Of Competency-based Training and Augmented Reality

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Suzanne Kearns will speak on ‘Emerging Trends in Training Technologies’ at WATS in April.

Professor, pilot, instructional designer, and author, Suzanne Kearns has just co-authored Competency-Based Education in Aviation. In this interview, Suzanne holds forth on trends in training technology, augmented reality, and the role of eLearning in competency-based learning.

Sanjay Mukherjee, April 14, 2016

Suzanne Kearns wears several hats as part of her typical day; but all of them have two things in common: aviation and online learning. Over the years, she’s become a regular speaker at the World Aviation Training Symposium (WATS), organised every April in Orlando by Halldale Media. And come April 21, one looks forward to something new from Suzanne (she will speak on Emerging Trends in Training Technologies this year).


A professor who teaches at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Suzanne is a licensed airplane and helicopter pilot. She holds a Helicopter Pilot college diploma, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Science and a Master of Science degree in Human Factors both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, and a Ph.D. in Education specialising in Instructional Design for Online Learning.

Meanwhile, her latest book (Competency-Based Education in Aviation: Exploring Alternate Training Pathways, co-authored by Suzanne Kearns, Tim Mavin, and Steven Hodge) hit the stands in January 2016.  Excerpts from an interview:

What trends do you see emerging in the next few years in the technology-enabled learning space?

Cloud-based simulator scenarios (where you can purchase a scenario and download it to your WiFi-enabled simulator), online pilot ‘portfolios’ that track a person’s experience and progress across different carriers and countries, augmented-reality to support performance in the workplace, sensor-based technology (think: data you might track on a fitbit) to support fatigue-management and workload-overload programs.

What is the broad subject matter of your latest book?

My new co-authored book ‘Competency-Based Education in Aviation’ was published January 2016 and is available now on Amazon  and on the publisher’s website.  Competency-based education is having an impact on the training of a wide variety of aviation professionals.  For maintenance engineers, cabin crew, pilots, and air traffic control, a focus on ‘competence’ as a training standard is redefining our education system.  Historically, the training of aviation professionals would use ‘hours’ as a way to measure progress.  Within a competency-based approach, training is complete when a learner demonstrates competent performance.  This can result in much shorter and more efficient training programs, yet it also leads to a variety of training challenges.

Competency-Based Education in Aviation: Exploring Alternate Training Pathways, co-authored by Suzanne Kearns, Tim Mavin, and Steven Hodge, explores these issues.  A key element in the book is exploring the development of competency-based methods for a variety of aviation professions.

How do you see Competency-based training evolving in the near future?

Currently, opinions seem to be split on competency-based training.  Some people advocate for it relentlessly, to an almost evangelistic level, while others reject it completely preferring to stick to traditional methods.  As we move into the future and our understanding of this approach to training evolves, I hope that the industry will come to understand that it presents strengths and weaknesses. It is neither perfect, nor impossible.  With most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Competency-based approaches have the potential to improve the efficiency of our training system, incorporate more scenario-based activities, improve real-world relevance of training, and incorporate customisation into learning (which is motivating to learners).  However, there are challenges as it is complicated to assess competence, it requires a sophisticated regulator to oversee, it is possible how we define ‘competence’ is not completely representative of real-world competence (a gap exists) which creates over-simplification.  Hopefully, as we move into the future, we can learn to strategically capitalise upon the benefits of this approach and incorporate them within our existing training programs.

In your opinion, what are the key factors for effective evaluation of competency-based training?

Competency-based assessment and evaluation is tricky.  It’s helpful to split the terms – evaluation refers to determinations of the appropriateness of the training program as a whole (issues with the design and curriculum of training and how they align with real-world needs) while assessment refers to a measure of an individual’s progress towards training objectives.  

A multiple-choice exam is an example of a ‘norm-referenced’ assessment – meaning success is measured relative to the average score of a group. Unlike a multiple-choice exam, with a distinct pass/fail grade, determining when a person has achieved competence is complicated. Competency-based education requires ‘criterion-referenced’ assessment, meaning that specific criteria are identified from competency statements and learners are evaluated on their ability to achieve those criteria.  The evidence will likely fall into the three learning categories: performance, knowledge, and attitude.  The main challenge with this approach is validity – how can you be sure the criteria you are using are valid predictors of competence? However, the benefit is that each individual is assessed individually (rather than compared to their peer group).  This is why competency-based training makes it possible for learners to demonstrate competence at any point in training – as it is an individual assessment.

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Suzanne Kearns is an Associate Professor at University of Waterloo, Canada, and President of the University Aviation Association.

How does eLearning fit into a competency-based training environment?

The challenge with training technology is that, as an industry, we tend to be swayed by the latest-and-greatest tool (which doesn’t always directly relate to the best learning outcomes).  It is human nature to want to ‘keep up with the Jones’, meaning that no training company wants to be seen to use outdated technology compared to their competition.  However, the reality is that learning is paramount – if technology results in better outcomes than it is a great fit.  Unfortunately, our industry has a history of being early adopters of training technologies that did not lead to learning improvements.  eLearning can support competency-based methods because, unlike an instructor in classroom of students, eLearning can customise the delivery of material towards each person’s specific needs.  No need to ‘teach to the average’, as is done in a classroom, as advanced students can progress quickly while those who need extra support will receive it.  So, there is a good fit for eLearning approaches in competency-based training, but the implementation always has to be carefully evaluated.  However, there are a flood of eLearning technologies entering the aviation training marketplace and they range widely in quality and sophistication.

Do you see a role for mobile-based content in competency-based approaches?

Yes, another aspect of competency-based training is ‘performance-support’. This means that people are given the tools/information they require to support their real-world performance and are not required to memorise it all in the training environment.  I believe we will see growth in mobile performance support through augmented reality systems (glasses that overlay digital information over our view of the real-world).

Can eLearning and other technology-enabled training approaches lead to effective performance in industries such as aviation where manual handling skills and situational decision making are so closely interlinked?

It is possible, but human decision making (a cognitive skill) and manual handling (a physical skill) are two distinct attributes.  A challenge in aviation is that expert pilots need to seamlessly combine expertise in the cognitive, physical, and attitude-based domains.  This can be a major challenge, as each of us is naturally stronger and weaker in different areas.  Perhaps technology can support this in the future, but time will have to reveal what this looks like.

Do you see any serious use of virtual reality in aviation training?

Not virtual reality, but I think there is promise for Augmented Reality (AR), as described above.

What are your thoughts on use of Gamification in aviation training?

I am a fan of Gamification, although in aviation training we usually think of it as ‘scenario-based training’.  As soon as a learner can achieve a score on a scenario, it has become ‘gamified’!  There is a lot of research to support improved motivation and learner engagement associated with Gamification.  Also, using learning that is contextualised within real-world scenarios should help learners practice applying theoretical concepts to real-world challenges. 

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