Greenville Technical College: Industrial Training Turns to Blended Learning

Traditional approaches to training industrial workers in specific job skills pose many challenges to colleges and their industrial customers. To begin, on-site training programs are expensive. Not only d'es a company have to bring an instructor to its location, but it also must release a significant number of workers to the instructional sessions to make the investment worthwhile on a per-head basis. For example, Solutia Inc., a nylon products manufacturer based in Greenwood, S.C., found itself spending $11,000 per student—a significant investment—to train them to become maintenance technicians, according to David Shiplett, Nylon Platform Training Lead at the company.

However, sending employees to a community college for instruction hasn't been the solution for every company, either. Inevitably, over the duration of the course, students drop out for a variety of reasons, often because they've lost interest or it's at an inconvenient time and/or location.

Greenville Technical College knows these challenges well. The college has provided educational opportunities for business and industrial clients for more than 35 years. The continuing education division, the Buck Mickel Center, has enrolled more than 60,000 students while serving 2,000 different companies. When the school began providing custom programs for individual industrial customers it discovered difficulties with enrollment and scheduling.

"There's always attrition when you offer these classes. You start off with 12 people and by the time you get through a program that takes two to two-and-a-half years to deliver, you only have five or six students still enrolled," says Ned Horton, Director, Occupational and Industrial Relations at Greenville Tech. "At that point, companies face a difficult decision about whether to continue the program and keep spending money, or cut their losses."

One obvious solution to these scheduling problems for Greenville Tech, and for other colleges, is to offer courses online. Internet delivery provides the flexibility of scheduling many companies seek, while lowering costs. However, Greenville Tech and some of its industrial customers were skeptical that such an approach could work.

"We're old school and felt that you can't teach somebody to fix a pump online no matter how good you are," Horton says. "We also discovered that the companies we deal with want to know that somebody has watched a person put his hands on the wrench, torn the pump down, repaired it, and put it back together before they sent that person to repair a pump in their own facility."

Blended Learning
Luckily, Greenville Tech encountered PRIMEDIA Workplace Learning's new service package, PRIMEed. PRIMEDIA proposed a blended approach to maintenance technician training using Web-based delivery of content and, in partnership with colleges such as Greenville Tech, hands-on performance evaluations.

PRIMEed combines a library of more than 70 Web-delivered courses with the hands-on performance evaluations industrial customers demand. The flexibility to enable employees to take courses that fit in with their own schedules is critical, as it overcomes some of the primary problems that occurred with other methods: students dropping out because of scheduling conflicts or changes in work schedules.

"They can take three hours to go through a Pneumatics I course, or they can take 30 hours to go through it," says Shiplett. "They can go through it over and over again until they get it in the privacy of their own home without being rushed or embarrassed because they didn't get it the first time."

Hands-On Performance
The hands-on element has made the difference for companies such as Solutia. After a student completes a course online, Greenville Tech assesses the student's abilities to perform what he or she has learned through hands-on performance evaluations administered on campus or at a company's facility. The performance evaluations ensure students have retained what they learned in the Web-based courses and can demonstrate their ability to apply the skills on the plant floor. Greenville Tech supplies the facility and equipment, as well as the instructors who will evaluate the students.

Horton likes the plan because it gives his college the kind of flexibility it needs. "One company may have three different training tracks that they want their people to go through," Horton explains. "In the past, it was one size fits all, but now we have a tremendous amount of flexibility, not only in time, but also in actually customizing the program to meet the needs of individual customers." Some hands-on evaluations run for four hours while others may only last an hour. Greenville Tech sets its evaluations up in eight-hour blocks to be able to include several different sessions on one day.

Another critical component of PRIMEed is the Learning Management System (LMS) developed specifically for the new program. What makes the LMS unique is that it has automated all steps of the process, from scoring the results of a competency evaluation, to enrolling students in specific courses, and scheduling them for the accompanying hands-on testing.

Once a student has met all of the prerequisites—the courses they must pass as determined by the initial competency evaluation—the LMS automatically provides them with the available hands-on evaluation schedule. Students cannot enroll in the hands-on component until they have mastered the theory behind each skill.

Beneficial Results
According to Horton, Greenville Tech has been able to meet the needs of its industrial customers in a flexible format. In addition, the PRIMEed program enables the school to keep its costs down, which results in lower costs of training for its customers.

Horton feels the same benefits accrue to the companies his school serves. They can train more people for less money and do so in a customized format. "If I offer courses to the public I have to aim for the average student, but if a company only has electrical issues, I can create a custom curriculum around its requirement."

For Solutia, the greatest benefit has been the post-course competency evaluations. In addition, company personnel have discovered the coursework is much more rigorous than they expected and more demanding than what they took in a classroom. Shiplett says his supervisors also love the fact that his costs are only one-tenth of those he used to pay for traditional training.

The use of Web-based courses in combination with hands-on performance evaluations, all administered by a learning management system, g'es a long way toward realizing the benefits that new, technology-based learning systems can offer.

For more information, contact Ned Horton, director of Occupational and Industrial Relations, Greenville Technical College, at hortenehh@gvltec.edu.

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