A&T Updates: Chapter Network & Online Learning

IEC National Applauds its Outstanding Chapter Network During COVID-19 with its CMS and BBB Expansion

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, only a handful of chapters maximized the use of IEC’s robust Content Management System (CMS) and the BigBlueButton (BBB) – the online video delivery system.

IEC of Utah, IEC Rocky Mountain, and IEC Atlanta were some of the first chapters to embrace this online platform from the start to hold virtual office hours, provide a forum for questions, conduct mid-term and final exam review, showcase guest speakers and presenters, make-up classes, and hold regular three- or four-hour classes and other supplemental trainings. These chapters were eager to adopt the CMS online learning platform due to their geographical location and area serviced. They needed a way to serve apprentices and electrical contractors who live over an hour from the chapter and who have barriers to attending physical classes. It is also important to note that IEC educational hands-on activities and labs were still administered in addition to online education without disruption. The CMS solution to this problem allows IEC chapters to provide unique online learning opportunities for these individuals, who may otherwise struggle to complete the IEC program. It offers flexibility and convenience while not sacrificing the integrity of the IEC four-year electrical apprenticeship program.

But just as quickly as states locked down in response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, interest in becoming online-capable rapidly grew among IEC chapters to accommodate temporary closings. To assist this demand, IEC National utilized the vast knowledge and years of experience these initial chapters had using the CMS and BBB. Their expert knowledge of these platforms and willingness to share best practices was vital to other chapters’ success as they learned how to navigate the systems themselves. It was a testament to IEC’s strong bonds to witness the openness from veteran CMS chapters who had already mastered online education to share resources for the entire IEC network.

Many of these IEC chapters were using aspects of the CMS but were not using the BBB or other robust distance learning features such as virtual training. The monumental task for many IEC chapters was how to conduct classes online using the CMS and BBB without any prior knowledge or internal setup. It was more complicated than simply setting up online classes on the CMS. Chapter instructors had to receive a crash course on how to move from a brick-and-mortar classroom to a virtual classroom almost overnight. More importantly, our nearly 14,000 electrical apprentices needed to learn how to navigate the CMS to enroll themselves into their online training session, while understanding the many features and tools available to enhance their user experience. All of this was achieved through the sharing of resources within our chapter network to allow for the majority of IEC chapters to make the full migration to the BBB quick and seamless.

As a result of the strong IEC network, thousands of apprentices experienced no disruption in their education and continue to excel. “Online classes have been in session for about three to four weeks and the feedback from students has been mostly positive,” said IEC San Antonio training director, Raul Vasquez. “They like the interactive nature of BBB, such as answering poll questions directly from homework and seeing the instructor live through video. Another great feature of BBB is that students are able to work together in ‘break out rooms’ on assignments. From an instructor’s perspective, the ability to use the virtual whiteboard makes it easier to explain concepts through drawing. I will continue to use BBB as an additional learning tool even when we return to in-person classes.”

One excellent vehicle for information-sharing was the creation of a shareable Dropbox folder in early March 2020, which is still accessible for all IEC chapters. Many of the first chapters mastering the CMS provided invaluable resources for others to view and access within this shareable folder. For instance, IEC Rocky Mountain provided “How To” videos and tutorial materials on how to use the CMS and the BBB for both the instructor/administrator and the apprentice. IEC Atlanta also provided step-by-step guides to assist IEC chapters migrating to the online platform, while IEC National, ATP, and other chapters constantly provided supplemental materials to ease online transitions.

As states begin opening up and as the nation moves forward from this pandemic, many of these newly online-capable chapters have expressed their intent to continue using the CMS and BBB next year. Doing so will enhance their apprentices’ educational experience and allow for greater flexibility for instructors, while also providing extra time in the classroom to focus more on vital hands-on activities and labs. This supports the IEC apprentice to perfect their troubleshooting skills in the field and on-the-job, allowing them to become even more valuable to their electrical contractor and to thrive within the industry.

While COVID-19 uprooted every aspect of our day-to-day lives, the silver lining for IEC is the greater exposure to the CMS and the BBB for the majority of our chapters. The IEC chapter network quickly and without question banded together to assist those chapters who required extra assistance to keep apprentices’ education from lagging behind, resulting in more CMS and BBB proficient chapters. By creating new means of communication and information-sharing, instructors and apprentices alike benefited from the online educational offerings. IEC National thanks these outstanding chapter executive directors, training directors, and electrical contractors for their wiliness to share their best-practices and support one another during such a hectic time in our history. This experience reinforces IEC as a resilient association with dedicated members who are always looking to assist one another, regardless of the issue, to ensure we are all strong together.

 

IEC’s Journey into Online Learning and the BigBlueButton (BBB)

In 2013, IEC National Education knew that online education was the wave of the future. For IEC chapters to remain competitive and to further their apprentices’ educational success, IEC National established the Learning Management System (LMS) and the Content Management System (CMS).

These online educational tools introduced chapters to the online realm so they could ease into the systems at their own pace. The LMS was a scaled down version of the more robust CMS. It was a more basic platform intended for a chapter to dip-their-toes into an online delivery system as a precursor to making the ultimate shift to a much more vigorous online platform, the CMS. As chapters grew more proficient with their online capabilities, the CMS became a more popular online tool because it offered more advanced features and content.

By 2018, IEC chapter demand for the CMS made it clear to IEC National and the National Apprenticeship and Training Committee (National A&T) that the LMS was a less useful platform for their educational needs due to various restrictions for both the instructor and apprentice. At this point, chapters had had the opportunity to establish and implement the more limited LMS to gain familiarity with online education and to serve as the groundwork for shifting onto the more vigorous CMS. Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, IEC National officially eliminated the LMS and bundled the cost of the CMS with each apprentice kit, allowing for more widespread access.

The CMS now houses all essential IEC instructor resources and other educational materials for participating chapters’ and instructors’ exclusive access. Before the CMS, these materials were located in many different places creating unnecessary headaches and confusion for instructors to locate critical materials for instruction. IEC National also provides training videos and other how-to materials for chapters to help them maximize the CMS user experience. Another integral component to the CMS is the BigBlueButton (BBB) for distance training and online delivery. The official switch to the CMS and subsequent integration of IEC curriculum materials has changed the face of IEC education and ensured a competitive edge within the industry.

This proactive approach has proven both visionary and vital to educational success as the onset of COVID-19 forced many chapters to temporarily close their doors. In early March 2020, IEC National CEO Spenser Villwock, IEC National VP of Education & Training Paul Dolenc, and American Technical Publishers (ATP) discussed leveraging the existing BBB on the CMS to maximize its educational benefits for IEC’s nearly 14,000 apprentices nationwide. ATP immediately performed updates to the BBB and CMS to confirm it could handle the anticipated increase in users, while the IEC National Education Department quickly compiled valuable resources, helpful hints and tutorial videos to share with the entire IEC chapter network regarding how to keep classes running.

One of the biggest concerns and barriers for IEC chapter executive directors was how to integrate the CMS and BBB quickly and efficiently to successfully complete the school year. This was a very large undertaking. To facilitate their transition and make the task slightly less daunting, the IEC National Education Department sent weekly emails to executive directors and training directors with pertinent updates regarding the online platform. For an added level of support, ATP had designated support staff to provide extended hours the week of March 23 to provide real-time assistance, especially during evening hours when most classes are in session. This was an invaluable benefit to IEC chapters who, for many, were using the BBB and CMS for the first time. Thanks to an all-hands-on-deck approach, there were very few hiccups or issues experienced by chapters. At peak times there were over 109 live apprentice classes occurring simultaneously, allowing for many chapters to finish their schoolyear on time.

“The BigBlueButton, first and foremost, allowed our students to continue their education while the state closed schools,” said Kathy Gurba, training director for IEC Southern Colorado. “All the tools the instructors needed were already in place and linked to the curriculum, even the technology-reluctant instructor jumped right in. In a time where most people have their heads buried in their phones, oblivious to the person next to them, it was interesting to see the written chats and hear the spoken interactions between the students and their instructors, all banding together to make on-line learning work!”

The astuteness and forward-thinking of the National A&T and IEC National Education Department to migrate all IEC education content to the CMS platform enabled this smooth and successful outcome during the COVID-19 outbreak. The BBB specifically helped sustain IEC apprentice education nationwide thanks to its online video capabilities and virtual training, while maintaining the integrity of the four-year electrical apprenticeship program. ATP deserves much of the credit as well as they tirelessly worked to create innovative ways to service IEC members, chapters, instructors, and apprentices. During this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime crisis, the IEC network once again demonstrated an extreme willingness to help each other while not sacrificing the merit-shop philosophy and mission to deliver the finest electrical education and training to IEC apprentices. As of today, the majority of IEC chapters are now utilizing the CMS and BBB, and intend to continue utilizing it when classes resume in the Fall 2020.

Monica Dolenc is IEC’s director of education operations and strategic initiatives.

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