In order for commercial pilots to be able to operate a specific aircraft type, such as an Airbus A320, they must earn a type rating, which is a certification required by the local regulating agency, such as the FAA in the United Sates, or EASA in Europe. Pilots can earn type ratings from flight schools or airline training departments that meet regulatory body type rating training requirements. Organizations that meet such requirements are referred to as Approved Training Organizations (ATOs).
Before going into a type rating program, a pilot must attend an Ab Initio Flight Training School where they can earn a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) and then an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL), or in the USA, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. ATPL/ATP training includes theoretical subjects, such as meteorology and principles of flight; these are also referred to as general subjects, as they are general aviation subjects that are not aircraft specific.
Once a pilot has earned their CPL and ATPL/ATP, they can go into a type rating program at an airline or ATO. A typical type rating program has three main sections: ground school, fixed base simulator training, and full flight simulator training and testing. While the latter two are fairly obvious as to what they involve, “ground school” is a little more ambiguous. Ground school can include several items, such as company specific rules and procedures, but the primary component is aircraft systems training.
The first time a pilot goes through a type rating program, it is referred to as initial training. Regulatory bodies require that line pilots regularly complete recurrent training to stay sharp. Recurrent training is required annually per FAA, or every 6 months per EASA, and it includes both aircraft systems training and general subjects training. All airlines must have pilot recurrent training programs established that meet their regulatory requirements. An airline ground school, therefore, includes both aircraft systems and general subjects training, in order to handle both initial and recurrent pilot training.
Traditionally, the aircraft systems training, also known as ground school theory, has been taught in a classroom setting with an instructor. This approach, colloquially referred to as “chalk-and-talk,” requires trainees to meet in a physical classroom for four weeks with a dedicated instructor. Ground school instructors are typically active or former line pilots, with titles such as Type Rating Instructor (TRI) and Type Rating Examiner (TRE).
With this approach, both new pilots and active line pilots have to attend ground school in physical classrooms with instructors to either cover aircraft systems information for an initial type rating, or to cover both aircraft systems and general subject information for recurrent training. Trainees have to travel to a designated training center and rent a hotel room, as well as possibly a car, while they go through type rating or recurrent training.
Airline pilots are often taken off the line to serve as face-to-face instructors, using training material developed and prepared by themselves, former instructors, or the training department. Training management personnel has to plan and schedule instructors, trainees, and classrooms. At four weeks, the ground school portion of a type rating program done the traditional way can be quite expensive, both for the trainees and the airline.
Online pilot training, also known as distance learning, eLearning, or computer-based training (CBT), is training for pilots that is delivered online and accessed via a digital device such as a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone. There are three main components to online pilot training: content, a content player, and a learning management system.
Content can include graphics, videos, interactive features, narration audio, narration text, and questions. These items are combined to create modules to be viewed by the end users. A module can be thought of as a chapter or sub-chapter; an online aviation course can contain a single or many modules. Avsoft’s aircraft system courses typically contain more than twenty modules, with each module representing a specific aircraft system, such as Electrical, whereas, Avsoft’s general subject courses typically contain one to five modules. A module contains multiple scenes, and each scene contains its associated content.
In order for an end user to view course content, a player or interface is required. A typical course player includes a window to view graphics associated with each scene, course title, module title, and scene number indications, and various controls, including navigation, audio settings, and return to main menu. Proper online course player design requires self-evident navigation and controls, as well as a responsive layout that adjusts to different screens in order to provide effective user experience (UX).
In order to access a course, you need a central location to store the course- this is where a learning management system, or LMS, comes into play. The LMS is the brains behind the whole operation. An LMS performs many functions, including the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of the courses. How an LMS looks and behaves depends on the user type- a pilot may only see available courses assigned to them, assigned training dates, and user settings, whereas a training manager can see various user management, course management, training assignment, and user tracking and reporting functions, in addition to all courses mounted on the LMS. An airline can assign training personnel different LMS roles such as instructor, administrator, or super-administrator, each of which with its own level of access. Avsoft’s proprietary LMS, AvLMS, is designed specifically for airline and ATO pilot training departments and incorporates features and functions requested by our clients to meet their specific aviation training needs.
Avsoft offers a fourth component- the Portable Classroom app. With a steady internet connection, courses can be accessed on an LMS using a web browser, but what if you are located in an area with limited or poor internet coverage? The Portable Classroom app allows iPad and Android tablet users to download course content when their internet connectivity is good, and then view the course content later in an offline mode when the connectivity is poor. When they return to an area of good internet connectivity, users can switch back to the online mode, and the progress they made while in the offline mode will be uploaded to the LMS.
There are additional elements that can be included in an online pilot training solution, such as a Learning Record Store, or LRS, that tracks xAPI statements- this dramatically expands the types and amount of user activity information that can tracked (think big data); an LRS can be integrated with an LMS. A Training Management System, or TMS, is another element that can be added; a TMS handles multiple functions including training development and optimization, planning and scheduling, resource management, and evaluation and qualification; a TMS can also be integrated with an LMS.
Essentially though, there are three main elements- online aviation courses that cover required training information, a course player to view the courses, and an LMS to deliver the courses and track user progress.
The first thing you need for an online pilot training is content- you need online aviation courses that will cover the required aircraft systems information as well as general subject information to be covered in ground school. An airline has two choices: select a content provider, such as Avsoft, or create content using an in-house or internal department. There are several advantages to hiring a content provider, the biggest being cost savings. An eLearning content development team includes various specialized roles- these are people who would have to be hired for an in-house department, which would also have to be set up and managed. Typically, the cost of managing an in-house department and maintaining the associated salaries is far more than the course license fees charged by a content provider. Additional advantages to selecting a content provider include the benefit from the skill and experience of a high-end development team, as well as faster development and implementation times. Avsoft uses a proprietary content development tool called the RD3 system which is used to both create new courses and modify existing courses. In general, selecting an external content provider such as Avsoft offers less hassle, as developing online aviation courses in-house is both resource-draining and time-consuming for staffers.
After courses have been created, they need to be approved. Airlines often have several people check the courses to make sure the content is satisfactory, including Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs, active line pilots, and regulatory agency inspectors. If content changes are required, the content provider will update the courses accordingly, and the inspectors will have to check the courses again to make sure all required changes were made.
After courses have been approved, they need to be mounted on an LMS, such as Avsoft’s AvLMS or an in-house third party LMS. Courses cannot be delivered to end users or tracked until they are mounted on an LMS. This step is also referred to as “publishing a course” or “making the course live.”
After course have been mounted on the LMS, users must be added. These include the pilots which will be given access to the LMS and selected courses, as well as instructors and other training management roles. This step includes adding user information, creating initial login credentials, selecting user role, and then selecting the appropriate training program and associated online aviation courses. Typically, users will receive an email with login credentials and LMS onboarding instructions, and the online pilot training process begins. Pilots can access the assigned courses through the LMS using a web browser, or through an application such as Avsoft’s Portable Classroom that allows both online and offline training.
After this point, an airline has to maintain the LMS, which can include adding and removing users, assigning courses and due dates, monitoring user progress, accessing reports, changing user roles and assignments, adding reference documents, and requesting new content or content modifications from the content provider.
In 1999, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University published a report titled Distance Learning on the Internet: A Situational Analysis which concluded that distance learning “is significantly better than the traditional FTF [face-to-face] classroom environment in meeting the current and future educational needs of a majority of the aviation education student population.” The report listed several strengths of distance learning, including access, student empowerment, cost-effectiveness, and automation. That was over twenty years ago and already the writing was on the wall regarding the potential of online aviation training.
In 2014, researchers from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tsinghua University co-authored a paper titled Learning in an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including an On-Campus Class. This detailed and quantitative study provided strong evidence that online courses can be as effective as traditional classroom courses. In fact, testing of the students involved in the study showed that those who took the online course learned more than those in a traditional classroom setting.
Over the past two decades, many institutions and organizations have implemented online learning systems, including the FAA, which has its own Distance Learning Resource Center (DLRC) and dedicated LMS. Many airlines and other pilot training organizations have also implemented distance learning, augmenting traditional ground school and recurrent training programs to include online aviation courses.
There are many reasons for this choice, especially with custom solutions from content providers such as Avsoft. The following section goes over the key features of online pilot training, including some Avsoft specific solutions.