In 1999, Carl and Lenore Dyke launched an industrial education and consulting business in Calgary. Carl took his earliest career experiences as a millwright in the sawmill industry and his seven years of teaching welding/fabrication and electronics/robotics at the high school level and sought to create a unique enterprise to help solve learning problems in heavy industry.
In the first year, Carl was the only trainer, and he conducted all of his own classes by travelling to various corporate clients and working out of their classroom spaces. These classes were almost exclusively for the pulp and paper industry. He conducted 30 classes from 0.5 to 2 days in length on mechanical maintenance skill topics, mostly in Western Canada. In addition to teaching, he would be asked to build machinery operations and maintenance training programs for use by the client’s in-house trainer. This forced Carl to learn pulp and paper processes from end to end.
Today, the small garage startup has grown into CD Industrial Group Inc. (CDIG). The company employs nine people, including three trainers. There are currently 39 different courses offered in a variety of heavy industries including pulp and paper, sawmilling, oilfield, mining, construction, civic machinery fleets, shipping terminals, and electrical utilities.
CDIG develops a lot of high-quality materials for its instructors to use that are never seen outside of its classrooms. The company inquiries about training from people who will never be able to attend a class — either because they live too far away, or because they’re students who can’t afford a full-blown workshop.
The company figured that by putting its learning materials online, it could reach people anywhere in the world. And because the online audience is so much bigger than our classroom audience, it offers this type of media at a much lower price.
Normally, it wouldn’t be possible for a training company to take their in-person, instructor-led training courses and put them on the Internet. So much of the learning process is a dynamic back-and-forth exchange between the students and the instructor. Learning is not a linear, one-dimensional, static process.
But CDIG’s training courses, which it calls “LunchBox Sessions,” aim to be a bit different (lunchboxsessions.com). From the outset, the company wanted all students to have a hands-on experience, even if they were doing computer classwork rather than getting their hands-on physical simulators. To keep them active and engaged, CDIG developed its own interactive simulation technologies. So even though trainers aren’t able to be there in person to help everyone learn, the goal is to make sure that the learning media is similarly dynamic, interactive, engaging, and non-linear — like a real classroom experience would be.
It’s not just technology, though. Carl said that a big part of the instructional design of LunchBox Sessions is rooting our educational lessons in a person-centric approach.
“Our lessons are full of characters and stories,” he said. “When we teach troubleshooting, we use these characters to take the learner through actual scenarios they might encounter on the job. We don’t say ‘Do this, do that, and if that doesn’t work, call for help.’ We make sure that people get to see the whole chain of reasoning — how to figure out what you know and what you don’t, and how to understand each piece of the puzzle as you explore the problem space.”
Building it better
According to Carl, right from the start, they had the idea that we wanted people to come to the website, make an account, and begin exploring our growing library of simulations and lessons.
“We knew we wanted to help people keep track of what they’d learned. There was already a ton of Learning Management System software out there in the world, and we were determined to be better than that.”
Typical online courses have what Carl calls the “page-turning model,” where you click through a bunch of screens, and there’s a test at the end. One of the core goals in building LunchBox Sessions was to do better than that. He said that it took them a long time — from 2007 to 2015 — to really figure out what “better” looked like.
Here are three critical takeaways that CDIG realized early on:
1. The learner has to be free to chart their own course. LunchBox Sessions is full of hundreds and hundreds of pieces of media. Some people will want to see all of it. Other people will want to skip most of it, and just focus on the stuff they’re interested in. So, CDIG designed the entire experience around people having the freedom to choose what they learn, and what order they learn it in. That’s really hard. It means the trainers can’t write their advanced content assuming people have done the basic content.
Some students won’t know where to begin, and they’ll want some guidance. It took a long time to strike the right balance, but they eventually found a way to lay out the content like a transit map. This encourages people to start from the top (basics), to progress downward to the more advanced concepts. But students are never blocked — CDIG always leaves it open for them to jump straight to the bottom, and the company is careful not to do anything to suggest learners have to do things in any specific order.
2. Learning is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done. Calr explained that they are all firm believers that the learning process is never finished.
“Throughout your life, you’re constantly faced with new challenges and new opportunities, and by adopting the “lifelong learner” mindset you can make the most of them,” he said. “LunchBox Sessions was built especially for people who want to keep learning and growing. This focus on continual learning means that we’re going to constantly be creating new learning content for the website, and fixing up existing content, so that there’s always new information. It also means that when we come up with our lessons and activities, we try to design them so that people can use them again and again — and get continual value from them.”
Studies about learning and memory have shown that the more times you’re exposed to an idea, and the more ways you encounter that idea, the better it sticks in your mind. So, for every critical idea that is taught on LunchBox Sessions, CDIG tries to figure out multiple ways of presenting it.
Inside the sessions are lessons that explain key ideas with writing and illustration, videos that take you inside 3D renderings of industrial components, interactive simulations and puzzles that let you explore system behavior and make you demonstrate to yourself that you understand. All of these types of content serve to reinforce the idea of the session. And when a learner comes back to that session after a few weeks or months to refresh your knowledge, the variety helps keep the material feeling fresh.
3. Quizzes are another learning tool, not a final test of knowledge. CDIG needed an assessment tool to help people measure how well they’re learning. The company designed its own quiz system. Critically, it had to encourage and reward the ongoing, continual learning process, and not encourage people to stop once they’d taken the quiz.
There are many subtle design choices that contribute to this, but one of the most obvious ones is that the quizzes can be taken over and over, and they’re different every time. For each subject, CDIG’s team of writers create a huge pool of possible questions. Taking a quiz means answering a handful of them, and then getting a chance to review how you did. The review step is also important, since it helps people have an indication of where their knowledge is well developed, and where they might need to study more.
As the years wore on, Carl and his team figured out all the ways they could make LunchBox Sessions categorically better than all the other training solutions on the market, they gradually started rolling out access to a few of our corporate clients.
“This was a really exciting time for us,” he said. “Before long, we had people from around the world using the site 24 hours a day, and we started to see the first signs that our hard work was going to pay off. Not only were people logging on and learning, but they were coming back, month after month and (eventually) year after year. Many of our earliest users, who joined during our first beta back in 2014, are still using the site today.”
After a few years of limited access for the company’s corporate clients, in 2017, CDIG opened up the site to the general public. Around the same time, they started making YouTube videos where Carl would teach a lesson using some of the simulations. These YouTube videos spread like wildfire — more than 6,000 people per day watch the videos. Then many of those come to the LunchBox Sessions website and get to use all the simulations themselves.
“It’s been a fantastic way to get the word out, and it’s such a thrill to see our work resonate with so many people around the world,” said Carl.
The current site includes 22 hydraulic sessions, as well as 19 focused on electrical, and 11 on machinery. There are approximately 10,000 users from 91 different countries. The vast majority of users are in the United States, with second place going to Canada. Rounding out the top five are the Russian Federation, Australia, and Kazakhstan.
The future is bright
Carl explained that content-wise, they tend to go where their clients request training.
“If, for example, we suddenly were hired by NASA for a series of custom courses, a bunch of training around launchpad and zero-gravity hydraulics systems might show up, with proprietary information removed, of course,” he said. “Look for some cool material soon on wind turbines. And we’ve added a brand-new topic called ‘Machinery,’ where we are starting to share select Live Schematics we’ve built for CDIG Classrooms.”
These Live Schematics have driven a lot of the CDIG’s classroom content. According to Carl, they make a big difference in being able to read a schematic and beginning to use it as a systems-analysis tool.
“We’ve created hundreds and hundreds of Live Schematics over the years to illustrate the exact workings of all kinds of hydraulic systems, and now our users get to take the controls and run this highly interactive content themselves,” he said. “Evergreening existing content will always be an ongoing concern. As technology changes, we need to keep our existing content modern. For example, when we began building content, it was a given that users would have access to a mouse and probably a keyboard as well. Now we have to accommodate touch devices, like phones and tablets. Plus, we’re always learning new things we can add to our existing content.”