In our technological world, we all know training is mandatory to successfully break into any new type of work. For more than 25 years, the Fiber Optics Association (FOA) has been involved with training courses for electricians who want to get involved in fiber optics and cabling.


Since 1997, the FOA has offered free online courses at Fiber U (www.fiberu.org) and Cable U, which are used to help people learn on their own about fiber optic technology and new applications. 


The FOA has a lot of experience with online training but started with more traditional classroom courses. Therefore, as FOA president, I can speak with some authority on what works best. The answer is that it depends.


Some things are hard to learn online, such as hands-on skills. FOA online courses use videos and so-called virtual hands-on aids to show students the steps involved in processes such as fiber optic cable preparation, splicing, termination and testing. But watching someone else go through the steps will never come close to the real thing. Students need to handle the components, use the equipment, and develop the “touch” that is essential, and it helps to have an instructor looking over their shoulder to correct mistakes.


The FOA has been most successful with online students who have their own installation equipment and can follow along with the virtual hands-on courses. These were created by doing time-and-motion studies to break down processes, such as termination, into very basic steps. That works for some students.


A couple of FOA instructors are trying to use web video connections to watch students and help them, but it’s just not the same. One instructor teaches web courses and students come to a lab where a local instructor helps with the hands-on exercises.


Of course, if the class does not require hands-on exercises, it’s possible to take online courses very effectively. The FOA offers online courses on fiber optic applications, such as fiber-to-the-home or optical LANs, that an experienced fiber tech can use to learn about new applications. The courses cover the technology, architecture, types of components and designs. What’s missing is specific hands-on skills, but most applications use installation skills that an experienced fiber tech should know already.


The FOA is also starting to offer online fiber optic design courses. The “hands-on” part of the course involves designs on paper or on the screen, so it’s possible for students to do the labs online and submit their work for grading. One FOA school is already trying an online design course for certification.


It takes a self-motivated, disciplined person to complete online courses. Only a small percentage of students in massive open online courses actually finish them. 


Of course, there’s no substitute for a classroom course for skills development. If students want to learn how to fusion-splice fibers, polish connectors or use an optical time-domain ­reflectometer, they need to sit down with the equipment and have an instructor show them how it’s done and watch over their shoulder while they do it several times. The problem with classroom courses is finding one at the right place and time—and sometimes at the right price.


If a person is in a time crunch and needs to learn a new technology or application before they visit that customer to talk about a possible job, an online course can familiarize them with that new topic and teach them the jargon well enough for the meeting. However, they had better track down the equipment and hands-on training before trying to bluff their way through an application! There are plenty of stories about how bluffing did not work out well.


The most successful courses are called “blended learning” because they use both online and classroom sessions. Before coming to class, students study a lesson online, do some homework or take a quiz. Then they attend a class with the appropriate background knowledge, making it possible to do a quick review and then spend most of the time in the lab. FOA instructors are doing this now. The Electrical Training ALLIANCE also is adopting this method. It’s close to the best of both worlds.