NRECA instructor Bryan Singletary had about 40 days of in-person training events for electric cooperative directors and staff on his 2020 calendar before the COVID-19 lockdown in mid-March canceled them all.

“Literally, I was getting ready to board a plane when NRECA made the decision to pull the plug on my coming to Madison, Wisconsin,” to teach a course for the Management Internship Program, said Singletary, a 30-year co-op instructor based in Tampa, Florida.

“It was a quick realization that we weren’t going to be able to do trainings face-to-face.”

In all, NRECA has had to scrap 139 in-person programs, including training at 109 statewide associations this fall, due to the coronavirus.

Overnight, the pandemic forced NRECA’s education and training staff to plunge headfirst into online learning, which was already a top department priority in 2020. The process tested staff and instructors as they’ve gone about developing what’s turning into a successful portfolio.

“We’ve been very pleased with the response we’ve been getting,” said Tracey Steiner, NRECA’s senior vice president for education and training. “It’s shown that we can adapt, and we can be flexible and have success because this whole situation has put everybody—from members to instructors to education staff—outside their comfort zone.

Steiner describes the shift as “putting the ‘pedal to the metal.’ It was like somebody put their foot on top of ours on the accelerator and said, ‘Get out there now.’”

Events that have been converted to online platforms include the Safety Leadership Summit, Tax, Finance and Accounting Conference for Cooperatives and the CONNECT conference for communicators. Cooperative Career Essentials, a new certificate program to help co-op staff develop core competencies, was affected before it even left the gate. Its online courses weren’t supposed to start until the fall, but parts are online now.

E&T staff were unsure about how online training would go over with co-op directors, who make up a large share of participants of NRECA training programs.

“The majority of directors prefer to be in the classroom for training where we have a high level of interaction,” said Pat Mangan, NRECA’s director of governance education. “And the shift to online was immediate, not gradual. So, as you can imagine, we had some concerns.”

But those concerns have proven to be unfounded. Most of this summer’s 24 online director trainings have filled up, and some have had waitlists.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the response,” Mangan said. “The ability of our instructors to transfer their talents from classroom instruction to an online approach has been the key to success for our online training programs.”

Reviews have generally been positive. “I found it very easy to balance my current employment with the commitment to continue my education as a board member,” wrote one director.

“The online instructors are excellent. I was surprised by the level of interaction,” wrote another.

Working with outside experts in online learning strategy and design, E&T staff immersed themselves on the minutiae of delivery platforms, pricing levels and learner engagement best practices. Surprisingly, internet speed in rural areas hasn’t been much of an issue.

While participants “need decent bandwidth to participate, we’ve run into very few problems,” said Mangan. “Usually, folks with lack of good internet access know who they are, and they’ll drive to the co-op or their workplace to do training. They’re very resourceful and they know what precautions to take.”

NRECA’s instructors also faced a learning curve. Singletary got advice from a friend in the business who helped set up a production studio. He also was surprised to get help from the directors themselves.

“After a strategic technologies class, they suggested that I ask questions and call on people like we do in a classroom,” said Singletary. “I was a little hesitant at first to call on directors and put them on the spot, but I tried it, and it works. People respond; they talk.”

Moving forward, said Steiner, “online learning definitely is going to be a bigger component of our portfolio.” But it won’t completely replace in-person programs, she said.

“Just how big, we’ll have to wait and see. For the folks who have been participating in online education, they’ve told us in pretty clear terms that, while this has been great, they are still very anxious to get back in the classroom.”