Find Success with Online Training and Education

By BILL BOOTH and KEVIN MILAN

Budget cuts and staff reductions are forcing departments to find better, more manageable ways of delivering training. Only a few years ago, private companies offered training programs as “slide presentations”; in reality, most were paper slides with a few pictures thrown in. A couple of years later, software-based Computer Based Training (CBT) was introduced. Through these difficult times, one constant remains: The job is still as difficult and as dangerous as ever, and the quality of training must never be diminished. Training and education using CBTs will expand, improve, and become an everyday part of every training program.

Can a recruit learn to climb a ladder using a computer? Probably not. However, can the same recruit learn to read hazardous materials placard signs? Absolutely. So, the solution comes down to this: Some training must be handled on the drill ground, some in the classroom, and some online. In the very near future (if not already), many departments will create a training atmosphere by blending training.

A survey of more than 350 fire service professionals by the marketing firm Miller Pierce in late 2011 determined that almost half (48 percent) of the respondents’ departments already use online training. Twenty-eight percent said they were currently considering making the switch. That means more than three-fourths of the fire service is on its way to completing training online.

E-LEARNING BACKGROUND

In the academic world, from K-12 and beyond, there has been widespread research on the effectiveness of e-learning. The overarching result of all the recent studies has shown that pure online learning is as efficient as pure face-to-face learning and, in some cases, can be better when the student has no time limitation. Also, classroom learning enhanced by some online learning is the best approach to education. An analysis by the U.S. Department of Education proved the following:

1 E-learning technology and equipment are expected to see a lot more changes in the next five years than they did over the past decade, primarily because of the technological advancements.

2 Mobile instruments (phones, tablets, and so on) are expected to become the platforms of choice.

3 Learners will use content when they need it.

4 Games and simulations will become an integral part of workplace learning.

5 The use and adoption of simulation training technology developed by the military will expand. As our overseas military commitments are reduced, manufacturers that have developed and deployed education technologies such as simulation and virtual reality gaming will begin to market and sell their products to nonmilitary customers.

GUIDELINES TO E-LEARNING IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGY

Before budgets can be approved and new delivery education curriculums are implemented, the training chief must establish an E-Learning Implementation Strategy. Apply the following three principles when developing the specific goals and objectives of the strategy:

  • Be specific. Identify exactly what you want to accomplish with as many specific details as possible.
  • Be measurable. As the old adage says, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
  • Be realistic. Set goals and objectives that reach beyond the comfort zone but that are also realistic. (Be careful with this one.)

10 GUIDELINES TO SUCCESSFUL E-LEARNING IMPLEMENTATION

The following are 10 guidelines to help you create, establish, and implement your e-learning strategy:

1 Establish a project team. Include other “banner carriers” and allies.

2 Define the vision and goals. What does a successful program look like?

3 Define learning needs and wants. Why are we doing this, and what solution does it provide?

4 Define established technology infrastructure. What does your existing technical infrastructure look like?

5 Define existing courseware. What do you already have that can be used or repurposed?

6 Baseline available technologies and courseware. What technology is available in the marketplace?

7 Develop implementation and phasing scenario. What is your step-by-step approach?

8 Develop cost budgets. Consider purchasing equipment, software, hired technical assistance, and so on.

9 Measure and evaluate cost benefits. Set milestones that are measurable and observable and that serve as progress markers.

10 Management buy-in and funding. Get everyone on the same page, and get them to support the endeavor.

TYPICAL STARTUP QUESTIONS

Can a person learn new skills and hone existing ones using a computer? After seeing how far technology has come in just a few short years, the answer is absolutely YES. However, implementing an effective and efficient e-learning curriculum in your department can be challenging. Have you faced the following observations, questions, or roadblocks?

  • “Yes, we bought some online courses. It’s working, but we can do better.”
  • “We have been meaning to look into CBT but can’t seem to find the time or budget.”
  • “We don’t know how or where to begin.”
  • “We need to reduce our training budget; will computer courses help us do that?”

WHERE AND HOW TO BEGIN

As illustrated in the 10 implementation guidelines, getting started requires considerable planning, management buy-in, understanding of technology, and funding. The following seven questions are a good starting point when first developing an e-learning implementation strategy:

1 What authoring system should we use?

2 Should we buy off-the-shelf prepackaged software?

3 Should we develop our own courses?

4 What type of hardware do we need?

5 Will it keep us compliant with legal requirements?

6 How do we track and schedule our training?

7 What class topics will best be learned through e-learning?

E-LEARNING ISSUES AND ROADBLOCKS

As described previously, the proliferation of courseware vendors and their products has been both a blessing and a curse to chiefs and training officers. After nearly three years of study, we have identified the following issues and roadblocks to e-learning implementation based on department feedback and personnel experience:

• Most departments do not fully understand the quality, scope, and depth of available courseware. They frequently make purchases without having examined all the facts; many training officers make decisions about hardware and online courseware from an emotional rather than an objective perspective. Based partly on frustration, there is a pervasive attitude of “we need to do something else,” “we have to make a change,” or “let’s give it a try.”

• Regarding the actual courseware products, we found that the level of quality and subscription cost and value from audited content providers (and likely other vendors) vary significantly. Several courses were deemed “Outstanding” by the evaluators; some courses that had been sold and used by departments for a number of years were found to have typographical errors, technical reference errors, and video that did not match the narrator’s script.

• Among vendors, there are considerable redundant costs in course development, systems development, and administrative infrastructure.

• Some departments have developed their own and, in several cases, excellent courseware internally, but they have no method for delivering the products to a larger audience. These departments generally expressed enthusiasm about sharing their homegrown productions with others, but they had no budget or process to do so.

• In terms of sharing information about courseware, we found that many courseware purchases and their associated learning management systems are not connected to departmental and state and federal tracking systems.

• Among fire service agencies, there is no publication or sharing of success or failures with regard to online courseware use. For instance, one course was judged to be excellent by one evaluator from a large paid district; it was deemed unacceptable by another evaluator because of the lack of graphics and easy-to-read bullets.

• There is little to no “lessons learned” dialogue. Of particular importance, the study revealed that there is no uniform method of assessing the quality and value of courseware content.

ENDNOTES

1. Target Solutions Report-Overcoming Technology-http://tinyurl.com/bdanqjd.

2. CentreLearn Solutions-www.centrelearn.com.

3. www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf.

BILL BOOTH has developed strategic plans for public safety agencies for 20 years. He has assisted agencies by applying the best practices in the fields of facility financing, operating, partnering, technology, and funding.

KEVIN MILAN is a captain with South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue. He has been in the fire service for 20 years. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program and obtained Chief Fire Officer designation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He has an M.S. degree in executive fire service leadership and is pursuing a Ph.D. in fire and emergency management through Oklahoma State University. He is past president of the Colorado Training Officers Association, state advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, director-at-large for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, a Governor’s appointee to the Colorado Fire Safety Advisory Board, and the recipient of the NFA’s outstanding research awards in 2005 and 2006.

Bill Booth and Kevin Milan will present “Strategies and Tactics for On-Line Training” on Monday, April 22, 2013, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., at FDIC in Indianapolis.

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