Online training is the most modern educational tool in the fire department training arsenal. Because it uses the latest technologies, it means fire departments have the ability to solve a multitude of training-related issues all at the same time. These solutions include educational needs assessment, training records management, consistent delivery, distance delivery, flexible scheduling, content related to policy, consistent and unbiased evaluation and, of course, the most important consideration – cost.
Effective training meets a need, most commonly a need to reduce risk by developing or improving knowledge and/or skill in an identified area of concern. Long before the actual content of training is designed, the needs assessment first determines the area of risk, the ability of training to resolve it, the type and content of training required and who requires the training.
We can consider the example of mandatory legal requirement for WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) training required by most, if not all provincial/territorial and even federal health and safety legislation.
Using a standardized e-mail questionnaire pre-designed for a specific workplace, we could quickly determine (by tracking addressees and responses) not only who has received WHMIS training within a given time period but also the most common chemicals being used in particular workplaces.
Computers can then generate statistics (metrics) from the results but, more importantly, they can represent these metrics graphically – which is often more meaningful. Risks can be pre-determined so that, for example, responses indicating that 38 per cent of workers had not received WHMIS within the past 12 months could be reflected graphically as a moderate risk to the fire department. We could also break down the actual percentages of people completing WHMIS in given time periods and group them. In any event, the level of risk assessed by this tool would determine the overall (workplace generally) and specific (employee) urgency of the need for the program.
The responses would also indicate the type of chemicals most prominent in the workplace(s), which would be used to design the content of the course so that it was considerably more needs specific.
With the needs assessment indicating a moderate need of 38 per cent and prominent chemicals identified, the course content is then designed to meet the legal mandates.
The foundation for the content should be generally accepted adult education principles, including sequential learning. As importantly, content should be designed so that it regularly reviews the learner’s understanding with regularly occurring test pages.
The test pages can use any of the common measurement formats such as true or false, multiple choice or filling in blanks to measure the level of understanding.
Being able to pre-determine the preferred level of understanding and design questions that effectively measure at the desired level is an important feature of web-based online training. In educational parlance, the most common benchmark for measuring level of understanding is Bloom’s taxonomy.
According to Bloom, learning takes place at levels of understanding ranging from simple to difficult. In that order, these levels include: knowledge (basically memorizing); understanding (familiarity with what is being memorized); assimilation (assimilating learned materials into existing experiences); synthesis (learned materials become experiences sufficient to facilitate new learning); and evaluation (material is learned sufficiently to be able to critically analyze its value against other learning and experiences). It’s generally thought that higher learning (synthesis and evaluation) can only be measured through written essays.
It may be correct to assume that programs such as WHMIS do not require higher level understanding, just as it may be correct to assume that more complex and critical training (hazmat, pump operations, training officer) should require higher understanding. What’s important is that online training gives the fire service the flexibility to design training that meets these requirements.
RELATING POLICY TO CONTENT
Workplace learning should be workplace specific. It should, therefore, directly correlate to current workplace policies and practices. The easiest way to do this is to pair learning (course design and delivery) with workplace SOGs, SOPs, training notes and memos. This is a forte of training delivered online because of the ability to manage so-called “click-through” activities.
Basically, content can be designed so that the learner is required to read certain policy(ies) either as part of course content, or before being allowed to “click through” any particular page of the course. The requirement to read a particular page comes complete with the ability to require an electronic signature evidencing that the reader has read, and understood the policy, etc.
When the workplace is structured on shift-work, like fire fighting, that comes complete with irregular holiday scheduling, lieu days, sick days, etc., assuring that workers are trained can be a logistical nightmare.
This is another forte of education delivered online because it can be made available at any time convenient to the worker. The only requirement is access to a computer with Internet connectivity.
The result is a quasi-transfer of responsibility for learning to the employee-learner from the employer. At first glance, this seems somewhat like passing the buck. The fact is, however, that higher job satisfaction rates have been associated with greater control over productivity outcomes.
Online training also doesn’t depend on distance, making it the ideal distance education tool.
Online training costs are a function of many considerations, including complexity of courses and enrolment numbers. The possibilities are encouraging, however, when compared to the human resources and physical infrastructure costs of personnel required to present the same information in classroom settings over numerous shifts all tracked manually with paper and pencil.
THE FIRE SERVICE ONLINE
At the moment, there are two primary providers of online training in Canada, Medteq Solutions out of Guelph, Ont., and FETN, the Fire & Emergency Training Network out of the United States.
FETN has a library of fire and EMS courses available in web-based format with credit and accreditation through its own FETN Academy. You can learn more about FETN at www.twlk.com/fire/fetn_home.aspx .
Medteq Solutions is the Canadian affiliate of Target Safety, which calls itself “the only training partner of the NFPA.”
Medteq Solutions offers PreventionLink, which it says is “a comprehensive suite of online risk management, training, communications, and compliance systems designed exclusively for public entities.”
The Medteq curriculum is also available 24/7 online. Uniquely, Medteq has spent considerable resources modifying its curriculum to contain exclusive Canadian content, including referencing Canadian laws, regulations and standards, as well as using Canadian case studies, examples and experiences and Canadian spelling (a seemingly minor but noteworthy quality). You can learn more about Medteq Solutions by visiting www.medteqsolutions.ca or calling 866-639-8727.
When it comes to addressing risk management through online training, Canadianfire and emergency services should appreciate using curriculum that contains Canadian content. This is especially beneficial when it comes to training that is legally mandated in Canada, for example WHMIS and certain TDG (Transportation of Dangerous Goods) courses. It should be expected that we will increasingly see more mandated training in Canada.
Smaller fire departments, including volunteer departments, can realize a benefit through online training by reducing requirements for training officers to design, deliver and modify curriculum. Further, there is a reduced need for teaching infrastructure (classrooms, projectors, paper, etc.).
Because the same curriculum is delivered notwithstanding the size of the department, the knowledge and skills gained are transferable, which, among other things, can standardize the training and resulting firefighting activities of area fire departments that might be involved in mutual aid activities – a compulsory requirement in Ontario.
For volunteer fire departments, there is also a clear benefit in being able to train firefighters without requiring their presence at an official location or at certain times. Volunteer firefighters can complete competency training at home on their own schedule, addressing a common complaint of volunteers and one of the factors that contributes to increased volunteer attrition rates, and meaning that online training might be a valuable tool in the effort to retain volunteers.
It’s difficult to measure skills development through online training, so a skills measuring facility may be necessary. This may become one of the new functions of training divisions, or departments may wish to seek co-operative agreements with local educational facilities such as community colleges, universities or even larger departments that already have these capabilities (which, in turn, presents as an opportunity for the larger departments).
Online training can’t replace the important practical components of firefighter training. We will likely always need to actually handle ladders, hoses, nozzles, extrication equipment and vehicles as part of the practical training critical to important knowledge and skill development. In fact, the practical components of education are where learners get to complete necessary experiences.
Online training also shouldn’t be called interactive simply because the learner has to press buttons on a keyboard in order to elicit screen changes. This is a misnomer and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for designing web pages that are uninteresting.
The strength of online training is in the way it enables us to deliver theoretical components of education in ways that are measurable, verifiable and transferable, and which complement the practical components for a more worthwhile and educationally viable training experience.
That makes it a useful and likely cost-effective tool for modern training scenarios.