Firefighters are honing their skills and saving lives with the introduction of the UK Fire Service’s new online development initiative. We examine the myriad advantages it offers
As vital as it can be to an organisation’s people-development strategies, e-learning can seldom claim to be a matter of life or death. But MDC Learning Systems, developer of an innovative online learning programme for the UK Fire Service, is in no doubt about the importance of its mission.
“Not only are we developing leading-edge learning management software and content to encourage and help firefighters through the learning process, says MDC’s managing director, Christine Blaydon, “we are also responsible for a tool that, if used correctly, will ultimately save lives.”
While setting up a Website to communicate to its 50,000-strong workforce, the UK Fire Service was struck by the idea of this initiative. Now it is nearing the end of a successful e-learning pilot, involving 600 UK Fire Service members.
“We realised its use could go much deeper and wider,” says Jim Robson, principal of the Scottish Fire Services College in Gullane, near Edinburgh – one of two national Fire Service training colleges in the UK (the other is in Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Gloucestershire in England).
“The Website offered access and development opportunities that we would not have had otherwise.”
More than 100 modules will soon be available, with online courses forming a major part of the Fire Service Integrated Personal Development System (IPDS).
National occupational standards, on which the IPDS framework is mapped, ensure that training and development is delivered to a consistent standard throughout the UK.
As well as updating and developing members’ knowledge and understanding, e-learning is also designed to help learners, who range from brigade and watch managers to firefighters, save lives, reduce risk and improve overall safety.
“The e-learning programme allows us to offer development opportunities to everyone who needs it at the right time and in the right way,” says former firefighter Robson.
“The development of e-learning modules on topics that cover many diverse areas will address both individual and organisational needs without requiring travel to regional or national training venues.”
Edinburgh-based MDC Learning Systems has been responsible for all aspects of the project from the learning management system (LMS) to the content. It had already developed an LMS with e-mentor facilities, and the fire service liked the way that it integrated into the college’s Website so that it would not be viewed as a separate virtual learning environment.
MDC brought together teachers, subject matter experts, developers and programmers to ensure that the fire service’s needs could be met with tailor-made content.
Among the company’s guiding principles is that 70 per cent of any e-learning programme focuses on the teaching process and 30 per cent on design and programming.
“MDC puts a great deal of focus on the 70 per cent to ensure the learning is accurate and tailored to benefit the one doing the learning,” Blaydon says.
A virtual classroom delivery
Blaydon’s colleague Stewart Walters reiterates the emphasis on capturing the teaching. He says the fire service was very clear that it wanted an “educational” solution rather than an IT one. Once a module has been chosen for online delivery, MDC’s content developers (who are teachers) work with the fire service’s subject matter experts, who teach it in the classroom.
“Our job is to capture the teaching activities and recreate these online,” Walters says.
“To do this you need a clear understanding of the subject areas and concepts being taught and then be clear on what the learner must understand, how they should be thinking and working through the example, and the application and reflection process.”
MDC is a member of the Scottish E-learning Alliance (www.elearningalliance.co.uk), which aims to promote online studies in Scotland. According to Walters, clients are now starting to recognise the value of replicating teaching experiences online.
“When they see good quality teaching activities, they wonder why they bought an LMS with content management as no one seems to use it,” he says.
The modular courses cover a range of subjects, including Incident Control, Dynamic Risk Assessment, Managing Yourself, Health and Safety and Equality and Fairness. There may be a number of areas to cover in a particular module, and each is broken down into teaching activities.
Learners can work at their own pace, stopping and returning to where they left off, and can ask questions to online tutors (answers are stored in a knowledge database).
Fire service lecturers can add their own material to core modules and teaching activities. Because MDC has used open standards to build the modules, it is easy to program in new features.
“There is no way any system currently on the market can meet the total needs of a client until you start to increase user volume, which tells you how robust and user-friendly your system is,” explains Walters.
A blended solution
Although the fire service’s learning programme chiefly centres on e-learning, it remains a blended solution overall. Skills, processes and procedures are still taught traditionally.
“The fire service uses the e-learning element to gain knowledge and understanding as it is great for key concepts and principles and the cognitive side of education,” says Walters.
“But the application and skills are still done at the fire station or on the job.”
Some of the most positive user feedback focused on concepts that can be related to first-hand job experience, Walters says.
The full programme will be rolled out throughout the UK fire sector, including those services belonging to the Ministry of Defence, the British Airports Authority and the industrial sector.
Robson is also looking into the possibility of providing knowledge and information to fire services throughout Europe.
Since implementation is still in the pilot stage, it is too early to discuss overall costs and return on investment. But to give an indication, one of the more expensive courses (the eight-hour Managing Yourself) works out to 75p per head, says Robson.
More time at home
As well as being a cost-effective training solution, Robson believes a major selling point will be the programme’s family-friendly nature. “I have travelled north and south for courses and have had to be away at weekends,” he says. “Now members can sit a course at home and not have to travel.”
Fire service personnel access the sites from their brigades, or wherever an internet connection exists, by logging onto www.scottish-fireschool.gov.uk. But Robson says people are not expected to take the courses at home unless it suits them.
The fire service describes feedback as “99 per cent positive,” and Robson is quick to pat his suppliers on the back. “MDC is very good at capturing the learning and replicating it without a tutor online [although there are e-mentors],” he says.
“Everything we’re hearing from users is positive because it meets their needs. They also like the interaction of it and being able to download documents when they want to. This is far more than just computer-based training.”
The UK fire service’s top tips for e-learning
– Remote support for e-learning is vital
– Context, as well as content, is king
– Keep it interactive, not text-led