Chris Ahrens, GSI-Gesellschaft fur Schweiβtechnik International mbH, Germany presented papers on distance learning in welding at the 2012 IIW Regional Congress.

In all areas of learning and development, technology has changed the way in which we teach and learn. Until recently distance learning could only be implemented for theoretical or academic subjects. Trades and more practical career choices such as dentistry and medicine had to be taught in a classroom or laboratory. Trade education used to be handled through apprenticeships with a master craftsman passing on his knowledge to a student, but moved away from the one-on-one scenario to a classroom situation in trade schools after the industrial revolution. The world is now once again moving towards a more individual form of teaching through e-learning.

The most important part of online learning is how the material is tied to the student and delivered in an online environment. As far as the theory is concerned, the model will work like any other theoretical e-learning scenario, but with regards to the practical experience required new techniques are being developed. According to Luciani there are various levels of online learning. The basic level where the online course mirrors the classroom, the hybrid level where only a portion of a course is presented online (typically the theory) and the practical is still done one-on-one or in a classroom, the augmented level where a course is based on an existing classroom course with an online version modified to allow more of the available online technology to be leveraged and the immersive level where a course is completely reconstructed for exclusive online delivery.

The line between practical and theoretical training is blurred and components such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and simulations are used. The welding simulator uses the Augmented Reality (AR) technology to simulate real welding that incorporates real welding guns. The user experiences the real connectors, adjustments and procedures as they would in the real working environment. While The AC reality simulator is not suited for e-learning due to cost, it has class room advantages such as reduction of training time and saving running and consumable costs. There are other simulators within the engineering fields such as electrical, electronics, mechanical systems and automation that are suitable for distance education. These simulators are based on software packages that are accessible by distance computers.

Many of the new technologies are basic and have been around for awhile, such as distribution of pdf documents, placing information on web pages and live video chats, but these tools only provide the most rudimentary of solutions and are normally used for the theory part of the course. For practical training it is necessary to use more sophisticated tools and methods in order to simulate the hands-on time at the torch. The goal is to provide a solution that is as realistic as possible using technology close to gaming technology, such as Nintendo Wii. This method of training is obviously more suitable for the younger generation. Nothing is impossible in the new technological industry and to develop an affordable welding simulator that can be used for distance education may not be far off the charts.

Technology currently in use for online learning in welding includes welding simulators, personal computers and mobile devices. Welding simulators represent the high end of systems as they are customised free standing platforms that are designed to provide true hands-on simulation of welding using welding equipment without producing any actual arcs and sparks. These come with a high cost that greatly prohibits their use for an online learning environment where the student is accessing it from their home or other non-school location. With advances in computing technology and the low cost of dynamic input devices such as three axis pointing devices and motion capture cameras and software, their use in online learning and even in-class training is likely to be superseded in the near future by more economical systems delivered through or as an easy extension of the PC.

Ahrens warns that it is necessary to meet the requirements of industry and to develop new educational concepts such as education in the form of multi-media teaching. Computer based training enables the participant to gain knowledge on a PC. The training tool exists out of common explanations in the form of text and figures, as well as animations and video sequences, thus securing a high extent of audio visual aids. Every teaching unit is completed by a test on the knowledge showing the results of the studios. Together with the application to the training course the learner obtains the opportunity to participate in an internet chat and to exchange questions with tutors via e-mail.

A shift to online course delivery should be seen as an opportunity to expand on the scope and quality of the courses being delivered. As the demand for online learning grows the demand for more online content will grow. This opportunity should be taken to consider how the course should be delivered as well as its content and the context in which it is presented. Moving to an online learning environment should not be considered a simple business decision however. There are many factors that should be evaluated to ensure that time and money spent developing an online learning environment provides good returns in both learner and bottom line revenue. Costs such as bandwidth, hosting services, content creation, license fees, redundancy of systems, backup power and IT support should be taken into consideration.

Costs aside, while the development and deployment of any online learning environment is an involved process that affords the opportunity to look beyond traditional teaching methods and material, it provides the opportunity to reimage and repurpose the teaching of welding and welding related skills to a wider, more connected market. The advantage of a blended training method mixing online learning and classroom practical work is that theory can be taught internationally at the time most convenient to the learner and at an individual speed of progress, while cutting travel and accommodation costs. For employers, it has the advantage of learners not being out of the office for long periods of time. Immersive learning models are made possible through the use of the virtual welding trainer. Using the virtual welding training, the basic capability of arc welding is trained without already striking the high performance arc.

The three dimensional guidance of the torch is electronically controlled and the welder will be asked by a signal and audio voice unit to carry out corrections. The pilot arc used in the process simulates the actual process and particularly trains the welder in striking the arc. With each weld a supervision of the parameters is performed which could be taught by welding training through individual training only. The range of parameters presented at the end of the welding summarisesthe consistency of the movements. Not before an intermediate result has been obtained, the training “in safety” is ended and the welder changes to high performance power sources. To this end he carries out the movements he is already capable of thus being able to concentrate on new focuses such as the high performance arc and formation of the weld pool. Through this procedure mistakes that might creep in during the movements and can later only be corrected at a large expense are avoided.

Since welding engineering is being embedded into more and more complex technology, entire processes in education in welding must also consider inter-disciplinary subjects and technological developments.

The Southern African Institute of Welding (SAIW), founded in 1948, is a not-for-profit organisation with a purpose to further standards in welding, fabrication and related technologies. The SAIW is active throughout the Southern African region, offering consultancy and support services, as well as a wide variety of welding and Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) courses that can combine into a SAIW and IIW (International Institute of Welding) diploma. The Institute head office is a purpose-built building located in Johannesburg, Gauteng, with branches in Cape Town and Durban. They can be contacted on (011) 298- 2100 or www.saiw.co.za .