Trades Schools Adjust as Pandemic Drags On

Hands-on trade skills raise unique challenges amid move to online instruction
September 1, 2020 Updated: September 2, 2020

Trades schools are adjusting course instruction as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, creating challenges that will affect how students learn.

In Saskatoon, Cody Deringer is starting his fourth year teaching a 38-week pre-employment welding course at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies. His class size of 14 hasn’t changed, but it will be a challenge.

“Before, we were only bringing cleaners in twice a week, but now we’re bringing cleaners in every day. And I have to go around and sanitize a lot of the common touch points throughout the day as well,” Deringer said in an interview.

“We have to wear a mask in the classroom and in the shop. The problem with wearing a mask in the shop is you can’t just wear a normal mask because they’re flammable, they kind of melt. So with welding we have to wear kind of a respirator style. Well, I’m trying to find some right now and I’m being told [it’ll be] three months before I can get them.”

Until ideal masks can be acquired, students will use a new cloth masks each time they emerge from welding booths. Welding students experienced this in the spring. The lockdown led to online assignments and the cancellation of work placements. When students were allowed to return on-site in June, they had long instructional hours in order to finish the course on June 26 as originally scheduled.

“All of my students did fantastic. They were just happy to be back and happy to be able to finish their program. Everything was up in the air for so long they were worried,” Deringer recalls.

Students who contract the virus will have to quarantine for 14 days. Contact tracing, diligent sanitizing, and a rearranged class day may help prevent that.

“We’ll just do our shop work until lunch,” he says. “After lunch we’ll go to the classroom and I’ll do my lecture, give them their assignment, answer any questions they have, and then they’ll be going home to work on their assignment just to minimize contact as much as possible.”

At the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton (NAIT), 42 percent of degree, diploma, and certificate programs will be delivered solely online. The rest will mix online and on-campus experiences. Twenty-eight apprenticeship programs will have a blended format. Seventy-nine percent of continuing education programming will be delivered online, with the rest on campus.

Boni Ehmann, an instructor of the Parts Technician program at NAIT, recently finished a Master of Business Administration degree online and will now teach a class that is making the complete transition from classroom to online. She and other instructors returned to NAIT two weeks early to learn how to use the Moodle platform for online instruction.

“We had all our materials put online before we left in June. Then [we had] all of the training sessions. … We came back early, but it’s a couple of weeks and then our students come in, so it’s not a lot of time to digest,” Ehmann says.

NAIT’s in-house experts showed Ehmann how to use special software to “minimize the amount of cheating, because that’s a big concern.”

Ehmann appreciates what the change means for her students.

“My MBA was done all online,” she says. “The thing I lacked with being online was the social interaction that you sometimes get with a student cohort. But the motivation was there. And with apprentices I see a lot of motivation because this is tied to their work, versus maybe a high school student that isn’t quite sure what they want to do with the rest of their lives.”

Jim Szautner, dean of the School of Manufacturing and Automation and the School of Transportation at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, says not everything can be put online.

“We have other programs like carpentry, automotive mechanic, heavy duty [equipment] technician, where it’s very difficult to simulate doing a transmission overhaul or changing the brakes on a car or building a house online. So those instances would have a higher degree of face-to-face labs.”

Szautner credits his instructors for their extra efforts.

“They’ve been producing just phenomenal online resources using technology, things like augmented reality and using the Zoom calls to really emulate their own classrooms,” he says. “We’ve had faculty go into their own shops, their own garages, and take apart their diesel engine and put it back together again in demonstrations for the classes.”

Will the adaptations last when the pandemic is over? Szautner thinks so.

“What I do foresee is that there will be a greater degree of comfort with online learning. People have now experienced it, and they show that they can learn online and most of them have adapted well to it,” he says.

“When we do have a chance to come together again and meet face-to-face, I think that people are going to embrace that connection that we have and maybe not take it for granted like we have in the past.”