By Stephanie Spann & Marg Stark
[5 minute read]
This past May, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) made the historic decision to allow OSHA Training Institute Education Centers (OTIECs) to apply for an exception to policy to offer Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) courses.
UC San Diego swung into high gear, switching to e-learning within weeks, serving students across OSHA Region IX, which includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.
As pandemic silver linings go, this is significant, as VILT (online coursework) has never been authorized before. The advantages? Students accustomed to taking classes in intensive, three-day formats report that they can better absorb the material because their virtual class schedule offers more time to digest it. Participants no longer have to incur the cost of time and travel to complete coursework. And for professionals who have been furloughed or who are looking for work, the flexibility of online offerings is critical.
For instructors accustomed to hands-on, in-person demonstrations and lessons, the move to online teaching was a daunting task. Jeff Beeler has taught at UC San Diego OTIEC for more than 15 years, with some prior online instruction experience. Even so, planning to meet the needs of his OTIEC students proved challenging. “Our students are diverse,” he says. “Some are young and very tech savvy; older members of the workforce didn’t know how to turn on a computer. We had to anticipate meeting and balancing all of their needs.”
Michelle Eisenberg, who teaches ergonomics at UC San Diego, expected that some students might not be able to print her handouts, so she moved all the pertinent information into her presentations. Even though it was difficult with the supply chain slowed, Eisenberg also purchased a high-definition webcam and a second screen for her online education set-up. “It was important to me to be able to teach to the webcam and gauge student reactions on the other screen,” she says.
Beeler, too, took different learning styles into consideration, breaking up lectures with a pop quiz that students could access with a QR code they scanned with their phones.
“I could immediately share the results of the quiz on the screen, which made it fun and interactive,” he says.
Establishing rapport was a concern for all instructors. John Marsden, who teaches Safety Leadership among other OSHA standards and trainer courses, says, “I typically walk around and converse with students in the classroom. I wasn’t sure I would be able to convey to them that I really cared, given the two-dimensional nature of this.” Marsden called upon get-to-know-you exercises, such as “two truths and a lie,” and invited students to share a passion of theirs, which he says helped establish trust.
Another UC San Diego OTIEC instructor, Ken Keberle, says the best part of the shift to online teaching was “being reminded that we are storytellers.” PowerPoint presentations, which some instructors had relied on in the classroom, had to be abandoned since the graphics and animation proved problematic on Zoom and student devices.
Drawing on his work experience in the events industry, Keberle built a set for himself with a backdrop, lighting and a standup desk. He adapted his style for a close-up camera and ensured markings on his teaching aids, such as a fire extinguisher and electrical widget, were highly visible.
“I take all of this very seriously because these classes contribute to the livelihood of my students and to the safety of their workplaces,” he says.
OSHA stipulated that the VILT courses had to be live and that students had to have video capabilities and be visible at all times during classes. The instructors logged into the Zoom sessions a half-hour early, ensuring that all students got connected. A facilitator, also required by OSHA, checked student ID’s and served as a monitor throughout.
Given the economic downturn and the heightened concern about health and safety in America’s workplaces, OTIEC courses have never been more important. Fortunately, the instructors and the student reviews were in agreement about this new normal: VILT learning can be a very effective tool.
Thom Stefanik, who teaches Machinery and Machine Guarding and other courses, was scared to come across as “a talking head” and worried that students might be more passive online. But he found that his students were even more engaged. “They watched me like a hawk. They caught me when I misspoke and asked me to clarify.”
Given the cabin fever many are experiencing during the pandemic, Stefanik says, “students preferred to be in class; it was stimulating for them. And I believe that having to revamp the structure made me a better instructor, too.”
Eisenberg was pleasantly surprised by the intimacy of the virtual classroom. “In the virtual classroom, I got to know all the students better—and they knew each other better as well.”
Are there kinks to work out? Yes, instructors say; it takes some patience to wait for students to un-mute themselves on Zoom to speak. Some video clips don’t work, and the Zoom whiteboard can be a challenge.
Still, Tim Page, who teaches the OSHA 511 course, believes OSHA online education is here to stay.
“We have so many more tools in our toolbox now,” he says, “and the training is better for it.”
Page’s student surveys show that they’re pleased with the VILT format. “I had ten students in the first class, with 27 registered for the next round. So, it’s clear our customers are growing more comfortable with the concept, as are their supervisors.”
Page believes OTIEC is now serving a new demographic: those who, because of cost, childcare or other needs, could not travel to classes.
In some parts of Region IX, where COVID-19 precautions have been lifted, the UC San Diego OTIEC is again offering in-person classes.
“Some students were eager to travel; they have ‘virtual meeting fatigue,’” he laughs.
Page sees a hybrid teaching model emerging from the experience of students and educators during the pandemic — a model that combines the best aspects of in-person and e-learning and addresses the evolving needs of learners in the UC San Diego OTIEC program.