By Robert M. Schwartz, Executive Director, Maine Chiefs of Police Association, South Portland, Maine; John Rogers, Director, Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Vassalboro, Maine; and Paul M. Plaisted, President, Justice Planning and Management Associates, Augusta, Maine
uring the past five years, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association (MCOPA) has led an effort to implement an online component within Maine’s overall public safety training delivery system. Using funds supplied by a host of state and federal agencies, coupled with subscription fees for expanded services, the MCOPA effort is a comprehensive and technically advanced online training system serving the state’s law enforcement community.
Partnering with Maine’s law enforcement training providers, most notably the Maine Criminal Justice Academy (MCJA), MCOPA ensures that as the system develops it serves the widest possible range of needs and expectations. Most of Maine’s leading public safety training providers have participated in the system’s planning stage and signed formal Memoranda of Understanding (MoA) with the MCOPA supporting the program. A private firm has also been included within this partnership, serving as overall developer, systems integrator, and service provider for the online training system.
Learning Management System Features
A Learning Management System (LMS) provides the overall framework for tracking authorized users and their progress through available coursework. The LMS is driven by an online database and incorporates identification and password protection to limit access to training materials and data to authorized users only.
The system is also configured so participating departments can easily manage the training at the agency level. Within the department an assigned training coordinator controls and monitors all users within that agency group. The system allows individual users to view and print their own training records.
Guided by adult-learning instructional design principles, the online classes are specifically engineered to engage the interest of participants using graphics, animations, photography, audio components, hyperlinks, and interactive exercises. These features provide a learning experience that surpasses traditional text-based information presentation styles found in many Internet-based training. Subject matter experts use existing training materials to develop class lesson plans and instructional graphics. The reactions to the quality and usability of these materials have been positive.
The Maine Law Enforcement Online Training Initiative offers a single Internet-based training portal through which officers can address and document a host of training requirements. It addresses the training needs of Maine law enforcement officers in a consistent, user-friendly fashion, regardless of whether those training requirements are generated from the various agencies of the federal government; the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards; the Maine Human Rights Commission; in-state professional licensing bodies, such as the Board of Trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy; or any other source.
With nearly 90 classes currently available, Maine law enforcement officers can train on topics such as terrorism awareness, workplace harassment, search and seizure, cultural diversity, weapons of mass destruction and hazardous materials response, federal firearms laws, dealing with people with mental retardation, crime scene investigation, sexual assault, and many others. These materials are available statewide, at all times of the day, using any Internet-connected personal computer.
Over 7,000 public safety responders are registered in the Maine system. Of that number, 5,200 are related to one of the 160 law enforcement agencies that employ the online training system. User agencies range from the largest law enforcement organization in the state (the Maine State Police) to the smaller agencies. There are some small departments in Maine that employ only part-time officers, and they have access to the same quality training as the larger agencies. All Maine law enforcement agencies have an account in the system, and active system users currently represent nearly 90 percent of Maine’s sworn officers.
In the first five years, Maine law enforcement staff members completed nearly 150,000 class sessions with total completions by year-end 2009 expected to approach 200,000 classes.
Much of this training was used to address mandatory training requirements established by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees. The training material is delivered at times convenient to the users across the state without needing to arrange traditional classroom locations or instructors. The system’s automated testing feature documents competency level. Most of this training occurs during existing work shifts as the opportunities arise.
So far the estimated savings to Maine law enforcement agencies is calculated to be approximately $5–6 million as compared to the traditional training classroom operation. Continued use of the system with the Maine law enforcement community is predicted to be 50,000 class sessions per year.
In 2006, to assess the use of the Internet-based system to deliver training, MCOPA forwarded survey forms to over 140 police chiefs and sheriffs. In all, 83 of these survey forms were returned representing a fair cross section of the entire population of law enforcement agencies in Maine. Those returning surveys included 68 municipal departments, 13 county sheriffs, the Maine State Police, and one university department.
Overall Assessment: The survey returns validated much of the anecdotal support received from law enforcement executives. The recorded reactions were decidedly positive and in favor of continuing to use this delivery method to address Maine’s law enforcement training requirements. Most of those responding indicated that they believed the future of using online training for appropriate classes for law enforcement officers was “good” or “excellent” (93 percent). Of those that responded, 100 percent indicated that they supported the continued online availability of the annual MCJA mandatory training topics.
Benefits: An element of the survey was to document the perceived benefits to the departments with the online training system. Respondents indicated the following benefits:
- Easier to meet mandatory requirements (83 percent)
- Savings in overtime/staff replacement costs (67 percent)
- Greater range of training accessible to the officers (59 percent)
- Costs savings in training budget (60 percent)
- Time saved in providing mandatory training (54 percent)
Reported savings per officer by using the online system versus the traditional eight-hour classroom approach for the mandatory training topics alone ranged from $0 to $600. The average savings was $200 to $300 per officer.
Effectiveness: In assessing their initial expectations of using online training 39 percent of the respondents thought that it would be “equal to” or “better than” classroom training. After having used the system, this number nearly doubled (76 percent). In all, 92 percent of respondents rated the online system as “nearly as effective,” “equal to,” or “better than” traditional classroom training.
The Maine Law Enforcement Online Training Initiative began as a customer-driven, grassroots effort. In regional meetings of police chiefs, online training methods were demonstrated and information elicited on the training needs that might be addressed by employing such technology. It became immediately apparent that a technology-driven approach showed promise, but there were significant concerns about how it might operationally and financially impact the traditional training infrastructure. Further, there were many questions about exactly how the MCJA and its Board of Trustees (Maine’s POST) would react to the technology.
Fortunately, a long-established collaborative relationship between the MCOPA and the POST agency supported a frank, open-minded discussion of the issue, and an agreement was reached to pilot the approach. With support from the MCOPA, a grant was directed to the MCJA to fund the deployment of the 2005 mandated training topics to the online system.
To ensure that the most appropriate technology approach was employed, the MCJA undertook a competitive procurement process to provide online training services. Responses were solicited and received from a number of firms that were providing services to law enforcement customers across the nation. The methods proposed by the MCOPA private partner would result in superior system usability. The resulting development process that was initiated has since served as standard practice for online classes in Maine.
Crafting the Online Programs
Like many central training academies and POSTs, the MCJA produces lesson plans for those topics that are training mandates. Academy staff, working with instructors and subject matter experts in the field, develops and refines these lesson plans. These lesson plans serve as the foundation for both traditional classroom delivery and online deployment of the training topics. With these lesson plans as a starting point, the private partner transfers the knowledge to an online training format. Then the private partner reaffirms the accuracy and completeness of the materials using the expertise of their staff and associates, research and instructional materials from other jurisdictions, and interactions with the subject matter experts originally identified by the MCJA.
With a number of review points along the way, the online training scripts emerge. The script is coupled with instructional graphics, multimedia objects, and interactive exercises to craft the online product. Multimedia and interactive features are essential in engaging the interest of the online trainee. These features provide a learning experience that surpasses just text-based programs. In Maine, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies have eagerly stepped forward to supply materials such as photos and forms or people and equipment for staging scenarios that are photographed or videotaped in developing the multimedia approach to the programs. This collaborative approach ensures a richer end product that more fully addresses the training system users’ needs.
Before posting the training classes to the online library, the MCJA staff and representatives of the Attorney General’s Office review the finished product.
Following the initial online deployment of mandated training topics, the MCJA Board of Trustees conducted an evaluation of the effort. This evaluation concluded that the online system’s benefits included reduced costs, improved training accessibility, quality and consistency of training delivery, and documentation of competencies via testing. The board therefore endorsed including an online component as a vital piece of the state’s law enforcement training delivery system.
Online Training Elements for Success
- Customer Focus
- Quality Control
- Simple User Interface
- Mission Oriented
- Agency Control
Sustaining an online training program over the years is difficult. Despite the benefits documented, grants and state resources were not always available each year to sustain the online training initiative. And, of course, there were differences of opinions, and not everyone supported the effort. Leaders within the Maine law enforcement community recognized that the only way to continue to move forward was by instituting a fee to support the continued development of new training modules.
Under the fee structure, the online training system has operated with two components. A basic library of classes, developed with public resources, is available to all law enforcement agencies at no cost. An advanced library of classes, developed with fees and private resources, is available to agencies that pay the annual fee of $50 per officer.
While the fee structure has delayed full participation by some agencies, the system has steadily expanded and provides greater value to its users with every passing year, without regard to the current availability of grant funds and state resources.
The Maine State Police (MSP) is the largest law enforcement agency in Maine and has used the online training system aggressively since its inception. The MSP is also a training provider and is often called upon to deliver services to agencies throughout the state.
In 2007, the MSP Access Integrity Unit, which oversees operations of the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) in Maine, was faced with the challenge of providing Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) Security Awareness training to all users within the local, county, tribal, state, and federal agencies participating in the system. Clearly, using a traditional classroom approach to address this matter would involve significant costs and logistical issues.
Recognizing that the Maine Law Enforcement Online Training Initiative represented a delivery mechanism already used by the vast majority of the CJIS–Security Awareness training audience, the state police contracted with the system’s private partner to create an online training resource that would address this need. Staff members from the MSP Access Integrity Unit worked with the private partner to fashion the class content and construct a reporting mechanism that would make it easier to monitor user completion.
Since the online security awareness materials were deployed, over 5,000 class completions have been recorded. The technology-driven approach has not only significantly reduced the logistical challenges and costs (delivery and participation), but also kept he training resources accessible for training new employees and for serving as a reference for all staff members afterwards.
As this two-year training requirement moves into its second cycle, the online class remains available for use and the value associated with the decision to employ a technology-driven approach grows to even higher levels.
Critical Elements of Success
Many factors have contributed to Maine’s ability to move forward quickly and comprehensively with a technology-driven training strategy. Identifying and describing the relative importance of each factor would be difficult; however, several stand out as critical elements to the success of this initiative.
Customer Focus: The fundamental customers of the Maine Law Enforcement Online Training Initiative are the law enforcement agencies and the staff members that they employ. In every aspect of system development, their needs and perspectives are considered to be critically important and most often dictate design and implementation decisions and methods. Many of the other factors discussed in the following narrative have been shaped by this identification of and attention to the needs of the fundamental customers.
Partnerships: Moving forward with a technology-driven training strategy generates a greater need for crafting partnerships than does the traditional training approach. Most law enforcement agencies do not have the technical expertise or financial resources required to construct a highly functional online training initiative on their own. Partnerships facilitate identifying, pooling, and reconfiguring resources that can be used to craft a system that serves the common good.
In Maine, the partnership includes a private entity that performs many roles on behalf of the governmental and the nonprofit participants. Again, partnership synergies allow all participants to accrue far greater benefits than would be available through individual action (or inaction).
Quality Content: Much of what has tried to pass for online training over the past several years has been of dubious quality and usability. This has helped perpetuate the myth that such approaches are not up to the task of training professional law enforcement officers. The Maine Law Enforcement Online Training Initiative has consistently striven to deploy online classes that are rich in multimedia components and instructional graphics and are highly interactive, but at the same time affordable.
Quality and Cost Balancing: Spend too little, and the end product will not engage its intended audience, and the lack of use can stall the online initiative. Spend too much, and additional bells and whistles provide diminishing returns in learning impact, and the additional cost reduces the future ability to develop a broader range of online offerings.
Simple User Interface: From the start, deployment of the Maine online system has been guided by the KISS (keep it short and simple) principle. Most users and administrators have appreciated the approach of keeping the system mechanics from getting in the way of learning.
With a consistent user interface across classes and straightforward operating methods for users and administrators, the need for complicated and redundant instructions is eliminated. While credits are appropriately given, the use of promotional spots for individual agency sponsors and development participants are minimized. “Flashy” audio and video segments not directly focused on a training objective are not included. From a learning standpoint, unnecessary items waste time that could be put to better use and generate visual noise that distracts learners and muffles the training message.
From an operational standpoint, unnecessary steps are eliminated. Officers can enter any training class in just two mouse clicks after login. Clear and concise audio and graphics, user control over text display (closed captioning), and the ability to resize the main training screen all help the learner adjust the system to the particular equipment and learning environment in which the training will occur.
These features are particularly important as officers integrate learning with work activities and access training materials when the opportunities present themselves. Maine has seen a dramatic increase in the use of laptops within the law enforcement community, and officers are accessing training directly from patrol cars in the field and from a host of unanticipated locations using wireless communications technology.
Mission Oriented: The training classes provided in the online system are directly focused on the mission of Maine law enforcement agencies. Topics selected concern relevant issues within the field and assist officers in dealing with daily challenges in their work environment. Included within many classes are state-specific legal foundations, protocols, and resources available to assist officers and support crime victims.
Agency Control: The Maine system places control of the training process in the hands of the individual law enforcement agency management. Agency training coordinators use a simple, streamlined interface to add users, modify their personal information, and monitor their progress through the training.
This stands in stark contrast to many existing state and federal systems that insist on going one-to-one with their users and leave the agency training managers out of the loop. In Maine, the amount of administrative overhead for the online training provider is held to a minimum. Agencies are responsible for vetting users, communicating login and password information, and serving as the frontline resource to address system operation and training content questions from their staff members.
Since its inception, the Maine Law Enforcement Online Training Initiative has offered more content and has better integrated itself within the state’s overall law enforcement training delivery system. Technology enhancements have simplified the mechanics of online class development, but real progress can only come through understanding a host of other, much more complicated issues concerning system structure, content design, and initiating change within the law enforcement organizational culture.
Sadly, the issues of a technology-driven approach to training delivery are just now beginning to be discussed. Even more disconcerting is when they are not being discussed at all because of law enforcement leaders’ inability to confront the misconceptions about online training’s role and impact. Unfortunately, some online training delivery initiatives were inadequately conceived, planned, and deployed and now contribute to the lack of faith in the technology and help perpetuate negative perceptions.
Maine’s outlook is much brighter. From the beginning, leaders of the Maine initiative recognized and proclaimed publicly that online delivery was not suitable for all learning needs. However, all participants learned that the more they did (successfully), the more they realized they could do.
Their experience led to a sea change. Now, whenever new or continuing training needs are discussed, one of the first questions posed is “is this, operationally and fiscally, a candidate for online delivery?”
In many ways, the last five years represent the easy stage of online training delivery in Maine. Topics delivered thus far have represented basic, awareness-level instruction. Next is the “blended learning” stage where operational-level training needs are separated into online and practical, hands-on components, with their delivery coordinated to maximize results.
Full cost-benefit analysis of individual projects becomes more important in blended learning, especially whenever the target audience drops to something less than the total law enforcement officer complement of the state. Many topics lend themselves to online delivery, but the target audience may be too small to warrant the development cost and effort.
There are a couple of leading candidates to consider for a near future blended learning approach. One of the most promising is in the area of supervisory, management, and executive training. Creating online topics on common leadership development issues could create a foundation upon which classroom and workshop events could build. Again, while the target audience for such material might amount to only a few hundred Maine law enforcement officers, considering and including the needs of the Maine fire, emergency management services, medical services, and corrections communities could increase the audience size to a few thousand and dramatically improve cost-benefit balance.
Another consideration is using online resources to deliver basic law enforcement content either as part of a preservice, preacademy model as well as a postacademy field training supplement. Again, while the annual basic academy training contingent is relatively small, judiciously selecting topics that can serve multiple audiences makes projects more economically sound.
The Final Impact
Incorporating an innovative mix of partnerships, the Maine law enforcement community has successfully integrated an online component into its overall training delivery system. This integration expands the capacity of the delivery system and provides ready access to high-quality, engaging content for all officers in the state, regardless of agency size or geographical location. It serves as a resource multiplier where, on an annual basis, each dollar invested in the online system returns on average 10 dollars in local, county, tribal, and state law enforcement agency savings. These resources are then made available for other staff and organizational development activities, often addressing higher order training needs. The final impact achieved is that the overall capabilities of Maine law enforcement agents are increased, thereby improving the level of service provided to citizens of and visitors to the state of Maine. ■