By Freddie Batista
As a 20-plus-year fire and emergency medical services (EMS) instructor and a pioneer in e-learning, I understand the financial challenges for some departments in providing for their members 24-hour access to training materials and training from experienced fire service instructors and subject matter experts (SMEs) from the comfort of their living rooms or the firehouse. This training can be accessible and affordable through a department online e-learning portal.
Fire department training has evolved. Shortages in staffing and the lack of funds to send personnel to conferences or out-of-state training have made it necessary for departments to look at other ways to facilitate their training. One option is the learning management system (LMS). Several systems are on the market. An LMS is basically an electronic tracking system for managing your employees’ training.
We’ve all been to tradeshows and have seen what many companies have to offer. All of the platforms of these systems make it easy to deliver and track your training bureau’s course material. More than 500 LMSs are available to the fire service industry by subscription ($50 to $120 per member), including Jones and Bartlett’s Navigate 2, Target Solutions, CenterLearn, and Great LearningWorks XLearning Management System. They all pretty much do the same thing: deliver, track, and report the delivery of your online content. The question is, which one is right for your department.
Benefits of an LMS
The most common problem an LMS solves is tracking employee training by running reports. If your training is still “old school,” you track the information by hand. An LMS allows you to run reports quickly; the reports show who took the training and automatically deploy courses. The administrator in many LMSs can run reports by sorting according to department, shift, and ranking with just a few clicks of the mouse. If you are not on an LMS, it is tedious to gather this information.
Selecting an LMS
As you begin to shop for an LMS, consider the training and content you will house within the system’s platform and who your authors and SMEs will be. Does your department have online content ready that be transferred into the system, or does the system have a content library?
At first, you may think the cost of an LMS is high; but compared to what you currently spend on training, the cost of an LMS is actually lower. You would no longer have to send employees to out-of-state or city training or bring in outside trainers. Also, your instructors will have time to build an eLearning library, keeping the information updated. Incorporating an LMS will enable you to better monitor your training and to measure specific competencies. As an administration user, you will be able to see when members have logged into your training system and how many times they have taken a course. You will also be able to monitor the learners’ grades and activity and progress.
Before actually shopping, however, establish a committee or a team. This group should compile a list of training needs. Each team member should have input on which LMS to select. Then, meet with your IT department and determine if the computers you have in your stations can be used with the system being considered. Check the Internet speed, sound card, memory, speakers, and graphic cards.
10 Factors to Consider before Purchasing an LMS
1. Training department’s vision. What does your department hope to achieve with the system? Can it easily run reports? Not every system will be able to accommodate your needs, but you also must look at your budget. Write down the pros and cons; look at your neighboring fire agencies’ networks via eLearning blogs such as www.eLearningFD.com, or write down the things your training is lacking and what you would like the training stored in the LMS to do. Have a good starting point when you start looking at vendors.
2. Content library. Every fire department's training division has several courses based on the department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). This is especially true in an EMS-type of fire department where your protocols differ from neighboring agencies. Your medical director can create continuing education courses (CEC) that can be uploaded for online delivery. If the content within your training department is not tailored for student retention, you can improve the retention level by following the model’s instructional design. When creating a course, keep in mind that different generations may be taking the course. Tailor the courses around different learning strategies, and break them into modules. Keep the modules simple, but interactive enough, to keep the learner engaged.
A rule a thumb is to provide some type of learner interaction for every four minutes of online education. When a class uses a "read only" document, five percent of course material is retained within 24 hours of taking the course. A course created with audio and visual material increases retention to 20 percent over the same time period. If a course has an embedded demonstration feature, retention increases to 30 percent. Some factors to consider are the following: What library of courses are you looking for? Do you require National Fire Protection Association-related courses, SOP, and EMS protocols? Which components will be instructor-led and which will be eLearning? Will you be housing both styles of training in the LMS? Is the training going to be a flipped training model, also known as hybrid/blended learning?
Some of the hands-on style courses should be created around the flipped training model. A portion of the course can be done online and the remainder in the classroom or virtually through an eLearning virtual classroom. This approach will increase retention dramatically. A course designed with a social learning environment increases retention to 75 percent, which increases to 90 percent once a practice section is included! The classroom-based portion can be delivered online through computer-based training followed by a hands-on approach with the learner/firefighter. This will put more focus on the hands-on portion of the training program. Get people to think; always include open-ended type questions and scenarios, and get students to explore areas of which they may be unsure. Employ the “what if” method of questioning.
Other questions to consider here are the following: Will the system be able to track your traditional brick and mortar training? Will the LMS handle it? Can the system keep track of your training for ISO? Ask the vendor. Are you going to buy or build your eLearning content? If you decide to buy it, where will these courses be coming from? Who are the SMEs who helped design these courses?
A few options in the in eLearning community are considered as “off the shelf.” These topics are considered generic and are basically the functions or fundamentals learned at the fire academy or in EMT/paramedic school. Companies such as Jones and Bartlett and Target Solutions have a robust library of courses that may fit your training department’s needs.
If you are going to build your own content library, there are several software solutions that can convert your existing PowerPoint™ training into online content, or you can work with a content development company. Who are the SMEs within your department? Basically, they are the instructors now delivering your content and those who are experts on various topics. They are not designers, but they know the information well enough to help the designer build the course.
3. Return on investment (ROI). As already noted, you should be saving money with an LMS by using your current training assets to develop your own content instead of spending the money to send employees out for training. Firefighters/learners then would use the training they receive to give the knowledge back for the benefit of the department. The key thing to keep in mind when measuring your ROI, however, is to balance the cost of the LMS with the cost of the content. Don’t spend so much money on an LMS tracking deployment system that you will not have enough left in your budget to load the system with the content your department needs.
4. External or internal hosting? Is the LMS going to be hosted internally behind your firewall, or externally? If the latter, you need to look at the servers’ down times. Is the external hosting configured with load balancers in which the system puts out a mirrored identical version of the LMS when the LMS reaches 70% central processing unit usage? These are important things to consider when preparing to make a purchase.
5. eLearning training department. Who will run the team? Is the training bureau going to take the lead on the LMS? Which stakeholders will sign off on courses that are developed? Is the medical director going to be included? Is he going to have to look over the storyboards and approve EMS-related content for continuing education courses? The main thing is to put together a team that will look over the LMS site and the content to be housed and delivered. When configuring the permissions in the LMS, a minimum of two high-level administrators should be authorized to delete, remove, and control the training content stored within the LMS. Once the administrators are determined, lay out the permissions by setting up a hierarchy of levels each user in the LMS will have—for example, the chief, the medical director, officer, instructor, and the firefighter/learner. What permissions will they have? Can they add or delete a course? Can they remove or enroll a user from the site? Have an idea of the structures, and tell the vendors your requirements for the system.
6. Standards. Do you support the sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), originally designed by the Department of Defense or TIN CAN API? SCORM is a set of technical standards used in the eLearning world that can be shared across several LMSs. SCORM content can be loaded on several LMSs that support the universal language of eLearning content, which is 99 percent of the systems. If this is not the case, do not buy the system. SCORM makes the courses movable and makes it easy to track and report specific data to the LMS, including how long the user took to complete the module and if the learner skipped slides or failed the knowledge check questions embedded within the content.
TIN CAN is the newer version of a standard and has similar capabilities as SCORM. It is sometimes referred to as the NEXT GENERATION OF SCORM because it collects a wide variety of data that the original SCORM standard cannot. The main thing when comparing TIN CAN to SCORM is that TIN CAN doesn’t just start at the LMS. It starts wherever the learner or device the learner chooses to use. Do your research. Find out if the LMS you are looking to purchase will require other standards with which your department may need to comply.
7. Integration. Do you need to communicate with your Human Resources department on integrating employees into the LMS’s database? Do you need a developer to create an API to communicate with the integration with other software with which the LMS needs to communicate? Does the LMS support single sign-on; can you add it to the Active Directory in which the user names communicate with the department’s e-mail software such as Microsoft Outlook, or to your incident reporting system or shift scheduling platforms? What data will the LMS need to feed to other internal and external applications? These are some of the main things that get overlooked.
8. Reporting features. As a training officer, what data will you need to analyze? How hard is it to produce? Will you need a separate plug-in? Does the plug-in need to be customized to fit your department’s needs? The reporting feature nine times out 10 will make or break the purchase of the LMS. Many of the platforms report data to different agencies depending on where the data needs to be reported. For example, Jones and Bartlett’s Navigate 2 compares your academy’s grades with those of other fire academies across the United States, whereas Great LearningWorks XLearning Management System gives the instructor an analysis on the most missed questions in an exam, which gives the instructor an accurate picture of what areas of learning needs more focus or even if additional training is required.
Will the content on the LMS need to satisfy a regulatory body? In Florida, some courses need to be reported to the Department of Health, CE Broker, and Fire College Department of Insurance Continuing Education for continuing education units to be acknowledged and recognized. Can custom plug-ins be created? Address these things before you commit to an LMS because some of these costs can be added and charged after the contract has already been signed.
9. LMS customizations. Does the LMS have the same look and feel as your department’s Web site, or is the LMS basically an “off the shelf” platform? What if the LMS needs specific customizations that are not part of the vendor’s “standard” package? The two main things to consider when looking for your LMS are to recognize the customization needed so no additional costs can be added and the time this customization will take. Every customization you may require will stretch the deadline of your system implementation/installation. Will the vendor let you customize the LMS to your liking, or will you be limited on the items you can customize in your system—for example, change headers, footers, and logos.
10. Open source or vendor. Once you have gathered your list of questions and have spoken to your neighboring agencies, decide which type of LMS will be right for you. Will the LMS be an open source system in which you can download it for free and hire the necessary employees with the programming knowledge and skill sets to support the platform, or will you look for a vendor that will offer you the platform and relieve you of any installations, upgrades, and helpdesk-support issues? In case a problem occurs, that person has to be ready to fix the issues that come up (in ample time) so learners are not affected. There are several open source platforms; the most widely used platform is MOODLE.
When you finally decide on the LMS and the vendor has reviewed and answered your questions, ask the vendor the following questions: How much will it cost? Is there an initial installation fee? What does the maintenance fee consist of? Is the content library included? Is there a per-user fee? Is the per-user fee in increments of 50, 100, or is the user fee based on my department’s actual size? If I want only the LMS and not the content, do I still need to pay the user fee? Always get the cost up front, and make sure you receive an official document that includes a detailed list of all of the items, customizations, and integrations you need. If you have more than one vendor in mind, ask each about your specific requests; some of these requests may be included the original package price.
Freddie Batista is an 18-plus-year firefighter/paramedic in South Florida. He has an extensive background in e-learning and development. He has a master’s degree in executive management with a minor in instructional system design. He has served as project manager for multiple large-scale curriculum reform projects, software development for the Florida Department of Health, and course development and design for the 28 FEMA task forces and subject matter experts in public safety. Batista developed Open Source LMS systems for many institutions. He received an award in 2009 from the Florida Association of EMS Educators for developing online learning modules and an online instructor course to meet Florida Statute 401, which is being used by the Department of Health Training.