October 18, 2021

Online teaching has changed the way students learn and are exposed to their future careers – especially for hands-on industries, like the trades. With a shortage of tradespeople, those in the industry wonder if the students who will work alongside them, eventually replacing them, will have enough experience to get the job done.

For many of the trades programs at Conestoga, theory based classes are being taught online through Zoom. Theory classes include lessons about terminology, the math and science behind the trade being taught.

Shop classes remain in person. Of course, the class sizes are reduced, and students work at distanced work benches. Students and staff must wear masks, as well as complete screening questions on the Conestoga Mobile Safety app before entering the campus.

While many think the in-person shop classes are the most altered by COVID-19, it’s the online theory classes that some students are struggling with.

Adam Griffin, a masonry professor at Conestoga for 13 years, allows his students to do their quizzes online, open book. He figured, if anything, having the classroom resources available would give the students an advantage.

But, it hasn’t proven true.

“On average, I have found student grades and achievement to be lower when it comes to online learning,” Griffin said. “This is even the case for things like test scores, which was quite shocking.”

Griffin believes a large role in the decline of high test and assignment scores has to do with their information retention.

“It’s harder for my students to become as engaged in learning online…I have so many more options to engage with students in a physical classroom setting, than I ever will online,” he said.

William Lamoureux, a carpentry construction techniques student, agrees that paying attention online can be difficult.

“I find my mind wandering a lot easier sitting in front of my laptop, instead of a whiteboard,” he said. “You miss one little thing in a theory class, and poof – you won’t understand the next thing being said. It’s all very in-depth.”

Lamoureux working on a concrete form project on campus. Submitted photo by student.

Many of the students who take trades are kinesthetic learners, attracting them to the career path in the first place. In addition, not everyone has the technology to learn at home.

“Some [students] don’t even own personal computers. I had one student who tried to access his online content through his Xbox, because he didn’t own a computer,” Griffin said. “That is a significant impediment to learning.”

Those in the industry, like Steve Ostetto, an industrial electrician for 27 years, worry the next line of tradespeople aren’t learning enough online; let alone to fill the shoes of the already existing shortage of trades workers.

“I see wanted signs for mechanics, welders – those sorts of job – everywhere,” Ostetto said. “We’re desperate as it is for workers, so the ones who come in need to be good.”

Another thing students miss out on is blue-collar culture. Developing the dry humour and thick skin for joking with one another is a skill itself, Ostetto explained.

Griffin can attest to this; even students getting to know each other or him is a harder task lately, with distancing and masks.

“Trying to be witty or sarcastic is much harder when people can’t see your face,” he said. “Consequently, my joke game has gotten worse – more so than it already was.”

Despite the hardships, Griffin and students like Lamoureux are making the best of it.

“I’m still getting good grades for my online courses, and even better grades on my physical projects. So, it’s not a waste by any means,” Lamoureux said. “I’ve only hit my finger with a hammer once in two years. So, I must be learning something, right?”

Lamoureux’s final project process from last year. Submitted photo by student.

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