor is empowered to move more quickly into the field, teaching the practical application of the concepts the apprentices are already knowledgeable about. Meanwhile, the learning management system provides the instructor with metrics on how effective the web-based training has been plus insights needed to quickly spot areas where a student may be having difficulty – or the inevitable student who needs extra motivation to get the assignments done.

About the Author: Kenneth Pardue is the vice president and general manager of T&D PowerSkills LLC (, which specializes in the development of a four-year electric utility training program to take a student from apprentice to journeyman lineworker.

Leadership Development, Featured