Learning aviation fundamentals online

An interview with Dr. Suzanne Kearns, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo


Even before aviation professionals and the academic community had to work and learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, ICAO committed to making learning easy, convenient and accessible anytime-anywhere. We developed, in partnership with the University of Waterloo, Aviation Fundamentals, an online course that teaches the fundamentals of the international air transport system.

Whether you currently work in any field related to aviation, or you are new to aviation, this course will provide you with a comprehensive understanding on of the various aviation activities performed across all aviation areas that encompass the international air transport system. This course will give you the opportunity to earn your e-certificate, as you cover nine modules of online learning in just 20 hours, at your own pace.

We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Suzanne Kearns, an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo who teaches, researches, and writes about aviation. She is the author of many articles and four aviation books, including the ‘Fundamentals of International Aviation’ textbook. She co-developed the University of Waterloo/ICAO online course called ‘Aviation Fundamentals.

Dr. Kearns

Dr. Kearns, what is your background? How did you get started in aviation?

From my childhood, aircraft always fascinated me. I grew up in a small town in Canada, my home was under the approach path of the local airport. I would lie in our backyard watching the small general aviation aircraft circle to land – and tell my parents that one day that would be me. Eventually, my parents encouraged me to start flying lessons at the age of 15 and aviation quickly became the centre of life. I soloed on my 16th birthday and had my private airplane and helicopter pilot licenses on my 17th birthday.

Though I went on to complete a helicopter pilot diploma and then my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aeronautical science and human factors, through those experiences, I was drawn towards the aviation academic world more than operational positions as a pilot. I began working full-time as a university professor at the age of 24. While working and raising a young family, I had limited time to attend graduate school classes in-person so I chose to complete my PhD online through distance education.

For an academic at that time, the reputation of the institution where you earn your PhD carried a lot of influence. An online programme wasn’t regarded as the most prestigious method of earning a PhD. As I knew I would have to justify this choice throughout my career, I decided to focus my PhD studies on education – specifically ‘Instructional Design for Online Learning’. If online learning was one of my speciality areas I thought I could turn something that could potentially be a weakness, into a strength. After earning my PhD, I went on to conduct research and publish articles in aviation education and online learning that included a book titled ‘eLearning in Aviation’.

You wrote a textbook on the fundamentals of aviation. Where did the idea for the book come from?

Several years ago, after I finished writing another book, I was searching for my next project. I reflected on my volunteer work with ICAO’s Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) programme. NGAP explores global initiatives to attract, recruit, educate, and retain young people within the aviation sector. Through this work, I often heard criticisms that professional groups did not believe that other groups understood or valued their profession. In addition, recruitment efforts in aviation are often very specific to a single career. For example, pilot recruitment efforts encourage young people to become pilots while maintenance groups seek the next generation of mechanics.

A challenge with this approach is that young people who are not successful in their first effort, often leave aviation entirely since they are not aware of the many opportunities in parallel aviation fields. I believed there was enormous potential to shift introductory aviation education away from a profession-specific to a holistic approach.

This concept led me to spend the next two years researching and writing an introductory textbook called Fundamentals of International Aviation’. The goal of the textbook was to provide young adults with a foundation of aviation industry knowledge that represents and highlights all the sectors in the industry. This would allow them to make an informed career choice that would best align with their interests and ambitions. This book was published in 2018.

You went on to create an eLearning course that aligns with this book, distributed in partnership with ICAO and the University of Waterloo. Can you discuss this?

As I was finishing the textbook, while continuing to be involved in outreach and education through NGAP, I began wondering how my previous work in eLearning could support the distribution of the messages in the book to a broader audience. The textbook is useful for teaching young adults within university/ college aviation programmes, yet I wanted to make the information available to adults who are already working in the aviation industry, as well as professionals transitioning into aviation from other sectors.

I met with representatives from ICAO’s Global Aviation Training (GAT) office and they were supportive of the concept. After further meetings with the GAT office and senior representatives from the University of Waterloo, a partnership formed to distribute an online course called ‘Aviation Fundamentals (AviFun)’. The cost to register in the course is USD150.00, which includes the exam and an ICAO/University of Waterloo certificate of completion (when successfully completed). The AviFun online course is available through the ICAO website.

How did you make the course? How long did it take and what software did you use?

I created the course with my husband, Michael Kearns, who is also an eLearning developer. He began the courseware development while I was finishing writing the final chapters of the textbook. We continued the development together for about eight months after the book was complete.

...young people who are not successful in their first effort, often leave aviation entirely since they are not aware of the many opportunities in parallel aviation fields. I believed there was enormous potential to shift introductory aviation education away from a profession-specific to a holistic approach.

Dr. Suzanne Kearns Associate Professor, University of Waterloo

The AviFun course was built with an eLearning authoring software called Articulate Storyline. Neither my husband nor myself have any formal training in Storyline, we taught ourselves starting about seven years ago. This software is a great tool that anyone can learn to use, with patience and practice.

Courseware development is a very iterative process, meaning that multiple rounds of revisions and additions are required before a final product is produced. It begins with the instructional design objectives, initial content outlines and storyboards, building interactive activities, writing of narratives, and lastly the recording of the voiceover.

Each of these stages involves multiple rounds of testing and expert review. The team in ICAO’s Global Aviation Training (GAT) group offered continual support on the instructional design, testing, and accuracy of the courseware. Overall, the course took about a year to build. We are quite proud of the end product, which includes nine modules of content that introduce a range of careers and key issues within civil aviation.

Who would benefit from taking this course? 

With any good instructional design process, it’s crucial to have a clear image in mind of the intended learners. For the AviFun course, we expected the learners to fall into two groups: 1) learners who are new to aviation and/or considering a career in the industry, and 2) existing professionals who know their sector yet seek a broader understanding of international aviation. To accommodate both groups we made some strategic instructional design choices.

The course was designed to be accessible and understandable for novices, without being boring or frustrating for existing professionals. To support this, we chose to unlock all of the navigation in the course. This means learners can skip forwards or backward, completing each slide in order, or they can jump immediately to the final quiz. The rationale for this is to support learners at different levels of expertise. Novices need the full structure, but those with experience may be seeking a key piece of information (and would become frustrated if required to sit through a complete module).

The courseware is designed based on research-identified, multimedia principles that support online learning. These factors include a conversational audio voiceover that uses a friendly human voice, learner-controlled pacing (allowing time to process and reflect), a mixture of media (words, images, videos), and the segregation of training into short units of content. A unique element of the course is the integration of interactive activities. We tried to create a ratio of about 3:1, for every three minutes a learner spends listening, they spend one minute interacting with the course. This feature is based on the principle that learners need to actively engage with the course to retain the material. It also provides for timely and constructive feedback throughout the learning process.

How did the industry respond to the course?

The industry has responded very positively to the course! We have increasingly seen Civil Aviation Authorities and operators register all newly hired staff to the course since they regard it as an efficient and cost-effective method of ensuring they have a fundamental understanding of civil aviation.

It is my hope that the industry continues to consider this course to be a resource – both for providing a holistic perspective for the next generation to understand the range of professional positions within aviation, and to support transitioning professionals as they develop a foundational understanding of the diverse yet interconnected nature of international civil aviation industry.