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Back to Archives | Back to October 2005 Contents 

Distance Learning:
Is It the Answer to Your Department's Training Needs

By Susan Reiswerg, President, eTraining Services Inc., Zionsville, Indiana

raining is vital to the success of individual police officers and their departments. The better trained the officers, the more successful the department. Every department has certain training mandates that must be met yearly. But to be successful most often it is necessary to go beyond the minimum requirements and provide training in various fields. How can the training be accomplished effectively and economically? Often, there is little time in the schedule to pull officers off the street or away from investigations for additional training sessions, let alone send them away for the training program. Budget constraints are always a major concern.

Technology has developed new tools and delivery systems that make training more easily available. Distance learning is a technology being used in many environments. Could the distance learning option be a viable option for a police department? There is no easy answer to this question because every department has different needs and resources. To help the chief make this decision, this article provides information about distance learning concepts and provides questions chief executives should ask.

How to Begin
Although quality training is no longer limited to a classroom setting or books and handouts and distance learning is a valid option consideration by most organizations, deciding which distance learning option is right for the department and officers is not all that easy. Now there are six different distance learning techniques available. There are three important questions to consider when evaluating any distance learning options:

  • What are the training needs of the department?

  • What tools and capabilities are available?

  • Who needs the training?

Training Needs: The objective is to determine what minimum training needs are not being met and what additional training would be desirable. Once the type of training is identified, then it is necessary to consider if the training is suitable through a distance-learning program.

Properly designed distance learning programs can teach, for the most part, nonphysical skill techniques. On the whole, if it can be taught in a classroom, it can be taught by distance learning programs.

Without question there are certain training activities can only occur in a specialized class or by practical exercise. Sometimes this specialized training is only available a few times a year at a few locations. If that is the case, then distance learning courses are probably not available; however, in some instances distance learning materials may exist that will help prepare the officer for the specialized training to ensure the most benefit is derived.

Availability: Does the department have access to trainers on staff or by contract? Lacking regular access to trainers increases the value of distance learning as an option. Does the department have, or can it obtain, the necessary equipment and programs for distance learning sessions? At the least the department will need to provide a study area and a computer with high-speed Internet access.

Who Needs the Training: The next step is determining who in the department needs the training. For most part, the police department training is invested in line operational personnel who tend to be younger than the supervisory and command staff. Typically, younger people are more comfortable using computers for training sessions. They spent their lives with technology, and their first choice for information is often computers and the Internet. Regardless of age, judge the merits of distance learning technology based on the preferences of those who need the training: would they prefer to listen to a lecture, read a book, or use a computer? Most importantly, it must be determined that the desirable skills are transferable through a distance learning program.

Training younger officers can be a challenge. They do not learn the same way people did just a decade ago. They do not spend their time or look up information in the same way. Young people want the access and answers now and they want to be actively involved in the process.

They enjoy sports video games that allow them to control the players, manage the team, and call the plays. If a basketball player in real life doesn't pass the ball enough, the game-player can improve his game by changing the electronic player tactics. The video game, the computer, and the Internet have empowered this age group. They tend to be bored if they have to read about techniques and case studies. Today, training is all about interacting with information and people using technology.

What Is Distance Learning?
Distance learning is a method of training that does not require people to be physically present in the same room as the instructor. People may use written materials such as books and workbooks or videos, audiotapes, and CD-ROMs or courses on the Internet to learn. Contact with the instructor in some way is important. Grading of papers and tests can be done by stamped mail, fax, e-mail, the Internet, or videoconferencing over broadband network connections. Distance learning falls into five main categories:

Course on CD-ROM: A course delivered on a CD requires an officer to have the CD and a computer with a CD-ROM drive. Only one officer can use a CD at a time. The course may be customized and use complex graphics because there is no real download time (see the Quick Reference sidebar for a definition of the term). Some type of software may be needed. An educational downside it that there is no good way to ask questions, provide feedback, or check progress.

Home Study or Correspondence Course: With correspondence courses the officer can control the study time and progress; there is no instructor present when the officer uses printed materials or a CD-ROM. A test given at a designated facility is often required upon completion of the correspondence course study material. There is little interaction with the instructor. Records are based on tests and papers submitted to the instructor for grading.

Internet or Online Training: Web-based courses are available for users whose computers have Internet access. Interactive elements and customized sections can be incorporated in a course. The officer may control study time or the course may be available only at specific times. Records may be kept automatically by the system presenting the course online.

Video: A course can be recorded on a videotape or DVD. This type of course may require attendance at a designated meeting place for a supervised presentation. The proctor may answer questions after the video. One or more officers are trained at the same time. The proctor records attendance and any test results.

Webinar: This is a seminar, workshop, or lecture similar to a classroom presentation presented over the Internet. It may allow for live information exchange and a question-and-answer session. It may feel familiar to the users because it transmits a live classroom-style presentation, it just happens to be over the Internet.

One practical side of distance learning that uses computer technology is location, and location creates flexibility. Training is not limited to a classroom that may be downstairs or across the country. An officer can take a course at a desk in the department during a designated part of a shift, or at home on their own time, or in an assigned area as long as a computer and Internet access are available.

Security is also an important consideration. Law enforcement uses sensitive information and techniques that should not be available to the public. When using commercially available training offered on the Internet, be sure to ask about security and access. A system should require a user name and password to access any courses or materials. If an officer or department pays for a course online, the credit card information should be secure as well. If an officer has to type in personal identity information for registration, the system should have good security to protect the information.

E-learning: A Growing Trend
There is a growing trend called e-learning, or training online. It is fast becoming the standard for distance learning. So it is important to look at the benefits and pitfalls of this method in detail.

Advantages of Training Online: Online training has several important advantages that serve several policing needs including documentation of the training, a testing component to establish successful completion of the training, retention of information, and cost effectiveness.

  • Tracking: Timing and login systems can track who is doing the training as well as the officer's progress through a course.

  • Control: An officer can take an Internet course anytime, anywhere, and he or she can control the pace of the training. This control empowers the individual, sharpens concentration, and increases the effectiveness of a course
  • .
  • Consistency: The course content is always the same. It does not depend on the health or ability of the presenter. It is quick and easy to update ensuring that training is contemporary.

  • Positive Learning Environment: An officer makes the decision about when and where to do the training without the affecting factors found in a live classroom setting such as room temperature, hard chairs, long hours, difficult-to-read slides or worries about personal schedules and deadlines.

  • Interactivity: Studies show that an individual learns and retains more information when involved in the learning process, as opposed to sitting and passively listening to a presenter. (Types of interactivity are listed further on in this article).

  • Up-to-Date: The information can be updated with ease, enabling an officer to keep current about changes in the law or procedures.

  • Immediate Training: A new officer or an officer with a new assignment can be trained quickly without the handicap of waiting for a scheduled classroom training session meeting.

  • Cost-Savings: An officer can stay in the jurisdiction and avoid travel expenses. While there may be fees associated with the e-learning program, it is usually less than the registration fees for classroom sessions and does not involve travel time and associated expenses.

  • In-Service Credit: An e-learning course has the elements for training certification including a student tracking system, course content for evaluation and testing procedure to assess the learning accomplished. If the proper authority approves the course, an officer can receive required in-service credit.

Pitfalls of Training Online: E-learning is not without its pitfalls; rather, it is a learning tool that can serve a department in certain situations.

  • Content Quality: Accreditation of the online training courses is an important consideration. Carefully evaluate the material and make sure it meets the training standard set by the state's peace officer standards and training commission. The Internet has empowered anyone to design a training program and offer it to departments. Content of e-learning programs must be valid and reliable.

  • Video and Audio Production Quality: The proliferation of video recorders and digital cameras has also bought about widespread amateur production of educational material. While well meaning, these unskilled productions can be distracting in an educational environment when the quality is unprofessional. Simply setting a camera up in the back of a room to record a live session does not meet today's sophisticated viewers' expectations of a well-produced presentation.

  • Networking: Perhaps the greatest drawback to e-learning is that an officer works directly and individually with an online course so there is no opportunity for personal interaction with other officers. The exchange of information, experiences, and problem solving has been hallmark of intra-agency training.

  • Download Time: Students become impatient if the transfer of information (the lesson) is not fast. It is essential that the computer equipment and the Internet connection be high speed and have the capacity to handle a large volume of data and graphics. Fast Internet connections now are DSL and cable lines. The dial-up line is slow and will limit the type of information accessed.

  • Contact with Instructor: If an officer has a question, an e-mail or instant message system is needed. This interaction with the instructor may not be immediate as the officer may be studying on the midnight shift or weekends.

The most important factor is that an online training system must fit the department's needs. A well-designed system can provide officers and the department training supervisor the ability to do many things, but too much capability can destroy a training program. If a system claims to do everything, look at the way it will fit the needs and operation of the department.

For example, the capacity to exchange e-mail or to post messages with other students can be beneficial, but if someone has to slog through 200 e-mails to glean some nuggets of information, it may be a waste of time and discouraging to the student. If the instructor uses a bulletin board to answer questions, an officer could spend many minutes searching for a response to just their question. If the instructor answers "Yes, Jerry, you have the right idea!" students will have to spend more time looking for Jerry's right idea.

Courses presented online often use different types of interactivity that can bring the training alive. Here are some samples that have proven effective:

  • Fast Facts: Fast facts are links to information relevant to the course material but may interrupt the content flow. It can be a definition of a word, an audio clip, a video clip, or a pertinent quotation.

  • Case Studies: The best way to learn something is to do it yourself. Role-playing and breakout sessions are popular and effective teaching methods. In an interactive case study, a person can try things, make mistakes, and take time to consider the options of what to do next. This exercise allows an officer to work through a situation such as "You Take the Case." An officer can decide how to handle the case based on available information at certain stages, and then see what the actual investigating officer did and why.
  • How-To Experiences: This exercise takes a person through the different steps of a procedure or process. It is a step-by-step instructional "booklet" within a course. The officer controls the progress. An officer can learn the approaches, lines of questioning, and legal requirements for specific situations as recommended by the experts. A printed version can give the officer a reference for specific types of future investigations.

  • Interactive Review: A content review can reinforce the material like a quiz. It is also an opportunity for a self-test to prepare for an examination or real-life situation.

  • Practice Exercise: People learn by doing, especially in a safe environment. This exercise works for multiple-choice questions, such as which law applies, so an officer is actively involved in the learning process. A practice exercise is flexible: it may contain only one problem or an entire practice test.

  • Read Aloud: For those who would rather skim the printed material as someone narrates, a course can be read aloud if desired, when an audio track is activated. Read-aloud can be recorded in any language.

Putting Distance Learning to Work
A department should established realistic expectations for a distance learning program and distance learning should not be the only training method available to officers. Distance learning sessions can easily augment and enhance a training program but certain subjects require hands-on training or require a live-instructor environment. A good way to determine if a distance-learning program will work is by answering the following questions:

A "yes" to six or more of these questions means distance learning an option for the department's training program and it should be given careful consideration for augmenting the current training effort.

Selecting the Program Providers
There are many organizations, including highly regarded colleges and universities, providing distance learning programs today. The local department can use the following questions to assess the ability of each program to meet its needs.

  • Does program provider allow for access to the instructor by e-mail, message board, or other methods?

  • How will the record keeping for the program be handled? Does the training system have an automatic record keeping system or does the department need to have someone on staff to handle the records?

  • What software is currently available? Does a distance learning method require additional equipment or software and does the cost fit into the department's budget?

  • Is technical support available from the provider? Is there anyone who could help answer questions about the training system?

  • Does the department require testing as a component of training? If so, how is it handled? Does the distance-learning provider include appropriate testing with the system?

  • Do the officers to receive a certificate for completed courses?

  • Is the course approved for in-service credit by the state training commission or some other accreditation body?

  • How are the training sessions recorded and verified?

  • Is there a substantial investment in time, product, and cost of personnel to set up the system for use by the officers? While some start-up costs and time expenditure is to be expected, if it is overwhelming then the return on the investment may be questioned.

It is recommended that before investing completely into a system a trial run or test of the distance learning package be undertaken prior to bringing it into the department. This test will also establish the department's comfort level with the program as well as determining the level of effectiveness for the department's training effort.

Law enforcement faces an avalanche of information that officers need. Distance learning can help manage time, training, and information. Experience has shown it can save the department money and keep officers current on rule and law changes as well as effective investigation and interrogation techniques. Properly planned as a part of the training effort, distance learning's flexibility can benefit the officers and the communities they serve. ■


From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 10, October 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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