By Margi Stone Cooper
It is becoming easier to find firefighters who are passionate about the need for online training. This is good news for the fire service, because online training is arguably one of the best ways for more firefighters to receive more training, which saves lives.
For the last several years, I’ve been involved in helping fire-service organizations ramp up their use of educational technology. It’s rewarding to see organizations not only adapt to online learning, but take it and run with it. However, even in states where blended online training has established roots, it’s not uncommon to meet fire instructors who believe that Web-based teaching technology will put an end to their career. But advocates of online training are not working to make the role of the fire-service instructor obsolete, they simply see the benefit of change.
Apprehension toward Web-based educational technology is not surprising. In fact, it’s a trend in itself. Twenty years ago, Cooperative Extension agents feared that posting fact sheets online would mean farmers and homeowners would no longer turn to them for information. Likewise, many people wondered if we would still need librarians once devices such as the Kindle became mainstream. While it’s true Extension agents hand out fewer fact sheets these days, they spend much more time doing things that they most like about their job — working directly with producers, youth, seniors and other citizens to improve their lives. Librarians also are as busy as ever. However, instead of helping people locate books on library shelves, they have become experts in searching online databases and helping patrons learn to use information technology, all while still having to know the Dewey Decimal System. The bottom line is that the role of educators of all types continues to evolve.
Web-based training does have its drawbacks. Online courses are not necessarily easier for students, nor do they require less work for instructors. In my experience as both a student and an instructor, online courses have required more work all the way around. Unlike a traditional classroom, students in online courses can no longer sit quietly as a passive observer. Likewise, in an online environment, instructors must actively monitor student progress and ensure all are engaged in learning. But online instruction offers students the convenience of being able to learn at home and it greatly reduces travel expenses, which means more training becomes accessible to more people.
As more firefighters embrace (and expect) online learning, additional instructors will be needed, not fewer. Does that mean online training guarantees the future for every instructor? No. The fire service needs people who are willing to adapt to the new teaching and learning environment. Organizations of all types must continually evolve to stay viable, and those who resist change could eventually be seen as impeding progress.
Don’t think for one minute that some instructors are too old to learn to use new technology. Proponents of online training include senior members of the fire service. Resistance to new training methods has little to do with age. It has more to do with reluctance to side-step tradition, and younger instructors can be as tradition-bound as anyone else. In fact, when developing new teaching strategies, seasoned instructors bring a wealth of experience and often intuitively know which new instructional methods will work and which likely won’t.
So where can an instructor start?
- Search online and locate articles and videos that discuss online instructional techniques so that you can become familiar with them.
- Make online training a priority and learn to use new technology.
- Follow the lead of instructors in larger agencies or departments who are actively engaged in online training. Copy what they’re doing right. At the same time, ask about possible pitfalls and avoid their mistakes.
- Enroll in a Web-based course. You’ll be a better online instructor if you’ve experienced online learning as a student.
- Encourage your department or agency to offer pilot online courses. This will enable instructors to gain valuable experience interacting with students and practice using an online learning management system. Conduct course evaluations and make changes in the curriculum and class schedule based on their feedback.
Welcome the opportunity to grow professionally and to grow the profession. Learn a new skill set. Become an active participant in the trend toward online training. The fire service needs you!
Margi Stone Cooper serves as a communications specialist at Oklahoma State University. She is a doctoral student in OSU’s Educational Technology program and has research interests in online fire service training. Previously, she was the electronic products coordinator for a fire service training manual publisher and a curriculum projects manager for the Oklahoma Department of CareerTech. Cooper also recently completed a technology-related internship with the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association.