I read the other day that we could be facing a shortage of lawyers, and for some, that day can’t come soon enough. The reasons cited were the high cost of law school, the scarcity of well-paying jobs, and the massive student debt loads. It sounds remarkably familiar to a problem facing the aviation industry. Newly college-educated pilots often have six-figure student loans to pay off, but starting salaries in many aviation jobs, not just the regional airlines, pay about as well as those in the rapidly-prepared food business. However, learning how the french fryer works is a bit less daunting than learning how a GPS navigator works or understanding the concept of angle of attack.
Higher education is undergoing a massive upheaval with the advent of MOOCs (who comes up with these acronyms?), Massively Open Online Courses, free to all, that are being offered by some of the top schools. The big lecture hall classes that many of us suffered through are being replaced with web studies that don’t require one to make that gruesome 0800 start. The Internet is smashing the old ways of learning the same way the printing press did centuries ago—much more education at a much lower cost to the masses. Of course, if you want credit then one has to pay but the knowledge portion is free. Also it should be noted that there is considerable intellectual capital and sometimes a lot of expense in fielding a “free” course – so it’s not unreasonable to expect some recompense.
How about a similar model for learning to fly? When the first ground schools were put onto filmstrips and videotape in the 1970s, that was the beginning. Today, students and new pilots have access to a wealth of well-researched and presented online materials. Almost 15 years ago, the Air Safety Institute launched its first online course. Since then the catalog has blossomed to over 30 offerings on various topics and in a variety of formats. While expensive to produce initially, the cost of delivery is a fraction of in-person delivery of the live seminars that ASI also offers. My initial projection was that we might match the annual live seminar attendance at about 43,000 per year. The numbers were an order of magnitude higher. The live safety seminars are still being offered, but the cost per head to deliver first class training to the masses clearly has shifted to the web.
Let’s face it, many CFIs are not especially good at teaching the academics of aviation. They may have just learned the basics themselves and are in a hurry to get into the aircraft. They also desperately need to build up flight time, assuming they are looking to fly something bigger. Perhaps it’s time to think about getting them out of classrooms and extensive one-on-one briefings, and into the cockpit for that apprenticeship experience they need. The large ground school classes and one-on-one training sessions so revered by those of us who learned that way are expensive and perhaps not universally effective. The cost of higher education, vocational training, and learning to fly can be cut significantly with well-executed MOOCs and modestly priced courses.
However, and this is an important point, not everything can or should be taught by the MOOC. There are some things that really do require some human give and take. Also, not everyone learns effectively via computer, so your mileage may vary. We still need great instructors to fill in the academic holes, and until there is complete envelope protection, the aircraft will still be teaching lessons the hard way without CFI intervention. What do you think?
The Air Safety Institute is able to bring our online curriculum to you through the generous donations of pilot donors. Our online products reach several hundred thousand pilots each year, but we aim to do better. And we can with your support. A donation to the AOPA Foundation helps to keep the courses reaching the general aviation community everywhere. Consider supporting the AOPA Foundation today.