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Digital Learning

Published: 12th Mar 2013

For companies seeking a cost effective way to deliver training without cutting corners on quality, Peter Donoghue delivers a checklist for selecting the ideal e-learning provider.

Attitudes to learning and methods of learning are changing dramatically and this is no less the case than in the field of health and safety. This is being driven in part by economic forces and the need to be cost effective when it comes to training.

As we all know, training is an essential part of implementing an effective health and safety system in any organisation; however, the cost of applying training using traditional classroom methods of delivery can be both expensive and disruptive. In the days when the traditional approach was the only approach, companies either put up with the disruption, absorbing the costs, or in the case of the less than reputable companies, reduced their training to the lowest level they could get away with.

Now that e-learning has overcome its initial reputation as a questionable substitute, or as being regarded as merely an electronic book, it has become firmly established as a cost effective and worthy alternative to classroom training. Consequently, there are no excuses for any company failing to implement appropriate health and safety training for those staff members identified as in need of such training.

While I would not advocate e-learning as a panacea, I would suggest that it certainly has a place as a supplementary means of training which should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with classroom training and be used where it is seen as appropriate. There will always be a place for classroom training, especially where intricate or complex procedures need to be demonstrated, or where students need to undertake hands-on or practical applications.

One of the reasons for the rising demand for e-learning is the attitudes of both the organisations that are required to buy in training from specialist training companies, and those who are being trained. As I have just mentioned, economic forces are behind many organisational decisions, but when it comes to those being trained, recent changes in academic styles of colleges and universities have influenced attitudes of those entering the labour market, and their ability to cope with e-learning.

An example of this can be seen in Saudi Arabia. Boasting the largest economy in the Middle East, this area has witnessed a vast increase in higher education and e-learning in recent times. The growth in higher education in the last five years has resulted in the opening of one new university every three months, five colleges every month, and 800 scholarships being awarded to students to study abroad every month.

The move towards e-learning is equally dynamic. There have been a number of initiatives to introduce this style of learning throughout Saudi Arabia, including:

• Sessions aimed at familiarising participants with e-learning

• More involved courses of varying lengths for interested participants

• The establishment of specific e-learning units within universities and educational organisations

• The establishment of a national centre for e-learning

• The launching of local e-learning programmes that aim at national certification for e-learning

The result has been a section of society which, in the past few years, has entered the working world unphased by e-learning and as such is better prepared to accept it as a means of absorbing knowledge. The combination of these factors has seen a dramatic rise in the use of e-learning in the corporate sector in recent years; this rise is predicted to continue for many years to come.

E-learning providers

Choosing the right provider for e-learning can be difficult as established standards are, as yet, unclear - especially for those organisations new to e-learning. When e-learning was in its infancy, some providers literally offered an electronic book with the script written down on the screen in a never ending page.

Thankfully, few of those providers remain, although vigilance should be employed. I would recommend that any organisation considering engaging an e-learning provider should ask for access to their course prior to engagement, so they can see for themselves the style and quality of the course material offered. Any provider that declines should be regarded as questionable.

The courses should also be accredited to the appropriate awarding body, such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), or the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH). Both of these organisations are internationally recognised and the process of having the e-learning courses accredited by these organisations ensures not only that the content is appropriate and adequate, but also interesting and engaging enough to do its job of passing knowledge on to the student.

Some of the courses involved in health and safety can be quite extensive and require many hours of study. The NEBOSH International General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety is typical in that it requires around 100 hours of study and, as such, presents a large amount of course content. With such a large amount of study time involved, managing expectations at the outset is paramount so that despondency does not creep in as time goes by.

To combat this despondency, one approach is to incorporate a simple programme within the introduction of the course showing a projected completion plan. The candidate can enter the anticipated weekly study time and will then be presented with a projected plan showing when they can expect to complete each element of the course.

Furthermore, such an amount of course content becomes easier to understand and absorb if it is segmented into relevant sections and presented on screen in bite sized chunks. Visual relevance, such as photographs and/or diagrams alongside the text, will also assist in this process.

Interactions are another important aspect of a good e-learning course. Keeping the delegate interested and involved are basic elements of any learning process and none more so than with e-learning, where the involvement of the classroom tutor in providing this interest is absent.

Tutor support

It’s not always clear at the outset as to what is and is not included in the package, and searching questions should be asked; for example, is tutor support included? Some e-learning providers offer this service at an added cost, or limit the amount of tutor support included, after which point additional costs will be incurred for further support. It can be said that the best e-learning providers offer unlimited tutor support because they have full confidence in their course material. Those providers who do not have that confidence will be wary of being overwhelmed by requests for information that is unclear or outrightly missing from their course.

Tutors’ qualifications

The tutors who are appointed to answer questions and give support to the students should be trained to the same level as those trainers who would deliver the course in the classroom, which is generally one academic level above the course they are supporting. I have witnessed, on occasions, some providers who structure their tutor support around a list of frequently asked questions. These are then sent out by email - by unqualified staff - without any relevance to the original question.

Do not be afraid to ask about what kind and quality of support is being offered.

Remote method

Is the tutor support limited to email, or does it extend to telephone support? Due to variances in time zones few people expect an instant response to requests for tutor support, so in the first instance email is normal.

Depending on the particular question and answer in play, better learning providers will vary the medium of reply as appropriate. If this is by telephone, for example, to explain the issues raised in depth, then providers will make arrangements by email to make the telephone call to the delegate at a time to suit both parties.

Response times

Due, again, to variances in time zones, few people expect an instant response when requesting tutor support. While there is no ‘normal’ response time, a reply within a 24 hour window is a reasonable expectation.

Technical support

One of the most frustrating aspects of online working is when a technical issue arises and you don’t know how to overcome it. Having the ability to access technical support is essential. When selecting a training provider it is important to ensure that technical support is an ongoing part of the support package and not only available at the outset. Furthermore, ensure this is included in the course costs, or if it isn’t, find out the extra costs involved before committing.

Limited time access

Some course providers are now reducing the length of time for which their course material is available. In situations where the delegate undertakes the course and passes their exam on the first attempt, this generally poses no problem. It is not, however, a perfect world, and there will always be some delegates who will be referred and will need to retake their exam. Because of the time frames set by awarding bodies such as NEBOSH, any referral may well take them beyond the period of the course. Consequently, on a below-par learning programme, this can mean that support is denied at the very moment it is needed most.

Again, the better course providers offer long periods of access and even unending access and support until the delegate passes their exam.

Personal study notes

Before selecting an e-learning provider, it is important to check whether the delegate will have access to their own learning material. It is essential that each delegate can access their own material so that they can return to their study at the point they last left it.

Material navigation

Some course providers have set up their learning platform in a way that only allows the delegate to progress through the course in a lateral way and in one direction. This means that they cannot revisit material they may feel unsure about and will have to rely on notes they will have been expected to take. The better course providers offer navigation facilities so that any number of elements of the course can be revisited as many times as required.

Self assessments

The ability for a delegate to make a judgement as to how well he or she has understood the course material is very important. Self assessments at regular intervals help the delegate make this judgement and, coupled with the ability to navigate back, allow the delegate to restudy parts of the course as necessary.

Mock exams

Having an insight into the type of exam question to expect can be helpful. Inclusion of some exam questions as part of the course material can help prepare the delegate for the exam. In the case of NEBOSH courses, the way the questions are answered in the exam can have a significant affect on the marks awarded. Consequently, as well as covering the content, the course should also deal with how the delegate will be expected to answer questions.

24/7 access

The course material should be available around the clock and any day of the week.

Exam arrangements

Course providers should have arrangements in place for delegates to take their exam at regular periods. They should also have a system in place that forewarns delegates of forthcoming exams so they can register if they feel ready to take their exam.

Pass rate

The very reason for a delegate to undertake a course is to attain a qualification by passing the exam at the end of the course. Pass rates should be requested as an indication of the effectiveness of the course in providing enough knowledge to pass the exam; however, as an isolated entity pass rates are meaningless. They should instead be requested in conjunction with the awarding body’s current overall pass rate, taking into account everyone sitting that particular exam so that a meaningful comparison can be made.

Published: 12th Mar 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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