e-Learning: Get yourself on the train

By GovTechReview Staff
Thursday, 27 March, 2014

The history of eLearning in Australia stretches back barely 15 years. That’s long enough, however, for an initial slew of poorly-designed tools to lead some potential users to equate eLearning’s low cost to low-quality outcomes.

As the industry has matured and the tools have improved, however, cash-strapped government agencies are viewing eLearning in a new light. While the low-cost element remains, eLearning is delivering other benefits that increase its value enormously. The fact that eLearning can be undertaken from almost any location, on any device, and at any time, means that learning is becoming more flexible and convenient. Just as consumers and public agencies have adopted smartphones and tablets, eLearning is making the leap to the smaller screen.

For field workers, this enables learning in a ‘just-in-time’ fashion. And because courses are stored online and can be updated, users can engage with them on an ongoing basis.

Martin Greelees, chief executive of eLearning developer Workstar, says public sector clients are currently his most active market sector, partly due to government budget cuts. “They are facing a continual challenge at the moment about how they can do more with less,” he says.

While many inquiries are initiated on the basis of cost, Greenlees says that as programs expand agencies are noting the quality outcomes that modern eLearning can deliver, especially when it includes multimedia and interactive elements. This is broadening the range of problems that eLearning can tackle.

“Often when people think of eLearning they think of a narrow little world that they have previously had experience with,” he explains. “Typically, that has been in areas like compliance, OH&S and things like that. We focus a lot more on scenario-based learning, with real world scenarios that they can experience.”

Reaching out

As with the private sector, much of the eLearning used in the public sector today is focused on training internal staff, such as at the rapidly-growing NBN Co.

But according to Leon Young, chief executive of the Sydney-based eLearning tools developer 2and2, many agencies are investing in eLearning to reach out to external parties and stakeholders.

“With government, we tend to find it is the people looking at external audiences that are more willing to invest,” Young says. “It’s certainly an emerging trend and somewhere we expect a lot of growth.”

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) is one such group. Funded by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Aspect runs face-to-face workshops for teachers, carers and parents to assist school aged children with autism, funded through the Helping Children with Autism package.

According to the project manager in the Parent/Carer Networks & Organisational Development group at Aspect, Karen Jones, her organisation needed a way to cost-effectively reach more people, and began working with Workstar in 2008 to develop an education website and eLearning content.

“We wanted an online environment that we could use for professional development for our teacher workshops, as part of their learning,” Jones says. “With our autism experts Workstar pulled together an online module called What is Autism?, which is a 45 minute interactive module that all teachers had to complete.”

To date 2800 school staff have gone through that online professional development course, along with 5800 parents and carers. The supporting website has also enabled Aspect to reach an additional 28,000 people by providing access to material from Aspect’s workshops.

“We’ve been quite surprised by how many people have engaged in the online portal,” Jones says. “We get emails constantly from families, from support services, and from professionals, saying that they have started using it, and we are quite pleased by that.”

“There are always going to be certain people who will continue to need other support, and I don’t think eLearning is going to take the place of all the face-to-face – but it is able to reach more people.”

eLearning is also providing outreach for the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority (MARA), which is a discrete office attached to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that regulates the migration advice profession in Australia. Its responsibilities include ensuring that registered agents maintain the appropriate knowledge to provide accurate advice to consumers.

The Office of the MARA had already created a framework to assist agents in handling the ethical challenges involved in their work, including access to a help line, Ethi-call, run by the St James Ethics Centre.

While the framework is embodied in comprehensive written material, in June 2012 the Office of the MARA launched the first of four supporting eLearning modules on its website, which was produced by 2and2.

The director of professional development at the Office of the MARA, Dora Chin-Tan says the modules, titled Ethics Bytes, help bring ethical scenarios to life by packaging them into eight to nine minute vignettes.

“We have adopted an eLearning delivery mode to reach a wider target audience,” Chin-Tan says. “While there is a lot of material already in existence, we believed that if we were able to deliver information in a way that was bite-sized and easy to take in, that would ensure that the message is received by more agents.”

The modules consist of an animated video that takes agents through a real life scenario, including discussion of the consequences. They then complete a quiz to reinforce their comprehension.

Chin-Tan says the response from agents to the first two scenarios has been positive. “Because we had a step-by-step framework, it lends itself to an eLearning mode that’s short and sharp,” she explains. “You can easily engage with and be taken through the material.”

Depth of feel 

Another concept that is experiencing rapid growth within eLearning is the use of 3D simulation, which takes the concepts of 3D virtual worlds – such as those used in online games such as World of Warcraft or Second Life – and makes them the basis for real world training simulations.

Indeed, SA Health has been using a 3D games engine called Unity 3D to simulate the use of electronic health records, creating a virtual scenario of a traffic accident where trainees can follow along with the simulated action.

The chief information officer for SA Health, David Johnston, says the games engine was used due to problems experienced in communicating the benefits of the electronic health record to different audiences.

“Imagine if you could walk through a scenario and switch the record on and off, and see and hear the difference it makes,” Johnston says. “When you can actually see it, it seems to sink in.”

SA Health is also investigating using the 3D engine for clinical training. Practical student training today often requires expensive consultant physicians, but a virtual prac would enable students to gain more experience before participating in the real thing.

“Because it is a games engine, it is already designed to be multi-user,” Johnston says. “The avatars that are wandering around can actually be people. So the next leap then is to use it for virtual meetings or lectures.”

“We think there is going to be a great capacity to offer training using different sorts of tools that are going to be available. We will be able to use the NBN to offer training in different sorts of ways that should be much more efficient than dragging people for hundreds of kilometres to sites to offer training in traditional modes.”

eLearning is also staking a place in publicly-funded vocational training. This is one of the goals of the Flexible Learning Advisory Group (FLAG) – the key policy advisory group on national directions and priorities for information and communication technologies (ICT) in the vocational education and training (VET) system, and manager of the National VET E-learning Strategy.

According to the director of FLAG, Chris Stewart, recent benchmarking shows that 82 per cent of VET students have some e-learning in their course and 30 per cent have a lot. eLearning is also proving popular, with 90 per cent of VET students stating they would like at least a little eLearning in their course, and 26 per cent wanting a lot.

Stewart expects the rollout of the National Broadband Network will further accelerate the uptake of eLearning in the VET sector.

“We think there is going to be a great capacity to offer training using different sorts of tools that are going to be available,” Stewart says. “We will be able to use the NBN to offer training in different sorts of ways that should be much more efficient than dragging people for hundreds of kilometres to sites to offer training in traditional modes.”

Even without the NBN, Stewart says FLAG has been able to engage in numerous innovative eLearning programs. One project developed in conjunction with the Canberra Institute of Technology for Fire and Rescue NSW utilised live high definition video of a controlled fire in Tamworth, streamed via the NBN, with an instructor in Brisbane providing training to regional fire investigators using the video feed from the control fire site.

This meant the instructor could assess critical skills and give feedback to students at the time of assessment.

Another project, conducted with WoundsWest in Western Australia, provided access to evidence-based wound eLearning for nurses in remote regions. And a further FLAG pilot program, led by Queensland’s Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, used live video to train cattle farmers in pasture management, helping them understand land condition, develop stocktake pasture monitoring skills.

“Instead of taking people out to a pasture, they sent one person out who used live streaming video to focus in on grasses in the paddock,” Stewart says.

“A group of students who were remote from the farm were able to use the power of the NBN to get sufficient resolution to identify all the grasses in the pasture.” – Brad Howarth

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