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The value of online learning


The value of online learning
Blogger Peter Sells always has an opinion. Whether you agree or disagree with his commentary, the subject matter is always current and thought provoking. Check out Peter's latest entry on online learning.

July 16, 2008 
By Peter Sells

July 15, 2008

I wonder what it would sound like if you handed a Stratocaster to someone who was a real whiz at Guitar Hero and asked them to play for real. Probably not too great.  The game may be fun but it is not a realistic test of the theory and skill behind actually playing an electric guitar. So unless the gamer is also an accomplished guitarist I wouldn’t be expecting any Pete Townsend power chords.


Taking that analogy into fire service training, can we expect to use current training technology as a substitute for actual hands-on skills training of firefighters? No, we cannot. Distance education, whether using modern web-based applications or correspondence by mail, is an extension of the instructor but not a replacement for flesh-and-blood oversight. Like any andragogical tactic, online learning must be designed within the limits of the medium and applied as part of a broader educational strategy.

Awareness level or knowledge-based learning
A great deal of our training and education efforts are aimed at ensuring that our people are aware and up to date on the latest policies and procedures that govern the workplace. Some of this stuff is not laughing-out-loud fun, like station maintenance schedules, WHMIS or seatbelt policies. Neither is any of it rocket science, but it is all necessary and, in some cases, legally mandated. We are required to ensure that firefighters are aware of their responsibilities and from time to time we are required to provide proof to that effect. Online learning management systems are perfect for this application. Learners can be directed to the relevant policy documents for review and tested on retention of their duties and responsibilities.

Reports can be generated to document who has and who has not completed the required activity. Now we all know that a proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven. So, does an online learning system guarantee that a learner has done the activity or retained the knowledge that was required? Not exactly. It is just as possible for web users to click on a statement verifying that they have read and understood a policy without having done so as it is for them to watch over their buddy’s shoulder as a test is taken and then just mimic the correct answers. No level of technology can prevent what is essentially fraud on the part of the learner. But a well-written disclaimer will place the onus on the learner to behave in a responsible manner.

Maximizing contact time
Where the real value of online learning is shown is in it’s ability to allow instructors to maximize the effectiveness of the limited contact time they have with learners. If the awareness level or theoretical material is delivered online, the system can be used to generate a list of firefighters who have completed the prerequisite learning activities. This pre-screening will allow instructors to get down to the hands-on skills training in a more efficient manner. Training time is expensive and in high demand across different fire/rescue disciplines. Used in this way, online learning of the theoretical basics can allow for greater consistency and efficiency in achieving skills transfer.

If your only tool is a hammer… .
..then everything starts to look like a nail. Avoid the temptation to treat online learning as a panacea solution to all of your training and education needs. Use it where it is appropriate and where it will allow you to be most effective. About 12 years ago I was asked to produce a video to train company officers on how to fill out a new set of forms. Imagine how thrilling that would have been. Instead, we put together sample forms in a binder filled out to cover the most common situations for which they would be required, and included contact numbers for tutorial assistance.  The high-tech solution was not the way to go. Online learning is just another tool in your kit, to be used where and when appropriate.
 So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go play Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’08 on my laptop. I only have a little more than one year to get ready for the senior tour.

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