Time For a New Model?

February 4, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

computer screenI 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?

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Rebecca

    I recently started a small ground school class with our flight school after several requests from customers. We have been using a study-at-home ground school for over 10 years, but there’s just something missing from a well-done live class. When I’m teaching in person, I can answer questions, slow down or re-phrase when I see confused looks, and gloss over some subjects when I get knowing nods. Students talk to each other about their experiences and frustrations during the breaks and at times during class. Many times I can ask leading questions rather than make statements, which forces the student to think through the “whys” for themselves, which in turn keeps them engaged.
    I’m not saying MOOC’s aren’t a wonderful development and a real frustration saver for most CFI’s, but I think many flight schools would be wise to supplement them by offering small, interactive classes if they have a CFI willing and able.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Absolutely. There should be instructional guidance when it makes sense to do so and there will be time when it may make better sense to use distance learning.

    Thanks for your note!

  • Chuck

    I used to teach Aerodynamics in the US Navy’s preflight training program at NAS Pensacola, FL.

    I believe that simulations and visualizations of physical phenomena would be very helpful to flight students.

    Combine that with instructor-led training in a small class, and you will have a good program.

    Not all students learn in the same way – an instructor can spot that and alter the teaching approach to fit the situation.

  • Alan D. Resnicke

    As a former USAF helicopter instructor, middle school teacher, and now adult ed instructor, as well a ASEL pilot, I believe MOOCs have a great potential. They can be used as a standardized, consistent way of communicating basic information on a subject (for instance, weight and balance). A student could be required to complete a couple MOOCs at a time, then be required to meet with small group or 1:1 with an instructor to ensure they understand the information or to respond to questions. It’s important that the student take some personal responsibility for their learning and a series of MOOCs (like home study) will work towards that end. I’m ready!

  • Kevin Crilley


    I’m glad someone is paying attention, its ridiculous what students like me have to do to get an aviation education. The FAA and the Airlines should be pressing for public loans and grants for good students, those that are able to pass exams and checkrides. Regional Airlines should be subsidized by the National Airlines for the safety and well being of current and future passengers. My friends have had to choose between risky assignments, constant fatigue, and slave wages for a Professional occupation in the Public Safety domain. I would have completed my training long ago for the kind of loans that exist for law and med schools…and no one suggests interns work for $12 an hour for 1-3 years or show up for work exhausted from commuting across the country etc.
    This is an easy problem to solve, not everyone is cut out for a career as a pilot, reward those who achieve with loans and grants now before the demand overwhelms supply due to the pending massive number of pilot retirements…

  • Andrew

    With all new technology, first it is used to merely do the same things that were done before with the old technology. Only later do people figure out how to use technology for things that couldn’t previously be accomplished. e.g. printers were first used as expensive typewriters. Later, they evolved into printing graphics.

    Computerized training is really still in its infancy. Most people are familiar only with a computer replaying classroom lectures, which, while cheaper, is not much better. The next advancement is the animated slide show or PowerPoint. But used to their capability, computer based training could drill the pilot and embed extensive experience on situations they rarely if ever experience in real life. This could dramatically improve the quality and lower the cost of pilot training.

    Transport aviation uses this approach. The military more so. But private aviation could benefit the most because of the cost impediments that leave pilots out of practice.

    So far, the motion simulators seem to leave a lot to be desired. And I recognize that there is a physical sensation component to flying well. But I hope they can become better and cheaper.

    I don’t have flight sim experience since I haven’t started IFR training. But I believe existing sims don’t go nearly far enough to test decision making skills of pilots in all kinds of random situations. Gaming would be a fantastic tool for this if well exploited.

    Perhaps what I want is too huge for ASI to take on, but I hope you will look over this article and think about how to facilitate this kind of revolution in aviation training.


  • John E Walz

    I am a surgeon. Mentioned only because of the relationship to other “specialized” training.
    I can only touch on some of the issues that I would like to discuss. Education is way too expensive. Specialties (medicine included) hold on to their monopoly. The computer is capable of training almost all of the necessary skills at an exponentially smaller cost than is currently used. Of course one on one will be needed. That’s true whether it is surgery or flying. Lets push the envelope of making training more accessible to all.