By Lauren Duensing, Contributing Editor
New methods
Although in-person classes will still be vital, post-pandemic training will likely include far more online offerings

eeping learning up-to-date and accessible has taken on a whole new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. All types of educational institutions are quickly pivoting to online classes to ensure students stay on track while they are at home.

The International Training Institute (ITI), Fairfax, Virginia, a jointly administered training trust fund sponsored by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), provides training, curriculum and other assistance to apprenticeship training centers across the United States and Canada.

“The goal is to keep our training current to the industry needs and to develop new training methods that can be shared with the instructors, who will take that knowledge back to their local training centers and unions to better serve SMART members,” says ITI Administrator James Page.

Topics range from classroom management and curriculum planning to specialties like welding, HVAC installation, HVAC service, architectural sheet metal and BIM (building information modeling) technology. Popular courses include BIM; architectural sheet metal installation; testing, adjusting, and balancing (TAB); and fire life safety (FLS) damper inspections, Page explains.

A “class photo” of students attending the ITI’s first online course in early March.
A “class photo” of students attending the ITI’s first online course in early April.
Explore skills at home
Page says that the ITI offered an online library of self-paced courses prior to COVID-19. As more states implemented shelter-in-place orders, the ITI “began helping local training centers pivot to provide more extensive online training to their members.” The ITI has also been providing guidance and training regarding online learning management and meeting platforms.

“We are transitioning many of the remaining 2020 instructor course offerings from in-person to online formats,” he continues, “which typically consists of daily meetings led by an instructor and followed by independent work on one of our online platforms.”

When designing content, balance is critical, according to Page. “These are stressful times and, while people are craving stability, we also understand that it’s easy to get burnt out on the idea of overproductivity.

“By tailoring schedules to create a meeting space daily for check-ins, we’re able to work with participants to cultivate that feeling of routine, but we’re keeping the length of the meetings shorter than class times would be for an in-person course.”

Rather than eight hours of face-to-face time, interactive online meetings now generally run two to three hours before independent study, Page notes. Some classes offer a second session during the day to “allow participants to touch base with the lead instructor and each other.”

Stay engaged
When standing in front of a classroom, it’s easy to see when students are engaged—or confused. They smile and nod, make eye contact or nudge a neighbor with a question. “As an instructor, one of the potential downfalls of online instruction is the danger of losing student engagement,” says Lisa Davis, field and staff instructor for the ITI.

It’s important for instructors to adapt their teaching style to facilitate engagement and use all the techniques available in the learning platform.

“Most platforms have student engagement techniques like polls, chats, forums and added nonverbal feedback, such as emojis or being able to raise your hand in a virtual classroom,” she says, noting that the ITI has increased the amount of its one-on-one “office hours,” using these tools itself when collaborating with instructors and coordinators to help them master the techniques.

“ITI has taught a handful of courses online since the pandemic started that we would have normally held in person, including a new coordinator’s workshop, fire life safety systems courses for instructors, service instructor training courses and various computer software courses. All have been a great success and the participants were relieved to know that we’re here to help and evolve along with them and their needs,” Davis says.

Going forward, Page says the ITI will continue to transition in-person courses to online courses as needed, while developing new online offerings. “The increased options will benefit our members and make training more accessible, especially for those members who want to take courses not offered locally.”

A hands-on industry will always need hands-on courses, though. When it’s safe to gather in classrooms again, Page says the in-person component of learning “will still be vital for the unionized sheet metal industry. The hands-on portion of our training and camaraderie building with your union brothers and sisters will always be important.”

International Training Institute,
Fairfax, Virginia, 703/739-7200,