Lockdown forced us to learn remotely. So is blended learning the future for OSH training and CPD?
The rapid shift to online learning because of COVID-19 could permanently change how workplace education is delivered. But digital and remote learning was seeing steady growth before the pandemic. Dr John Hamilton CFIOSH, director of safety and sustainability at Bellrock, started experimenting with blended learning before the lockdown. ‘We were using Skype for Business to deliver half a day of a three-day training course on managing safely,’ he says. ‘It meant I took people away from the workplace for less time. In some cases that was the difference between getting them on training or not.’
Dr Julie Riggs CFIOSH, senior head of education at the British Safety Council, says: ‘The overall global market for online education is projected to reach $350bn by 2025, contributed to by investments in new software, apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing and gamification,’ she says. ‘Students and clients have a much clearer idea of when and how they wish to study.’
Organisations were also becoming more aware of the different learning needs and styles of individuals, according to Richard Orton, director of strategy and business development at IOSH. ‘Training is becoming much more focused on the learner than the product,’ he says. ‘IOSH has a network of 2000 training organisations operating in 86 countries with a variety of products available. This gives organisations the opportunity to find a training course and company that is a really good fit for them culturally and has the right combination of packages available to meet the needs of the learner.’
Online learning: Keeping the work/life balance
Steven Brown, environmental manager at C-Plan Telecommunications, completed eight CPD qualifications during the lockdowns, and began an OSH diploma.
‘You can structure your day better and learn when you are at optimum attention,’ he says. ‘My experiences at college and university were just a lecturer reading off an acetate and me writing it down. I remember always thinking, “Why not just give me a printout and let me read it at my own pace?” I also like how I don’t feel anxious about being in unfamiliar environments and having this hinder my learning.’
However, he’d prefer a combination of face-to-face and remote learning. ‘In the trainer role that I have developed I can see why some people need face-to-face and I like to accommodate that. But it’s also great to have someone who likes the online element have the flexibility to attend classes,’ he says. ‘During lockdown I’ve been able to help people from all over the UK get certification, which would have been very difficult (geographically), even without lockdown restrictions.’
Adapting and evolving
In national and local COVID-19 lockdowns, trainers also needed to become more entrepreneurial in how they delivered training at a distance. Craig Foyle CFIOSH, director of Foyle Safety & Management, enjoyed the challenge of adapting to change and seeing how technology has progressed during the pandemic. ‘Zoom and Microsoft Teams have learned from each other and customers have benefited from this,’ he says.
Online delivery has developed beyond a few PowerPoint slides and PDFs, Julie says. ‘It is interactive, engaging and supports different learning preferences. Evolution has encouraged a blending of technology used by trainers in either classroom or virtual delivery and the use of tutorial videos and remote tutor support for digital.’ Trainers have a wide range of technology available at their fingertips, including chat forums, videos, animations, augmented reality and virtual reality. Video conferencing also encourages inclusivity, supporting students with disabilities, such as subtitling on video calls and colour filtering on screens for dyslexia. ‘The purpose is to engage beyond the screen and the textbooks,’ Julie says.
Trainers have to adapt too. ‘You have to think much more carefully about the material,’ John says. ‘You can’t just talk to a screen for two hours. You have to engage “the room”. I use check-in questions all the time, bouncing around the room randomly and asking participants questions. There’s a whole different set of rules.’
Julie says online learning brings accessibility, including cost-effective training and the ability to translate materials into different languages. ‘Online, companies can achieve a greater reach and are no longer confined to a geographical location.’
E-learning: A tactical approach
Property management services provider Bellrock brought a new e-learning system into the business just before the first lockdown in March 2020. How the system looks now is hugely different to the way it did more than a year ago, ‘partly because of what we learned and partly because the world’s a different place’, says John Hamilton.
Even though the company was hitting 98% of its key performance indicators for completion rates, it was ‘hard work’ getting people to complete online OSH training. ‘We had a deal with the business,’ John says. ‘We said, “We know you don’t like e-learning, so we will release only two tranches of e-learning for you each year and we’ll release no more than four modules – two hours’ worth of training,”’ he explains.
Despite this, the team was still chasing people to complete their training by the deadline. When it became clear it was certain sections of the business – in this case, mobile engineers – who were not completing the training because it was difficult for them to schedule two hours off their day job, the company changed the way it organised e-learning.
Now, the operations function schedules training for different employees based on their workload. ‘We have settled on a more tactical approach to implementing e-learning, rather than assuming one size fits everyone in the company.’ This also applies to the company’s cleaning staff, many of whom don’t have English as a first language. ‘We took all of our health and safety training for cleaning and housekeeping out of the e-learning completely, redesigned it and had it translated into nine or 10 different languages. It’s been really well received and the take-up rate has been much better.’
A blended approach
‘Many organisations have realised that this type of training delivery is cost-effective [in terms of] real estate and travelling,’ says Kelvin Jones, health and safety consultant at Ellis Whittam. ‘Both [trainers and students] can take advantage of this; however, not all courses can be taught virtually. Many will prefer classroom-based learning.’ He, like many other trainers and delegates, prefers face-to-face training, which allows greater social interaction and opportunities to build a rapport with students, especially if they are afraid to speak up online. Also, not all training is conducive to online delivery – first aid training is a prime example. Nevertheless, online training reduces companies’ carbon footprints and travel and accommodation costs, provides a safe environment and reaches a wider audience, he says.
Richard adds: ‘For the trainer, remote learning allows them to be far more versatile in how they deliver training. That potentially allows them to win more business. For the delegate it gives you more flexibility and time.’
Individuals have also found it easy to keep up to date with their continuing professional development online. ‘In the first lockdown, I successfully passed a IOSH behavioural safety leadership course. In May this year, I also attended a mental health first aid instructor course. There are many virtual training opportunities, which helps maintain CPD. You can complete this at your leisure without taking time out of your normal working day,’ Kelvin says.
Craig agrees that CPD can be achieved remotely. ‘It does not take away the benefits of networking at IOSH events, which are important in personal development and career progression. There are opportunities for a hybrid delivery of OSH training, where some parts are delivered face-to-face and other parts are virtual.’
However learning is reached, competency is the goal. ‘At the end of the training, can you prove that the delegate is now competent to do the thing that they want to do?’ Richard asks. ‘If not, the training has failed, regardless of what it is or how it’s been delivered.’
Blended learning: ‘We all learn differently’
‘Online courses tend to be shorter and more concise, meaning you learn the fundamentals of the subject without the waffle. They normally come with video, animation or pictures to underpin my learning and understanding, which are great for visual learners like myself,’ says Paul Mahoney, health and safety speaker, trainer and facilitator.
But when Paul was invited back to deliver in person, he found the experience better, especially with smaller class sizes. ‘With a small number of people in the room, the presentation becomes more personal, and you can get stuck in to understanding why people at times make wrong decisions at work on health and safety, and how we can inspire them to make the right choices. The future will see more combinations of blended learning than there are now.’
- CPD guidance: iosh.com/my-iosh/my-cpd
- Guidance on video conferencing: bit.ly/IOSH-video-conferencing-guidance
- Guidance on how to deliver face-to-face training with COVID-19 restrictions in place: bit.ly/IOSH-help-keep-trading
- IOSH’s training policy position: bit.ly/IOSH-training-policy-position