We've talked about Flex with Alessandro Enna, Festo's academy manager, who has explained how this mode has been evolving since before the pandemic.
First of all, Alessandro, how would you define “flex”? And what differentiates "flex" from "blended"?
The term “flex” defines training moments that allow formal learning both for people that are physically present in the classroom and for those who are connected remotely. Flex classrooms are, therefore, "mixed" classrooms. Not all topics and didactics lend themselves perfectly to this modality. In general, Flex is more suitable for case histories, deduction, or group work carried out using collaborative tools (such as Mirò or Lucidchart), where it fits physical simulations and gaming less.
On the other hand, "blended" is a broader concept of instructional design and points out an educational path designed from the beginning as hybrid reality, including different tools and methods. A course, for example, can be designed to include: 1 hour of pre-assessment, 1 hour of overview, a few hours of elearning, 4 hours of webinar, 2 days in the classroom for laboratory and gaming.
How did you start using the flex mode in Festo Academy and what happened through the pandemic?
Even before the pandemic, the flex mode was already known at Festo, but was mainly used for digital company meetings. On those occasions, we were more concerned about the quality of the audio and the ability to share documents than interaction. Since Festo is primarily a consulting company for operations and industrial design, the flex mode was also used for teamwork through the use of advanced collaboration tools.
With the pandemic, we initially had a total block of in-person activities and we quickly activated webinars in full virtual mode. When we realized that the emergency would last, we tried to find other acceptable solutions, especially for pieces of training that featured a practical part. So, between March and April, we experimented with new flex solutions with small groups on some pilot initiatives. In that phase, we tried to figure out how to redesign some courses and how to prepare our trainers to manage mixed classrooms. During that time we also did some interesting experiments, like a game about managing a logistics warehouse in flex mode. Using different cameras and digital rooms where mixed teams could be compared, we completed the game. Such activities, however, require detailed planning, a solid structure, technology, time, and courageous trainers.
Starting from the pandemic, would you say that the flex mode has become standard?
Apart from this last, quite extreme, example, I'd say that the flex is now almost standard as many learners have now realized its benefits. We had already observed this trend in the summer of 2020: things seemed to have almost gone back to normal, but some customers kept asking to follow classes remotely. The advantage of flex is that, as it were, it develops both horizontally and vertically. On the one hand, it describes classes including learners physically present in the classroom and participants remotely connected at the same time; on the other hand, it points out a more "flexible" mode of participation in long training courses. Many learners, for example, start face to face but ask to follow some lessons remotely (for personal or business needs). In that case, it is sufficient that they notify us a few days before, or even just the day before, in order to prepare the necessary tools and ensure a quality teaching experience.
What are the critical elements with flex? Can you set up any classroom for this modality?
It is, first of all, essential to prepare the trainers; one of the biggest difficulties of this modality is ensuring interaction with remote participants as the trainer is naturally led to interact with those in the classroom. To facilitate everyone's involvement, we attach great importance to the visual aspect. With the help of strategically placed cameras, screens, monitors, and beamers, we make sure that everyone can see everyone else without difficulty.
The other critical aspect is sound. The remotely connected participant risks losing some of the audio related to the interactions in the classroom, especially when the latter is large. Again, we've been working in two directions: placing good microphones in the right spots and having the trainer engage the participants remotely by repeating the questions or using the digital whiteboard. With these precautions, the perceived average quality is good, although there is still a lot to improve. Remote participants, however, often willingly sacrifices the quality of the audio in favor of the privilege of being able to follow the lesson via the internet.
To answer the second part of the question: with our structure, we can set up almost every classroom for flex mode, but it is always necessary to plan and organize in advance to ensure a good learning experience.
As far as your training offer is concerned, do you usually plan every course in flex mode as well? Or are there types of content that you only design in specific modes?
Usually, we have a dedicated offer for each mode. So we have a webinar proposal, a blended proposal, a flex + blended proposal etc. As we said before, not all content adapts to flex mode. However, if there is a need and demand, after evaluating the technical aspects and the feasibility, we can decide to adapt to flex mode courses that were not originally designed for this modality. Flex, for instance, is particularly suitable to some of our top products such as executive masters, whereas it doesn't befit much courses including a technical part, such as maintenance courses for technicians. In these cases, it is fundamental to exercise manual skills and muscle memory. This can be remedied with a blended solution: 16 hours remotely and 16 in the laboratory. Perhaps in the future, with the advent of 3D and Hololens, we will also be able to use the flex mode in this area, in particular research and development, but we don't know how far we'll be able to go yet.
Thanks to Alessandro Enna, for explaining in such a detailed way what flex mode means and for illustrating its advantages. If you missed the webinar interview with Gianpaolo Negri from Festo Academy, click on the link.
Festo AcademyFesto Academy is an Industrial Management School operating on the issues of industrial processes, organization and business management with Executive Masters, role paths and training initiatives.Its mission is to support companies in expressing their maximum potential by expanding and developing the skills of their human resources.Festo Academy and Festo Consulting are part of the multinational industrial group Festo A.G., a leader in the industrial automation sector, constantly focused on innovation and the enhancement of people.
Festo Academy is:Affiliate of the Demand Driven instituteATP of the Project Management Institute (PMI)Certification body for maintenance skills (EN 15628) and fluidic technologies (CETOP)Collaborator of Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org.
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