Balance: The Key to Effective AutoCAD Instruction

January 9th, 2013

The world of training and education has been turned on its ear in so many ways—and so quickly—in the last several decades. The same could be said even for the last few years. The rate of technological advancement we see today, and which is accelerating exponentially, is expected at this point. It’s as if it has always been this way.

We actually expect to be in the market for a new device or another workstation at least every two to three and maybe less. We expect that we will be working with a new set of shinier, faster, and more powerful tools in less time than we would able to wear the existing tools out – simply because they have arrived on the market.

This same thing is true for software. Any AutoCAD® user looks forward to the release of a new version like they would any other national holiday, the start of the sporting season of choice, Autodesk University, or, in the case of the Training and Education community, the start of a new term or workshop session.

It is a pretty cool feeling to install the latest version of AutoCAD. The new box art, the boot-up window, the New Features tutorials—they are reminiscent of the days of unboxing a new toy or looking at your favorite band’s new album art (physical media, what a geezer…)

This rate of change poses interesting challenges for educators. How do we train people to work with CAD software that will likely see significant changes during the training period? Even more challenging is the questions of how we best train existing users who will develop a long term project with it.

True Story

I have experienced all of this, first hand, and can’t help but believe that it will happen more and more as the rate of technological advancement increases. As a student of Engineering CAD Design at an Autodesk ATC (Authorized Training Centre) called Digital School, I was witness to the first iterations of AutoCAD with the Ribbon.

We know that a truly efficient AutoCAD power user uses the Command Line. The greatest AutoCAD power user is nearly entirely focused on this one bit of interface. Here’s the problem: new school AutoCAD users look towards the Ribbon first in most cases, and we can all see the Command Line shrinking out of the interface with every passing edition. This is especially true for AutoCAD 2013.

I recall the introduction of the Ribbon causing fits among some in the community. “This isn’t AutoCAD,” they yelled, “it's, it’s…something else!!”

Evolve or Die

It’s true, the advent of the Ribbon turned AutoCAD into ‘something else,’ but it had to become something else in order to stay relevant. This is still true for our trusty, dusty, ol’ Annotating and Detailing standby. Now the world of BIM, device portability and cloud computing are turning AutoCAD into a candidate for extinction yet again. If you listen, you can hear the buzzards singing “AutoCAD is DUMB,” or “You can’t dream in 2D.”

It should be noted that there are no fewer than 13 versions of AutoCAD, each serving different disciplines. AutoCAD may not be the future, but it is ubiquitous at present. We will be working with AutoCAD, in some form or another, for a long time to come.

Furthermore, AutoCAD has the ability to define itself yet again by being one of the few platforms that (right now) could be effectively used with a tablet. I think that we can see the onset of this with AutoCAD WS. I may be wrong, but I believe that AutoCAD WS is a few software updates away from really taking portable design solutions to a place where we all dream of them going.

The same is true with Training and Education. ‘Evolve or Die’ has become the motto for every company that is looking to take a piece of the education pie. This is true for those who are maneuvering their way into BIM training for career training and refresher courses, or the public schools that are introducing CAD/BIM into classrooms as part of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) curriculum.

Learners have evolved already in many ways, thanks to this technological ascent—maybe without knowing it! The attention span of the average human is, to be diplomatic, not what it once was. I am reminded of Homer Simpson being told that a new cooking device could ‘flash- fry a cow in 40 seconds.” What was his response? “40 seconds!! I want it now!” For the most part, learners have access to a world of information and education, and they are ready to eat it all—at once.

So, how do trainers and educators best respond to the ever-changing needs and requirements of the students, project stakeholders, or institutions that they serve? The answer, in my mind, can be found in finding a balance between the new and emerging technologies and services at our disposal, and recognizing that people still have traditional learning styles that suit them individually. We need to find ways to balance the new with the old to effectively impart knowledge. How can this balance be achieved? Recognizing the background of your learning audience is the key.

A 45-year old fabrication technician will learn differently than an 18-year old CNC (computer numerical control) operator. A civil engineer from Pakistan will learn differently than an aspiring video game designer from San Marin, CA. They may also have a divergent set of expectations. One may be patiently (or impatiently) waiting for the end of class so they can get their training credits from their employer. The other may be attending your training session with an existing high degree of design software knowledge, and just want a guided tour of the interface and workflows.

What do these people have in common? Despite their differences in background, profession or aspirations, they may have similar learning styles. In many cases, these divergent types of learner may be in the same room, wanting to effectively utilize the given software – and waiting for you to deliver instruction that will cater to their needs. How can we manage such a wide array of personalities, learning styles and expectations?

We have recognized that all learners can receive and retain information in a few general ways. People are visual, audio or tactile learners. Some learners read a piece of text or view an image and commit it to memory. Another can hear a lecture and effectively comprehend, retain, and relay the information when required. Still another may learn best by getting their hands dirty and working through it. No matter what style—or combination of styles—the learner finds the most effective, none of them likes to be bored, distracted, or under-challenged.

This is the crux of the issue. Educators need to be aware, on top of existing delivery methods, and always looking for new and interesting ways to stimulate and challenge learners. We need to always be working toward that perfect balance of learning styles—engaging the visual learners, and the audio learners, and the tactile learners; rinse and repeat. We can best accomplish this with the use of learning cycles. It is the balance, and the cycling of these styles that will keep learners of varying backgrounds, education and experiences engaged, in tune, and enthusiastic.

Another True Story

This concept of balancing learning styles and cycling through each of them is not a new one, by any means. However, I gained a new appreciation for this concept as a recent candidate for ACI (Autodesk Certified Instructor) status at a workshop that was held at the campus for all of the software instructors.

As an educator, this workshop was one of the most rewarding and fruitful bits of professional development I have experienced to date. Why? The whole workshop focused on understanding your learners, catering to all learning styles, and cycling the instruction between lectures, demonstrations, and activities—based on an understanding of those learning styles.

These three parts of the learning cycle may sound familiar at this point. Lectures serve the audio learner, demonstrations serve the visual learner and the activities serve the tactile learner. The most exciting aspect of this is the blending all three and cycling between them in the course of a lesson can’t help but keep all learners engaged and learning. Since we are all learn using a combination of these styles, there is always something for everyone.

What Are We Doing Here?

It is important to prepare the class for this by creating objectives for each class. When we set the stage for our lessons by defining measurable learning objectives, we immediate have a framework to guide our lessons. We have done our job properly if we can measure the success of those objectives the end of the class. How we achieve those objectives is defined by our understanding, ability, and willingness to use the myriad media and learning tools available to us as part of the class—to serve the learning styles of our learners.

One of my fellow ACI candidates illustrated this willingness perfectly with his choice of lecturing tool. My colleagues and I are all used to the idea of lecturing with PowerPoint presentations. But this new tool satisfies the visual learner as well as the audio learner, because they work in tandem during the lecture portion of the cycle. The candidate I am referring to used Mindjet, a brainstorming software, as a lecture tool!

At first, I must admit that I was taken aback by the use of a tool which, to my mind, is not created as a presentation tool. However, it worked very, very well! He was able to navigate through his lesson, using the features of the software to provide a really exciting visual appearance to his presentation. It was also neatly organized and stimulating to look at, and we could see how all the parts of his lecture fit into the framework of the lesson.

The Big Picture

Still using my co-candidate as an example, he also used a combination of video and personal demonstration in unison. I’m sure that we have all used YouTube videos or created our own video content for demonstration or lecture purposes. In an age where our waking hours are almost entirely spent in front of a screen, video is an effective tool for relaying information. Where he got it right was in remembering to balance the two.

Video as an Instructional Tool

The use of video as an instruction aid is not a new concept. I have created roughly 3,000 videos over the last few years, for a number of different Autodesk products, and find them to be an effective tool that serves both audio and visual learners.

It is, however, important that we remember a few things about the video content that we use. The first thing to remember is not to overuse this type of content. It’s all about balance, and too much video will discourage those who just want to get on with it and do some work. We, as instructors do not want to get caught performing a ‘Lemo’ (lecture mixed with demo). The combination of the two aspects of the learning cycle will almost always turn learners off.

Another is the speed at which ideas, workflows, or instructions are displayed. We have to be careful to ensure the viewer can understand what is about to happen before it happens! If this isn’t the case, people tend to get lost. An effective training workflow is: Talk about it, then do it, and then explain what happened (as a result of doing that thing you just did).

Yet another thing to remember is quality. Any video used as a tool will be useless –no matter how brilliant the concept—if you can hear the narrator breathing, swallowing, or chewing something. Some experts will go so far as to say that audio quality is more important than video quality.

The last key is brevity. It doesn’t matter how great any demonstration video is, how much time has been spent on callouts and zooms, or how great the narration sounds. If it is 10 minutes long—it is too long!! A two-minute video that introduces a concept, followed by a hands-on demonstration, will always beat a long, drawn-out video demonstration. Well-paced videos will signal to the tactile learners that their time is coming soon – keeping them interested in the aspects of the lecture and demonstration that appeal to them.

This Isn’t Evolution—It’s Revolution!

At the end of the day, even with all of the advancements in technology, media, and educational tools, there are well-accepted and fundamentally correct methods for the effective transfer of information. These “old-school” concepts can be utilized in a modern learning environment with the same effect as they have always had. In fact they must be!

The best learning environment—no matter if it is a Grade 9 Industrial Arts class or a three-day crash course for a new version of AutoCAD - is one in which the instruction revolves around, and balances, the elements of the learning cycle.  Lecture, Demonstration, Activity; rinse and repeat.

We all have a wealth of new tools at our disposal.  Our effective, and balanced, use of new tools will keep our classes fresh, relevant, and exciting. It is, however, our recognition of and attention to different combinations of learning style—and how we serve them all in a learning cycle—that will keep our students engaged, enthusiastic, and ready to learn.

William Myers is an Autodesk Authorized Instructor with Digital School, an Autodesk ATC in Edmonton, AB. He has instructed AutoCAD, Inventor, and Revit software sessions for classes sized 4 to 34. Will is also a Project Manager and the Helpdesk Support Team Lead with Global e-Training, an innovative customized training provider. He is proud to be professionally certified in AutoCAD 2013, Revit Architecture 2013, and Inventor 2013.

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