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The role of online learning courses: How to learn?

A supermarket chain relied on existing staff to show new delivery drivers how to use powered pallet trucks safely. One new driver had been shown how to use a pallet truck at one site, but when he came across a different type of pallet truck at another site he didn’t understand how to stop it from moving. It crushed his foot, resulting in the amputation of two toes. The supermarket was fined £1 million, and the prosecution said that the supermarket should have had a “standardised training programme” so that every driver would know how to operate every truck they might need to use, safely. When it comes to safety at work, working it out as you go isn’t enough. Could online learning courses have been any help?

So what is the best way to teach people the skills they need to keep safe and healthy at work? One theory suggests that people can be categorised as visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners – that is, some learn better by seeing, some by listening and others by doing. However, there is as much evidence for this as there is for using birth signs to assign people to a career.

Can you imagine learning music without sound? Learning to drive without sitting in a vehicle? Learning to identify birds from a text description without a picture? Some skills are just better taught in a particular way.

So too with health and safety training, the debate shouldn’t be “classroom versus e-learning” or “online versus on-the-job” but “how can I best combine all the training tools available?”
To help you decide how you can integrate online learning with traditional training, we’ve included some of the pros and cons of classroom, on-the-job and online learning below.

Classroom learning:

What’s good about classroom learning?

  • A good teacher can respond to the needs of each learner and tailor the content dynamically
  • Students learn from each other as well as from the teacher
  • Safe environment away from workplace hazards
  • Can be based on best practice, research, and evidence
  • Can make use of videos, discussions, Q&A, role-play, props such as cut-down models of kit
  • Alternative approaches can be discussed
  • A teacher can assess understanding during the course, and an end of course test can be included
Problems with classroom learning

  • A poor teacher makes errors and doesn’t engage students
  • Slower learners might find it difficult to keep up and be self-conscious about asking for help
  • Faster learners can get bored or distracted
  • Students have to attend a given location at given time
  • Classroom learning might not cover all the variations found on-the-job
  • Can be time-consuming, especially if travel is involved
  • In a classroom, some students can “hide” and a teacher might miss that they haven’t understood something important


On-the-job learning:

What’s good about on-the-job learning?

  • More realistic than a simulation, especially for practical skills involving equipment
  • A good way to pick-up tips you might not learn elsewhere
  • More productive for the employer as the learner is not away from the workplace
  • Results can be monitored on the job
  • Students learn to be confident in the workplace


Problems with on-the-job learning?

  • It might be dangerous or inconvenient, or time-consuming for other staff
  • Might learn bad habits from colleagues
  • Might only learn one way of doing something when multiple techniques are needed
  • Someone great at their job might not be so good as a trainer
  • Hard to control the content and quality of the experience
  • Not good at teaching how to handle exceptions and emergencies

E-learning / Online learning courses: What’s good about online learning Courses?

E-learning / Online learning courses: What’s good about online learning?

  • Easy to access online learning from a desktop PC or mobile device 24/7 saving travel time and costs, and reducing time away from work.
  • Learners can work at their own pace – fast learners don’t get held back, and slow learners aren’t embarrassed if they want to repeat something.
  • Online courses can include tests with immediate feedback.
  • An online learning management system provides information about what content each learner has studied and how they have performed
Problems with online learning courses

  • Lack of social interaction and exchange of views
  • Self-motivation and self-discipline needed (unless employers set aside specific time slots for employees)
  • Can’t ask questions or ask about a topic
  • Technology can be off-putting to those who don’t regularly use computers.
  • Unless the online course can be tailored, the training might be more detached from the workplace

From this list of pros and cons we can see that provided you have a great teacher and that students start with a similar level of knowledge and ability, classroom teaching is a good way of making sure that people understand the theory and “buy-in” to the principles presented. However, since online learning courses don’t depend on everyone having the same ability they can be really useful in bringing people up to the same level, for example before a classroom course. Online courses are also useful for refresher training, as they are easy to schedule and access. Knowledge can be tested effectively by both classroom and online courses, but that knowledge needs to be reinforced in the workplace and provided it can be done safely and recorded, checking competence is best done on-the-job. Online learning is automatically recorded by the learning management system, so where the same online learning management system can also be used to schedule, test and record classroom attendance and on-the-job training, the administration will be a lot easier.

Here are some examples of how you might blend these approaches to get the best results from your health and safety training:

Fire Safety
At a classroom induction on his first day, Charlie is told how the fire alarm system works in the building. When he meets his new manager she shows him (on-the-job) the nearest call point, the escape route, and the assembly area. In the first week, Charlie takes an online course in fire safety awareness which explains how the fire triangle works and provide historical examples to emphasise the importance of a prompt evacuation. Within six months, Charlie takes part in a fire drill and is involved in a feedback session. He decides he’d like to be a fire warden, so he sits a more advanced online course for fire wardens. Once he has passed this, the responsible person for fire runs a session for him and other new wardens which includes some time in a classroom and some practical (on-the-job) work around the building.

Manual handling
On-the-job – at induction Jim is walked around the workplace and shown some simple handling tasks he can do, and told which tasks he shouldn’t do until he has more experience. During the first week, his supervisor keeps an eye on him and reminds him when he needs to use the equipment. After a couple of weeks, Jim goes to a ½ day structured classroom course which explains the principles of muscles and levers and good handling technique, including team lifts. After the course, Jim’s supervisor assesses him on the job for team lifting. After six months, Jim’s supervisor suggests he sits an e-learning course. This provides a refresher of what he learned before and also teaches him about manual handling risk assessment. On successful completion, Jim has an on-the-job discussion with his manager and makes some suggestions for improvements to the workspace that will make handling tasks easier.

Work at height
At her induction classroom course, Janet is told not to do any work at height until she has had further training. In the first week, she does an online course which explains that this includes not climbing on furniture, for example using a chair to reach a high shelf, or climbing on a desk to change a lightbulb. In her first month, an experienced colleague who has been through a classroom train-the-trainer course shows Janet on-the-job how to do a ladder pre-use inspection, and checks she understands how to use the ladder safely. After a year Janet is sent on an external PASMA certified course to learn how to assemble and use a mobile access tower. The PASMA course includes classroom and practical elements. The first time she uses an access tower her experienced colleague observes on-the-job and provides feedback.

The future
Online learning is now widely available at low cost, but the quality varies so look out for courses which have been approved by external bodies such as RoSPA. Decide on your training needs first: know your hazards, decide what training people need to manage the hazards, and then decide how best to combine online learning courses with traditional approaches.

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