Digital technology has enabled instant communication—always-on access to extraordinary volumes of information—and highly realistic maintenance training simulations, but these benefits come at a price. They are contributing to a deterioration in deductive reasoning and critical thinking, essential skills for aviation maintenance technicians, says Jens Lange, head of product management and basic training at Lufthansa Technical Training. Some of the deterioration in these crucial skills is due to the propensity of some mechanics to follow hyperlinks, almost blindly, through digital documents. “Technicians are linking to information sources such as troubleshooting manuals, wire diagram manuals and so on, but they are just following the hyperlinks. They do not know why they have to go to these places,” he says. “It is the same thing when you go to Google. You want to know something and you follow the link, link, link, and most of the time you end up at Wikipedia but don't know why.”

Information has become more about speed of acquisition than deeper-level thinking. Psychologists are expressing concern that while digital technology has boosted our ability to multi-task, our ability to process information deeply may be deteriorating—and that could have a direct deleterious effect on maintenance safety.

For instance, Lange said he has seen a decline in the ability of technicians to look beyond the task they are performing and intuitively understand the implications around that task. He cites the example of a technician powering the hydraulic system to complete a maintenance task. All too often, Lange says, there is little thinking today about the downstream effects of powering the system unless those effects are spelled out on paper. Another example is “to look after the circuit breaker and system switch before you do complex troubleshooting when there is a failure in an electric or avionic system,” he says. “First, see the big picture. Technicians need to know this big picture and the design of a system and the rules of functionality.”

These are side effects of the digital age. Studies show that young brains have been wired less for storage of information than for finding information. One of the results of this is that troubleshooting takes longer as technicians do not have the stored knowledge and critical thinking skills to assess problems like they did in the past, says Lange.

One way to address these trends is through well-designed training. Might the deterioration in deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills endanger an industry that relies heavily on the competence of its people? Lange posted this question at the recent World Aviation Training Conference, an event where there was much enthusiasm surrounding web-based training (WBT), computer-based training (CBT) and other digital training solutions—and little discussion around the impact of these tools on technicians' ability to process information at a deep level.

During his presentation, Lange urged maintenance leaders to think critically about how and where they apply digital media in training and to understand its side effects. “People are thinking that everything can be done via web-based training and it can't,” he tells Aviation Week. “There are web-based training programs that are PowerPoint and you just read through it and when you are done, you will not have skill or competence. If you need a hand skill, you do not need digital media; you need to take the tool and work with it.”

Lange adds, “If you want a good training course with competence at the end, you must mix digital media with hands-on experience and a good, live facilitator. Blended learning is the key.” It is all about the right medium for the right outcome: hands-on training for hand skills; a great facilitator to drive, and generate excitement about, interaction in training; and digital simulations of events where there are a lot of steps to reach a goal, such as simulation of a defect in the aircraft, which allows a technician to work through isolating the problem in a simulated, realistic environment before putting the knowledge to work on an actual airplane.

This kind of blended learning, says Lange, can rebuild critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills in technicians because this mode includes reading, thinking, listening, doing and, importantly, discussion.

As organizations consider the complex role of human factors in maintenance safety, it is important to understand the way in which today's workers receive, process and apply information—and to find ways to build up their ability to reason and think critically. At the same time, technicians would do well to follow two of Lange's suggestions: First, do not blindly rely on the thinking of others. Think for yourself!

And second, reflect on and question information sources. Post these recommendations in the hangar to spark discussion and, ideally, some deeper thinking.