How easy any software package is to use has much to do with the ease of training required to learn it. Land surveying software typically used to gather field measurement data and produce a CAD drawing for a client is no different.

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Although some software may seem intuitive, most programs require some degree of training given their wide range of features and capabilities. Online training can last an hour or two while conventional classroom training can absorb a few days or up to a week. Once downplayed, online training has now gained widespread acceptance. And why not? A good online instructor can power through steps and functions quicker and more effectively than, say, one can in a conventional classroom setting. He can take online questions from students, examine students’ work in real time, and even test students during the training session to ensure course material is mastered.

Surveyors, for whom high productivity on client projects and billable time are precious, are now gravitating toward online training as a method to quickly master new software or for upgrades of software versions already used. Thanks to the Internet, online training eliminates hefty travel expenses and big chunks of time away from the office … and, it might be argued, more information can be retained in less time than in a traditional classroom setting.

Invisible Students/Instructor Not a Hindrance

For many of us, it may seem awkward, even surreal, to sit in a virtual classroom as a disembodied voice and mouse cursor guide participants through the functions of survey software. On the other hand, online training somewhat has the feel of a personalized learning approach for each student, since he cannot see his fellow classmates and can focus more on the instructor. Some students, in fact, may find the anonymity aspect of it appealing. For example, if a student has a question but would rather not share it with the rest of the class, he can simply initiate a chat line with the instructor. Still, the questions other students ask during the training session can be highly beneficial to all other students.

Effective for Widening Demographics

As with so many professions, there is a generational divide in surveying, with many seasoned professionals who have years of experience working alongside younger surveyors just beginning their careers. So, whereas the older surveyors might prefer traditional classroom instruction they’ve been accustomed to, the more tech-savvy younger breed probably will favor online training.

To bridge this gap in an effort to train more surveyors online, regardless of their age, some highly helpful and friendly technology tools have become available. One of the most popular programs used is GoToTraining, an offshoot of the internationally used and successful parent software GoToMeeting offered by Citrix. GoToTraining allows any firm to train up to 200 people at once online. Since there’s no need to travel or set up a venue, participants pay less. Built-in VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and toll-free audio options save money, too. And users can record sessions for students who miss the live training or simply want to review.

Instructor-Student Interaction is the Fulcrum of Training

It’s important to keep in mind that online training is not a cure-all for learning every type of surveying related software. “Some software works well online, but if you have a big upgrade, there’s a real benefit to having face-to-face interaction with your instructor,” argues Jon Warren, Land Survey Division Manager for the City of Bellevue, Wash., and President of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). Although Warren cautions that he does not represent viewpoints universally about survey software training in his NSPS position, he nevertheless has had experience with both conventional classroom and online training in his own city’s land survey division offices. The City of Bellevue continues to use a mix of both online training and onsite training at its facilities.

Beneficial for Multiple Software Versions

Training for any software firm is particularly critical because clients frequently provide electronic project support documents that have been generated with varying software programs or one specific software package — such as AutoCAD — via different software versions. This means the survey firm’s staff must be well versed on these different software programs and versions in order to service their clients. Thus, getting software training accomplished swiftly and thoroughly is paramount. Sometimes, this means online training is the best method. Yet, as Warren points out, the physical setting of a classroom with students and an instructor who can see and interact with each other is valuable just as well. As students acclimate to the instructor and to fellow students, they may find it easier to learn course material. And the instructor might more easily identify students who may be struggling with certain software concepts or functions.

Software Maker Finetunes Online Instruction

One surveying software firm that has a long history of training users of its software is Canadian-based MicroSurvey Software, Inc. The company believes its success is assured when customers are successful in their project work once they learn how to use the software. “When we provide training, we know customers become more effective with using the software, which means they can outbid their competitors and have access to a wider range of jobs,” explained James Johnston, MicroSurvey’s online trainer and a technical support specialist. This experience no doubt is replicated among other software makers who also provide online training.

MicroSurvey for years has provided software training at its training facility at the company’s headquarters in West Kelowna, B.C. But space was limited, travel was expensive and, in some cases, some surveyors had to shut down their business for a full week to take the training. After hosting webinars and using some other online tools, the company realized online training was the optimum solution to reaching more surveyors no matter where in the world they reside. “Now, we can serve a much larger number of customers simply because it’s so much easier for them to access the training,” Johnston said. “They get the same hours and quality of instruction, but without the travel and disruption of their business.”

Today, MicroSurvey puts on roughly 10 classes per year, and still offers physical classroom training. There are usually 18 students per instructor; actually, for each online training session, there are two instructors. “Essentially, it’s a nine-to-one student/teacher ratio,” Johnston said. “Sometimes, that second person is a co-instructor; other times, a facilitator. We take turns answering questions from students and delivering instruction.”

Training Helps Brush Up on Long Used Software

San Francisco Surveying President Dane Ince took a MicroSurvey training class a year ago. He has been a user of least squares adjustment software since the late 1990s, but felt he needed help with getting more productivity out of the STAR*NET least squares adjustment software he purchased through MicroSurvey. “I wanted to find out more techniques for using the software, and to see how it could improve workflow for my projects,” Ince said. “I wanted to see how someone who is really knowledgeable about the software would approach certain project work using STAR*NET, and how they would set up their .dat file. How would they run through their processing? How would they perform error checking?”

Ince’s first introduction with MicroSurvey’s online training was helpful because the least squares adjustment instructor could show students how to analyze data, some shortcuts, data entry problems, and how to identify a blunder with the data, which means data would need to be recollected. “I also liked the instructor’s flexibility with being able to field more advanced questions about the software when they came up,” Ince said.

Still, he added, online training has a different interface than that of a traditional, physical classroom. “You’re in a (virtual) classroom with students that you’ve never met before and cannot see,” Ince said. Nevertheless, he values the fact that information offered through online training is always available since each training sessions is recorded.

Online Approach Helps Students Practice Methods Fast, Break Bad Habits

The real litmus test for any training, of course, is what techniques or methods students can apply directly in their work immediately after receiving training. Says Ince: “I could process my data more quickly.” He was trained on the least squares adjustment software because that is the only survey software from MicroSurvey he has used. Although the software is reasonably intuitive, some online training proves helpful. However, Ince cautions, “If you haven’t investigated the software for a number of years, it’s a good idea to get the training, especially if you’ve developed some bad habits.”

Among the types of software for which online training is best suited, least squares adjustment seems always to be at the top of the list. This is probably because many companies and DOTs now require a closure report from STAR*NET. Many surveyors use this surveying technique and, as more surveyors emerge in the profession, they, too, undoubtedly will use least squares adjustment and, thus, will need training.

Although Online Instruction is Effective, Traditional Training Has One Big Advantage: Networking

As with any training class, there will be a wide range of professional experience among the students. Again, the least squares adjustment software is a good example to examine for how well online training helps impart methods and concepts. Some students have had least squares adjustment in college, which means online training can be more like a refresher course for them. Other students have apprenticed, and these concepts are new to them. So, the instructor’s job is to encourage them to ask questions, look at their screens, and then see where they are having difficulty.

Another way to offer instruction is recorded movies. MicroSurvey has 32 hours of movies offering instruction in the particular functions of a wide number of software products. “This allows people to get quick answers to quick questions,” Johnston said.

Although online training is here to stay, there are still some beneficial aspects of training received in a physical classroom that are hard to beat. “Networking opportunities represent the greatest asset with the traditional classroom approach,” said the City of Bellevue’s Warren. “Employees of a survey firm possibly will pick up some good ideas or new ways of approaching projects. Networking also could bring about some potential partnerships.”