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Midstate agencies are incorporating online classes into training programs

By M. Diane McCormick
for the Patriot News

Penbrook Police Chief David Hiester enjoys the convenience of online training, but his officers “still have to take the training seriously.”

“It’s important that any agency that uses or participates in online training makes it clear that the training is just as important as something they have to report to the classroom for,” he said.

Many midstate businesses and agencies are exploring new directions in online learning. Programmers are heightening engagement and interactivity, while businesses hope to reach new audiences as well as employees.

“Everybody’s used to sending someone to class,” said Luke Kempski, president of JPL, Swatara Township. “They’re not used to saying, ‘Hey, for the next week, we want you to spend a half-hour a day on these classes.”

JPL helps clients develop online training ranging from simple presentations to complex simulations. Lately, clients have pursued training that educates or serves the needs of outside audiences. They include the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, which developed the Pennsylvania Virtual Training Network for members to access, and New Holland, a Lancaster County-based agricultural equipment manufacturer that built a training tool to educate dealers and help them match products with the needs of customers.

Penbrook’s officers are among the 4,000 enrolled in PCPA’s online training program, which hopes to enroll 30,000 Pennsylvania law enforcement professionals within four years. PCPA launched the network in January to capitalize on research showing that online learning delivery “is equal to or better than the classroom” for adults, technology coordinator Chris Braun said.

“We’re constantly being educated by the things in front of us,” said Braun, a retired Philadelphia Police Department captain who delivered training via cable television when it was new. “Moving into that online world to get instant access of the news we need is the way of the world.”

The network provides credit courses for officers’ mandatory continuing education, but the network also allows advocacy organizations to share expertise on domestic violence, mental health, DUI and other issues. PCPA partnered with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence to develop courses on investigating domestic violence.

Early e-learning was called “shovelware,”when businesses posted PowerPoint presentations that learners flipped through, said Andy Petroski, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology’s director of learning technologies.

“That wasn’t very engaging, motivational or effective from a learning standpoint. A lot of companies have realized that in the long run, they’re really not saving costs because their employees are not learning,” he said.

Harrisburg University technology students study education and communication along with new technologies, Petroski said. New online learning tools incorporate basic classroom techniques to ensure a student is making adequate progress, or it can simulate real-life situations, he said.

“It’s a safe environment where no one gets hurt, and you can learn from your failures,” he said.

New Holland had applications that allowed dealers to review product specifications with potential customers, but the system had to work offline for rural customers without Web connectivity. It’s 6,000 documents, essentially “a glorified version of our PowerPoint decks” crammed onto USB sticks, were becoming cumbersome, said Ryan Sweeney, a training innovations specialist with New Holland.

New Holland worked with JPL to save costs by applying elements of the old system toward a new one that’s “really smart in it simplicity,” Sweeney said. Dealers download an application to their laptops and then choose content as if they’re selecting iTunes songs, he said.

Chief Hiester sees advantages and disadvantages to online and classroom training. Eight hours in front of the computer are no more exciting than a day spent in the classroom, he said, but plugging officers into online sessions at the workplace helps ease scheduling headaches and saves manpower costs.

“I like the fact that we have alternatives,” he said.

Costs of developing online training depend on the system’s simplicity or complexity, plus the uniformity or variety of delivery devices, Kempski said. Regular reviews help online learning keep pace with company goals.

“You have to keep it updated because technologies change,” Kempski said.