By Keith Norbury

Certificate courses in freight forwarding offered by the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association are moving entirely online. “The live classes ended in April of this year,” said Stephen McDermott, CIFFA’s Director of Education. “And so, effective September 2015 any scheduled classes will now only be through a virtual classroom.”

That’s for the two certificate programs — the CIFFA certificate and CIFFA advance certificate — offered directly through the Association. CIFFA has several educational partners — such as George Brown College, Seneca College, triOS College, Eastern College, Brighton College, and St. Clair College — that offer live daytime classroom programs in supply chain management, logistics, international trade, freight forwarding and related disciplines. These colleges teach CIFFA-approved material and prepare students to write CIFFA exams. “The CIFFA certificate is still being taught in class by a lot of our college partners across the country,” Mr. McDermott said. And CIFFA also still offers classroom sessions on such subjects as air dangerous goods, and specialty in-house training on topics like air cargo security.

McDermott said the transition away from live classrooms began about three years ago. “We’ve always offered online training through our learning management system,” Mr. McDermott said. “We’ve just evolved in the way that we’ve offered it,” McDermott said.

That evolution involved launching a new e-learning on demand course, which enabled students to take the course on their own schedule, and at their own pace. “And that gained a lot of popularity simply for its flexibility,” Mr. McDermott said. That’s because many students have jobs and busy family lives. Into that mix, CIFFA introduced virtual classes and webinars, starting with the advanced CIFFA certificate program. That included live chats where students could ask questions directly to the instructor.

“Those were so successful and our registration started to move away from the classroom in-person based sessions that we are now offering the e-learning on demand as well as the scheduled virtual classroom, which some will prefer if they are looking for help and assistance from an instructor,” Mr. McDermott said.

Online learning wins over skeptical instructor

Christian Sivière, who is in his fifth year of instructing CIFFA programs, said he didn’t know what to expect when he began teaching courses online. He was used to the interaction of the live environment. It wasn’t until the graduation ceremony at the end of that online class that he found out how happy students were with the online experience. “They all came to me saying this was great and this was very practical, this was very convenient,” said Mr. Sivière, who worked in freight forwarding for over 30 years with companies such as Kuehne+Nagel and Fedex Trade Networks. He is now a full-time consultant and trainer, who also teaches at Marie-Victorin College in Montreal.

When he first began teaching online, Mr. Sivière worried that students might not feel at ease, or would miss the chance to exchange ideas with classmates. And from a lecturer’s perspective, he did find online instruction more demanding. “You can’t give approximate information, or you cannot talk your way out of things like in class,” said Sivière, who came to Canada from Bordeaux, France in the 1970s. Nor can the lecturer use the tried-and-true technique of turning the tables on a student by asking, “What do you think?”

So he has to try to anticipate the answer to every possible question. On the other hand, the online course also provides him more flexibility. He can deliver the lectures from his home or even from afar when he’s travelling. All he needs is a high-speed Internet connection.

Paul Glionna, a Director of CIFFA and Chair of the association’s education committee, was also skeptical about online learning. But he too has been won over. “I’ve always been a very big fan of the traditional classroom setting,” said Mr. Glionna, who is Vice-President of Operations with Universal Logistics of Markham, Ont. “That’s how I learned and how I grasp it. Obviously there are some key benefits from a classroom setting that become very hard to duplicate or emulate (online), but there are also some disadvantages of that classroom setting. It is a very difficult program to put out, and ensure consistency across the country.” Unless students lived in a major city — like Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver — it was difficult to get to class. For those who did, it meant sitting at a desk for three or fours after a long day at work.

He credits Mr. McDermott with bringing a “wealth of experience” from his previous work at Bell to guide CIFFA’s educational programs into “this virtual and technical world that was sort of new to us.” Mr. Glionna also worried that students would lose the interaction “which is where I thought the real learning took place.” But he noted that the sessions do enable interactions through chat rooms. And the modules were also designed with rich examples, good graphics and narration “that really pulled it together so the experience wasn’t just reading a textbook online,” Mr. Glionna said.

It’s all about the software

A key to delivering the online courses is Adobe Connect software. It allows the instructor to present slides on the screen and also connects with cameras that can show the instructor and even students. However, CIFFA doesn’t use the latter function because it gobbles up too much bandwidth. While instructors can also transmit videos of themselves, similar to a Skype call, most are comfortable just voicing over the slides, Mr. McDermott said. Adobe Connect also records the entire lesson. “The advantage of that is once the virtual classroom is completely recorded, we can also host that on our LMS (learning management system) so anybody who missed it can see the entire facilitation again.”

CIFFA also recently upgraded its LMS, Boost, which is created by a Toronto firm, Redwood. The recent upgrade to version 2.0 allows CIFFA to replace courses more easily and better record them. CIFFA has also linked the new version of Boost to its database, customer relationship management (CRM) system, and its e-commerce software.

In 2014, CIFFA enrolment totalled 777 students for all its programs, live or online. Of those, 292 enrolled in courses leading to the basic CIFFA certificate. Meanwhile, CIFFA’s college partners had 341 basic CIFFA enrolments in 2014.

McDermott doesn’t expect the numbers to shift substantially now that its certificate programs have migrated entirely online. That’s because most of that instruction was already taking place in the virtual realm. “So we’re only really transitioning about 30 per cent of that 292,” Mr. McDermott said. CIFFA had already completed the transition of its advanced program to cyberspace last year.

There are two main benefits to providing the courses online. “One is definitely to be able to satisfy a very spread-out audience across the country,” Mr. McDermott said. “And the second is to make sure that for each topic taught, we have one expert teaching in his or her area of expertise.” It’s difficult to find instructors who are experts in all subject areas. Putting the courses online allows CIFFA to employ subject matter experts in each area of the courses. That enables a uniform education for students across the country, he said.

Courses are online but textbooks still hard copy

Mr. McDermott admits that the online courses also provide some cost savings in that CIFFA no longer has to rent classrooms. However, most of the other costs still remain, such as the fees for instructors and software. And at least one cost has gone up. The students still use printed textbooks, which have to be mailed to each student individually. In a classroom setting, they could be delivered in bulk to the classroom.

Putting the textbooks online would be more costly. “The textbooks are massive files to download,” Mr. McDermott said. “In order to move entirely to e-books, we would need to look at hosting our textbook using a separate e-book publishing site, which is where there would be added cost.” Digital textbooks, however, are provided to e-learning on demand students, who make up a small part of the student base. “There are savings, but we are not-for-profit, so at the end of the year, we come to a balanced budget,” Mr. McDermott said. “Any spending is done on behalf of our members.”

The cost savings have also enabled CIFFA to avoid raising its education fees for several years. The total member fee including textbooks for the CIFFA certificate program, which consists of two courses, is $1,050 ($525 for each course).

The virtual classes are still scheduled, just like in the real world. For the CIFFA certificate program, they take place Tuesday nights, from September to December, and January to April. The advanced certificate instruction is on Wednesday nights. “But they are recorded so if you did miss a class you can go back or if you’re studying for an exam you can go back and you can review it,” Mr. McDermott said.

E-learning on demand students, meanwhile, only get to review the recorded virtual classes and don’t receive any online instructor assistance. “So with the e-learning on demand you have to feel confident as an independent learner because you are on your own,” Mr. McDermott said.

Regardless of the delivery method — live college classes, virtual classroom, or e-learning on demand — students have to pass the CIFFA exams. The online method, though, enables students to receive their grades immediately upon completion. “They don’t have to wait for it,” Mr. McDermott said. Another benefit to CIFFA is the analytics the system affords the course administrators. “It gives us the ability to monitor our students’ progress, to see how they’re doing and then to make adjustments if there’s some challenges seen, or make adjustments if the course is deemed to be too easy,” McDermott said. “We can also see how many students are viewing which lessons, how long they take in the lessons, how they do on average on their exams, how they’re doing on their exercises. That’s helpful, most helpful for us.”

Mr. Sivière said CIFFA endeavours to reach a wider audience with its program offerings and new packages. That audience isn’t just freight forwarders. They include people who work in accounting, traffic and finance departments of importers and exporters such as auto parts manufacturers. “There are not so many places where you can acquire that knowledge,” Mr. Sivière said.