AVmail: October 12, 2009

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Each week, we run a sampling of the letters received to our editorial inbox here in AVmail. One letter that's particularly relevant, informative, or otherwise compelling will headline this section as our "Letter of the Week," and we'll send the author an official AVweb baseball cap as a "thank you" for interacting with us (and the rest of our readership). Send us your comments and questions using this form. Please include your mailing address in your e-mail (just in case your letter is our "Letter of the Week"); by the same token, please let us know if your message is not intended for publication.

Letter of the Week: Online Instruction Valuable

It is always a treat to open my e-mail and find a new edition of AVwebFlash awaiting me. This morning was no different, although this latest installment carried an extra surprise. The featured Letter of the Week was written by an old acquaintance, J. Christopher Robbins. Although we have never met, this age of the Internet once allowed us to work together on a widely distributed and particularly timely aviation related piece that focused on aviation safety.

As bright, talented, and ambitious as Mr. Robbins is, I would be remiss in my duties as an instructor if I didn't publicly contradict his pronouncements regarding online ground schools. Mr. Robbins finds them to be a pale imitation of the real deal. I'll take the other side of this argument. In my view online ground schools are an incredibly valuable tool in the educational arsenal aviation has to offer both users and observers.

As an example, consider the potential flight student who lives in a rural corner of the world. Online ground school programs allow that newcomer to our ranks an inexpensive and convenient method of learning the vocabulary of the airport, it demystifies the markings and lighting seen on the field, and explains the various classes of airspace, unseen overhead. They can become proficient in the subject of regulations, weight and balance, introductory aerodynamics, and meteorology.

In short, online ground school is effective and viable for these users. It inspires and whets the appetite of a potential pilot, mechanic, or administrator in a way that looking out the window and dreaming never will.

And what about those CFI's who find themselves called to duty in the National Guard? Many find themselves far from home with the clock ticking on their instructor's certificate. Online ground schools allow those valued professional pilots to renew their tickets rather than stand idly by and watch them lapse for lack of an in-person FIRC to attend.

Even the most casual weekend flier can derive real benefit from online ground schools. While many of us may aspire to take the plunge and earn an additional rating just for the fun of it, the inconvenience and expense of that urge may diminish the drive to actually accomplish the goal. However, an affordable online ground school that focuses on the add-on seaplane rating, or the specifics of an instrument rating might be just the ticket to spur some of us to action. The fact that we show up for our first lesson with significantly more knowledge than the average applicant can hardly detract from our educational experience in the cockpit.

In the interest of full disclosure I will acknowledge that online ground school is a facet of my own work as an instructor. And while Mr. Robbins refers to instructors in my line of work as being of the lowest quality, I'm sure that is just hyperbole. The truth is that my work day puts me in contact with new students hoping to earn a Sport Pilot ticket, ATP applicants, and in at least a couple instances, instructor pilots working at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

I am perfectly comfortable with the charge that I may not be the cream of the crop. But I can generally hold my own in a classroom or in the cockpit. Like all pilots, I have plenty to teach and plenty to learn. Online ground school is often my choice to begin that process - a choice I make no apologies for - and one I feel fortunate to have available to me, and my students.

Jamie Beckett

I am responding to J. Christopher Robbins (Ph.D.?), who wrote, "As a college professor myself (I teach contract law at Holmes College), I am very sour on Internet-based programs and curricula. Online education has not lived up to its billing. Such programs usually attract the lowest quality instructors. And it should therefore be no surprise that they attract the least qualified and least ambitious students; ones not willing to dedicate the necessary amount of time or money to a proper educational experience."

Robbins' attitude represents a profound lack of understanding of both the online student and the online university. I have been an instructor for 25 years, both in traditional bricks and mortar universities and now in two online universities. I'll keep this brief, but invite debate.

The online universities I teach for are both highly regarded and fully accredited. Their standards for faculty development are higher than any traditional university with which I have been associated. Their evaluation model pushes students to perform at the higher levels on Bloom's taxonomy of learning objectives, rather than at the lower levels elicited by the multiple choice tests which are the measure of choice in so many face-to-face classes.

Online students are quite different than those at traditional universities. They typically are not straight out of high school. They are working people, with families they are raising. Their lives are busy. Cramming an education into that busy life would not be possible for many, were it not for the any-time, any place delivery approach of online universities. In the doctoral programs for which I teach I have entrepreneurs, executives, other university educators and once, the president of a university.

As far as contact is concerned, the norm is that we do live classes a couple of times a week. We hold office hours, typically several hours a week more than people at bricks and mortar universities. Students write papers and discuss topics on discussion boards. Instructors give formative feedback of a substantive nature. I have a cell phone with 30,000 rollover minutes, and post my phone number on my classes. My students can call me 12 hours a day and they do.

I stated that I have done both traditional bricks and mortar college instruction and online. I believe that the evaluation model and the delivery is superior online, that the students online are of a higher caliber than many I have encountered in person and are far more motivated.

Know what? If I were in an online ground school, I would also be hanging out at the local FBO or flying club for context. If I know the character of my online students, I suspect that they would be, too.

Kent Van Cleave

I agree fully with Prof. Robbins' sentiments. Online learning is no more educational than on-line game playing. It's like taking flying lessons without the instructor.

Anyone unwilling to invest in a real classroom-environment ground school has no business taking an airplane up amongst airliners, corporate jets and other private aircraft. It becomes no longer a question of a "potential" accident but of a "probable" accident.

Let students of Internet ground schools do their flying on the internet -- that's the safest place for them.

Robert Hawkins

Editor's Note:

We received dozens of responses to Chris Robbins' letter, most supporting online instruction as a viable method of delivering flight training curricula.

Russ Niles

Meigs and the Olympics

Part of me is glad that Chicago didn't get the bid for the 2016 Olympics. The artist's rendering of the proposed site included the land where Meigs Field used to be, until Mayor [Richard] Daley's bulldozers ripped it up. Maybe it's bad karma, Dick.

Matt Paxton


I really like the way the tests work. I can keep retrying and see the feed back ... and learn while doing. Very, very good. Thanks.

Jim Guldi

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