What can a company do when two of its most respected and knowledgeable technical trainers retire and there are no other qualified trainers? Even more challenging, these experts are also responsible for track inspection recertification for close to 600 employees across the country. Employees whose primary duty is to keep the company’s trains safe and on the tracks — literally.

Amtrak faced this scenario last summer. One may think this would be an opportunity for a thorough needs analysis, right? Yet we faced an additional challenge: The recertification of these 600 employees would need to commence by July of 2019. It was May 2019. We were in unchartered and unapproved territory. Moreover, these trainers were both highly regarded, popular, and had performance ratings and course satisfaction rates in the upper 90th percentile. These would be difficult shoes to fill.

We only had one viable option that would provide this number of employees thorough training and remediation for recertification. We would also need a persuasive argument to convince the senior managers to approve the creation of a computer-based training (CBT). We emphasized the cost savings by not bringing all employees to one location on the east coast and assured them that these highly regarded subject matter experts would be integral to shaping the CBT, especially problem-based scenarios which would capture their rich professional expertise. However, as instructional designers, we wondered if we could create a CBT course as effective — and as popular — as the former instructor-led training (ILT).

Let’s assess Amtrak’s approach to redesigning one of its most highly technical instructor-led safety training courses and transforming it into an asynchronous CBT — an entirely new paradigm for Amtrak’s technical training and development department.

Analysis

  • Trainees were traditionally trained with hands-on practice exercises.
  • Trainees received training primarily by lecture only.
  • Experience of trainees ranged from two to five years to more than 25 years.

Preparation

Preparation was key to completing this technical course. We began by collecting instructor notes, detailed photos and graphics, group exercises, possible scenarios, and discussion questions from our experts. Next, we began storyboarding the course by asking three questions:

  1. What techniques can be used to change from PowerPoint to CBT?
  2. Can an in-class activity be converted virtually?
  3. How can I make the slide interactive and engaging?

From these three simple questions, the transition from instructor-led course to a virtual course began.

Development

Our employees need this course to keep their positions. Efficiency, efficacy and simplicity would be paramount, especially to a workforce not comfortable engaging with online training. We tackled the learning content on the slides in several ways:

  1. Narrated image captures: A visual reference to the content is presented without bogging it down with wordy bullets.
  2. Knowledge checks: Participants are prompted to respond to a question about the content. The correct answer is revealed even if the wrong answer is chosen.
  3. Reference resource: The track compliance manual (TCM) was incorporated, which must remain with employees while on the job. Employees must be proficient in navigating the manual, so we created screen captures with highlighted reference points to reinforce key concepts.
  4. Chunking: Distilled information to three or four points, with narration lasting no longer than a minute.

These four techniques enabled the CBT to flow logically and be an efficient guide to our employees. Now we needed to answer the question: Can an in-class activity be effectively converted to a CBT?

Engagement

Calculation exercises using formulas from the TCM were critical to the training. The challenge was making them understandable. For each calculation exercise, we used a narrated demonstration of the formulas. Next, the learners would practice the exercise. Like all the knowledge checks, the answer would still be provided regardless of whether the learner answered correctly; however, we wanted to take it a step further. We opted to provide a step-by-step guide on placing the measurements in the formula to achieve the correct answer, using narration with a short animation of the calculation process. More than getting the correct answer, we wanted to show them how to get there, because if calculations are wrong, derailments could occur.

We also needed to convert classroom exercises. We utilized images and narration, but we wanted even more engagement. By simply creating clickable items on the screen, interactivity was built in and engaged participants in the learning process. For example, we found that, by asking the same question regarding track deviation using three different images, engagement increased. Even if the answer entered was incorrect, the course would give them a definition for future reference, replicating what used to take place in our classroom environment.

There were varying levels of knowledge among our employees who needed recertification. Therefore, we needed an additional engagement task to make it more challenging for employees who use the TCM often but would also allow inexperienced employees to refer to the manual as a resource. We built this variance into the CBT by using hot spots, hyperlinks and clickable objects. This feature enabled less-experienced employees to navigate the manual while allowing experienced employees the option to simply view it.

Evaluation

We made our deadline. The course went live on time. We reduced seat time from eight hours to three hours with the same effectiveness. The reduction in seat hours not only enables employees to get back to the job faster but also allows employees to remain at locations without additional travel costs and time. Our travel costs to deliver this recertification course have been eliminated. Our evaluations, to date, are about 85% favorable for the first year. We are continuing to make improvements to the course, so we can increase that percentage next year.

Lessons Learned

Due to the technical course content, effectively transitioning an instructor-led course to a CBT course was — at first — our biggest concern. Applying a true design and conversion plan solved our concern; it determined which content could be interactive and which needed to be chunked or eliminated. Too often, designers can take an SMEs availability for content-related questions, activities and stories for granted. Therefore, our most significant lesson learned is that training managers and designers may want to assist their organization in a thorough review of its most valuable SMEs, especially their availability and time to retirement. Think about the importance of building one’s bench strength. By doing so, these experts can share their expertise with the future workforce whether the training delivery is led in a classroom or online.

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