Instructor Denny Johnson has spent the past 20 years leading in-person classes.
This week, he’s introducing another group of new bus operators to the job. But there’s one big difference: Johnson is alone in an office, and the 10 new hires are watching him and guest speakers present live from their own homes.
Like schools across the country, the shift to online learning is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires people to keep their distance as much as practical. This is the first time Metro Transit has offered live online instruction, and the practice is believed to be unique nationally.
For Johnson, the transition to online learning has been relatively simple. But there has been at least one surprise: the window it offers into the world of his students.
"They're not just anonymous people coming into the classroom," Johnson said. "When you see them at home, you see that they're real people with kids and spouses who are depending on this job. I've really liked that part."
The operators who started training this week were asked if they had the necessary technology, and moved forward after the idea received universal support. While the delivery method has changed, the information that is being shared has not.
"It’s the same videos, the same PowerPoints, the same guest speakers come in and present," Instruction Manager Dan Stoffer said. "The only thing that's changed is how students get the information.”
Stoffer was inspired to give online training a shot in part because he's seen it in practice at home, where his sons finished out their school year. He even adopted one of the tactics used by Stillwater Area Public Schools, where his sons are enrolled, and had new hires pick up printed material curbside before classes began.
After completing their 56 hours of classroom instruction, the new operators will begin training on the bus. But that, too, will look different than it has in the past.
Instead of meeting in groups, students will work one-on-one with instructors. Both students and their instructors will have their temperatures taken and wear masks.
The group that began this week is the first to go through training since the Instruction Center closed in March. Plans for future training and other classroom-based instruction are being developed, but Johnson said he thinks online learning could become a part of the mix even after the pandemic ends.
"People are becoming more and more comfortable with the technology," he said. "It's just a matter of perfecting it over time."