In 1988, Isaac Asimov described a near future in which online learning was the primary mode of education, forecasting technologies like online knowledge bases and voice-activated digital assistants in the process. Impressive accuracy notwithstanding, the legendary author’s predictions underscore a long-standing expectation that computer-based learning would become a cornerstone of academic and professional education. This notion should be considered a reflection of digital learning’s inherent quality and utility. When a technology takes the shape science fiction authors and futurologists always assumed it would, it is in many ways finally realizing its potential.
In the public sector, contemporary digital training tools have largely taken the form predicted by Asimov and other visionaries. Lightweight, scalable, and highly customizable, these training modules are particularly suited to the rigorous educational demands of first response. Using this technology, personnel receive high-quality instruction from a decentralized, easy-to-access source, while higher-level stakeholders get a tool built capable of addressing an array of common administrative concerns. The right platform can save money, boost performance, simplify burdensome documentation needs, and even shield the institution against failure-to-train cases and other legal pitfalls. In this sense, online training holds even more value in the public sector than in the private, where roughly 42 percent of all Fortune 500 Global companies are thought to utilize it in some form [PDF link].
However, instructor-led training (ILT) delivered over the cloud is just one potential online training format. Turning back to the private sector, on-demand training has become increasingly popular in corporate training environments, reflecting the strain excessive ILT can place on an organization’s schedule, finances, and staffing. As above, this concern becomes multiplied in the first response world. If training is held only on a set date, for instance, sending a large percentage of an organization’s personnel could have wide ramifications that ripple into sacrosanct public safety concerns.
Because of this, and the fact that fire, law enforcement, corrections, and EMS organizations are continually expected to provide more performance with less budget, it is fair to assume on-demand training’s already-large role among online training methods will continue to grow. Although lessons such as firearm training, tactical driving, and fire simulation will probably always be held in the field, a surprising number work just as well in a self-paced, individually delivered digital environment. By identifying and offering these modules, governments and their response organizations may realize considerable financial savings and operational efficiencies.
Studies highlight benefits of on-demand learning, “blended” training systems
Research published by the Teachers College Record affirm the benefits of on-demand learning. In the publication, a group of SRI International researchers aggregated findings from numerous e-learning studies, and released a 2013 meta-analysis that challenged popular thought on the technology’s efficacy [PDF link]. Per their report, “students in online learning conditions” performed somewhat better than those taking face-to-face ILT. The paper also stated that “the advantage over face-to-face classes was significant in those studies contrasting blended learning with traditional face-to-face instruction.”
While multi-format online learning was far from a new thing in 2013, the notion that blended learning—defined in the paper as a combination of face-to-face, instructor-led online and on-demand courses—may be superior to traditional instruction. Related studies only lent the opinion more credibility. For one example, a 2014 International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) study indicated that unprepared, unknowledgeable students retained more information when attending massive online open courses, compared to traditional classroom learning. Students routinely take these-so called MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, with instructors publishing pre-prepared video material for self-paced consumption.
Of course, an oft-studied topic like online training could arguably produce any results one desires. With untold pages of literature on the topic, one simply needs to dig through the research and find supporting material. Instead of pointing at one definitive best or another, the Teachers College Record and IRRODL findings suggest a general idea: self-directed, on-demand coursework has ample value as part of a hybrid effort, with traditional classroom and/or online instructor-led modules playing a similarly important role.
These points should be of particular note to first response organizations, which stand to gain more from a blended system than most private or public entities. Looking past the potential public and personnel safety issues inherent to putting a high percentage of personnel in the same classroom, live training is not always a scalable exercise, which is a problem that grows with the size of the group needing education. Getting five firefighters into a mandatory annual course that runs a few times over two days is challenging enough, let alone fitting dozens or hundreds into the same timeframe. Repeated experience means most departments and their schedulers are good at adapting when annual in-service modules come around, but that does not make juggling shifts any more pleasant or optimal.
ILT may be the first training format departments think of—but not necessarily the best
On-demand training’s benefits are enhanced by the sheer amount of content that can be translated to a computer-led, self-guided training system. The same strengths that make computers excel at media formats like movies, music, and webpages, make them great for most any module that does not directly require a personal, hands-on presence to be effective.
These modules can and do cover topics more important than blood borne pathogens and sensitivity training. Sample courses listed on the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) webpage feature technical content with direct ties to law enforcement fieldwork. The top listing of courses examines how two court cases influence vehicle inventory procedure in the state. Meanwhile, another explores the state’s rather unique castle doctrine and, “explains when subjects are legally allowed to use force against [law enforcement officers].” Others yet touch on important topics like anonymous tips and qualified immunity.
These modules, produced by ILEA, are accessible on-demand and count toward the officer’s state-mandated 24-hour annual training requirement. The relative importance of the content and method of delivery are an implicit nod to the trust on-demand content receives in law enforcement training environments. Indiana officers and other responders can take courses with real lifesaving potential at their leisure, all in an environment most conducive to their personal learning abilities.
Regardless of content, all on-demand modules hold two potential advantages over in-person or online ILT: consistency and standardization. Personnel and their supervisors do not need to worry about attending a “bad course” or attending a class with an instructor they personally find ineffective, since all pupils are subject to the same lesson, presented in the same order, with the same verbiage. This allows stakeholders and designers to design coursework that precisely matches the standards set by state, local, or federal mandate, with far less room for deviation.
On the topic of administration, it bears repeating that the benefits of on-demand testing extend to the management level. These advantages become even more apparent when using on-demand training alongside a viable, industry-built training management system (TMS). Scheduling and scalability woes are largely held to classroom or field-based courses, such as CPR training. Test scores from multiple sources (on-demand and ILT, for example) are aggregated and kept in a single digital space, reducing “effort overhead” and removing the need to scan multiple systems when searching for qualified personnel. In addition, career documents are kept alongside test scores, giving management a full view of their employees’ training and performance histories. Moreover, offering an online course offers financial benefits when contrasted against paying trainers and attendees to be in a set place for a set period. These factors bleed into one another in a practical sense. At minimum, this makes a system that handles on-demand training and its incidental tasks critical for agencies attempting to modernize.
Why on-demand training matters
Like all modes of professional education, on-demand training has continually evolved since its inception. Once poorly-regarded in terms of quality and content, the delivery method is not only valuable as face-to-face classroom time and instructor-led online courses—but can be stronger, depending on circumstances and the content delivered.
Organizational decision makers can act on this info in several ways. First is simple adoption. If the agency has yet to utilize on-demand coursework in any meaningful fashion, its management may soon wish to revisit the decision. Following that, institutions that only use on-demand content where required may wish to identify modules that would do well in an on-demand format.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, stakeholders would be wise to examine training-related pain points and compare them against the numerous distinct advantages of on-demand modules. The organization can almost certainly use it to address inefficiencies once considered an unavoidable part of the training process.
To be clear, on-demand training is not intended to be an all-encompassing answer in an industry that relies on field training to keep its personnel informed and the public safe. However, it can be an indispensable cog in an agency’s training system. In a time where more and more basic response activities are moving to cloud-based, web-accessed delivery models, it only makes sense that education is the next big shift—just as Isaac Asimov said in so many words three decades ago.
Careers and learning- Real time, all the time