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Online Training

Written by Russ Schanlaub

Most states have seen an increase in the required training hours for law enforcement officers in recent years. At the same time, a majority of departments have experienced mandatory budget reductions, and most are in the midst of such reductions currently. The combination often leaves police administrators in a quandary of how to meet the ever-increasing state and federal requirements for in-service training while cutting budgetary spending. The answer could be as close as the computer in the squad room or training room.

The continued explosion of Internet-based services provides new opportunities in many facets for police departments. The technology and delivery methods behind e-learning in particular has experienced significant improvements and thereby growth in popularity and acceptance over the past few years. A Google® search for “online police training” currently yields nearly 12 million results.

The upside to this is that the opportunities are clearly abundant; the downside is that training officials will have to do some navigating to find the best fit for their training needs. E-learning can encompass many different training modalities: online training, live Internet broadcasts, multi-media programs on CD or downloaded, interactive scenario-based training (FATS® or driving simulators), or a combination of two or more of these techniques.

The concept of e-learning is not a new one. E-learning has been in place for more than a decade. As with many other technological advances, law enforcement is catching up to what has been used in the private sector and even the military for years. In university settings, the e-learning practice is well established. A study from the U.S. Department of Education found that during the 2006-2007 enrollment period that 66% of the two- and four-year colleges offered e-learning options. Distance education in colleges amounts to 12.2 million students this year.

In its infancy, the world of e-learning was approached cautiously and skeptically (if at all) and with good reason. Even police officers and their departments were not immune to the scams perpetuated by profiteers offering certifications or training credits for pay. Times have changed though in the cyber training world, and the fact is that there are many quality training opportunities by some well-regarded government agencies and private sector providers, including nonprofit groups.

Effectiveness of Online Training

Regardless of the cost savings and the convenience of online training, the big question for administrators and training officers should focus on the quality and effectiveness of the training. Police departments live under the all-too-familiar microscope of a litigation-happy society. Providing quality and accepted training to officers reduces the liability exposure and, more important, improves officer safety. After all, the savings is a moot point if the objective of providing effective training is not reached.

An intensive study was conducted by Joyce Schmeeckle with the Journal of Science Education and Technology in September 2003. The journal article, “Online Training: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Training Law Enforcement Personnel Over the Internet” reported on a study conducted with assistance from the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center.

The study involved jail management trainees assigned to either traditional classroom-type instruction or an Internet-based program. Following the completion of the course, the level of effectiveness was measured by reviewing learning, motivation and attitudes. The efficiency of the program was measured using instructional time and cost / benefit calculations.

According to the results, the classroom group reported higher motivation and positive feelings concerning the instruction than did the online group. The bottom line, however, indicated that “…online training is as effective an instructional method as classroom training, and more efficient than classroom training. No meaningful learning differences occurred between the two groups, but online training was completed in almost half the time of classroom instruction and at a lesser cost.” This is a powerful statement when the ultimate goal of law enforcement training should be to reduce liability and increase officer and public safety by providing effective training to police officers.

The key to a successful e-learning program is determining which modality works best for the officer, administration, schedule and training goals. This may be determined by the type of training or the number of officers that the department wishes to train in the particular subject.

Blended Learning

Blended learning is a widely accepted technique that works well for some topics requiring more face-to-face contact, feedback in a discussion format or hands-on training for some psychomotor skills. Blended learning incorporates a variety of learning styles into one class. Using this technique, an instructor could present a portion of a program in a discussion format to an entire class and then assign a unit through online learning for each officer to complete on an individual basis or vice versa.

An instructor could assign the first portion of a psychomotor skills program to be learned in an online format and follow up with face-to-face and hands-on instruction. This process allows the active feedback and discussion but can assign the bulk of the training workload to be learned at a student’s own pace. The e-learning portion can be performed for designated periods during the work day to avoid overtime or scheduling conflicts.

With the countless numbers of training providers, it would take a catalog to list them all. There are four basic categories of online training providers: government agencies; nonprofit organizations; private organizations; and colleges and universities.

Government agencies: Many of the federal government agencies offer training in their respective areas of enforcement. The DEA offers drug training, the ATF offers training in explosives and fire investigation and so on. These providers rarely charge state / local police agencies for their training.

Nonprofit organizations: Many nonprofit organizations provide training to police agencies at no cost or at a very low price in an effort to further their organization’s interest. The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers training in insurance fraud detection and accident investigation. Much like the government agencies, many of these organizations offer training to police agencies at little to no cost.

Private organizations: Thousands of companies offer law enforcement training to police agencies. Of course, these companies are “for profit” and therefore generally charge more than the first two groups for training. But this is not to say that they are not viable options. There are numerous companies that are well respected in the law enforcement community that offer high-quality training specific to a department’s needs. Many companies will develop a customized program to fit the specific criteria that a department is looking for.

Colleges and universities: As with any other training provider, it is very likely that online college courses may be applied to in-service training. An increasing number of officers who did not attend college in a traditional setting after high school are electing to do so via distance education, fitting the classes into their often varying work schedules. The practice of major universities offering online courses has grown immensely over the years. This is an area where caution should be exercised to avoid new or start-up universities without a solid reputation.

Two schools that have well-established online curriculum are Bellevue University (www.bellevue.edu) and Kaplan University (www.kaplan.edu). Both of these schools have an established “brick and mortar” campus offering stability and a wide variety of online courses and degrees, and both are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (www.ncahlc.org).

Accredited, Approved, Certified

Terms such as these are sometimes used liberally in regards to training. The best rule of thumb in regards to any descriptors such as “accredited,” “certified” or “approved” is that they are only as good as the organization making the assertion. The terms themselves are somewhat ambiguous, realistically any of the terms could refer to approval by an organization that doesn’t exist or that has nothing to do with the type of training. The fine print should indicate exactly what organization makes claims regarding the validity of any claims.

To date there is not a nationwide organization that “certifies,” “approves” or “accredits” police training in one broad stroke. But of course, college courses are the exception. The process of determining whether or not the training is available for continuing education or in-service credits falls upon the training or standards governing body for each individual state. If in-service hours are the drive behind the training, then the agency that governs the accreditation or certification for that state should be contacted before committing to any agreements or making any purchases for law enforcement training.

Many states will allow its certified instructors in the field to make the determination and approve the training for credit hours as a facilitator. If the facilitator participates in the training and deems that it was valuable from an instructional standpoint, then accreditation or certification does not matter. Again, training staff should check with the appropriate state agency before taking any online training in regards to in-service credit.

College Credits

Those officers seeking to earn or advance their college degree are almost always looking for college credits to add to their portfolio. It is possible to find providers on the private and government side of the fence that offer college credits as an option for some training. Keep in mind that in order to be accepted by the U.S. Department of Education, the provider must be a member of one of the approved accreditation organizations such as the Higher Learning Commission (www.ncahlc.org).

In many cases, the training provider has partnered with an accredited college, which has reviewed and approved the training. The approving college will determine the amount of credit for each class, as well as the type of credit provided. In most cases, however, there is an additional fee for the college credit, which is payable to the college. If the college credits are beneficial to the officer, this may in many cases be a fair offer. If the officer intends to use a department tuition-reimbursement program to pay for the credits, that too should be approved ahead of time.

A great example of this college award process is demonstrated through the FEMA courses offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Web site (www.fema.gov). Many of the FEMA courses are eligible for college credit through the Frederick Community College. Frederick is an accredited college through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In order to receive credit, the student must pay $60 per semester hour to Frederick.

Diploma mills for online college degrees earned some unwelcome notoriety in the late ’90s. Start-up online colleges, often with no real facilities, took the Internet by storm. Diploma mills sell college diplomas without the concern of providing any real education to the student. Diploma mills generally offer degrees that can be earned much more quickly than ordinarily possible, such as a four-year degree in a matter of months. Many times they offer more than reasonable credit for life experiences. These organizations will typically advertise with accreditations that sound realistic and impressive, but offer no real clout in the workplace.

Before making any commitment or paying any money to an online college, the institute’s accreditation should be investigated through the U.S. Department of Education Web site (www.ed.gov). The old adage of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” fits perfectly here. A college degree that requires little to no effort will provide little to no substance.

The costs associated with training in a traditional setting go far beyond the cost of the training course itself. Other factors that should be considered when calculating the cost of training include salary to provide shift coverage for the officer, overtime for schedule coverage and/or for the officer attending the training, per diem expenses, meals, hotel or lodging costs, fuel to commute to training and mileage (wear and tear) on vehicles.

Pros and Cons

Feedback from those who have participated in e-learning does offer some reported disadvantages to the concept. Some senior officers who are less familiar or comfortable with computer technology may be reluctant to take a leap of Internet faith in their training. Some officers expressed concern that in certain areas, the loss of the “hands on” option would be detrimental, such as with weapon retention or defensive tactics programs. Officers have also expressed that they prefer the ability to interact with others while participating in the training courses and that if there was a communication option with an instructor through the program that there may be a delay in receiving a response to questions.

Overall, however, the reported advantages outweighed the disadvantages. There is a significant cost savings with e-learning options, which may allow a department to train more officers, such as reserve or auxiliary officers, who otherwise would not receive the training. E-learning offers flexibility in the course for both the student and the training officers. Students generally have the option to work at their own pace and to do so without leaving home for days at a time. Ironically, officers generally complete the training in less time. Finally, officers who have had limited experience with computers will enhance their computer skills with the experience of taking the e-learning courses.

Since its inception, the Internet has brought about some wonderful advances and changes in how business and government conduct business. It has also brought about new opportunities for some to take advantage of the distance and somewhat anonymous nature of the World Wide Web to sell a bill of goods that doesn’t measure up.

There should be no doubt that in certain situations online training can offer huge rewards to departments in their training efforts, saving manpower and costs. But each decision to use online training should be evaluated by training administrators regarding the source of the training and whether or not the e-learning delivery is a good option for the department needs and for the subject of the training.

If navigated well, departments can take advantage of some high-quality training for their officers. Training can be customized and blended to allow for the maximum learning potential, depending on the officers and the topics. The addition of e-learning to the training arsenal can increase training options, provide minimal adverse effects on the work schedule and bring immense savings to the training budget.

Russ Schanlaub is a police officer with the Purdue University Calumet Police Department in Hammond, IN. He can be reached at rlschanl@calumet.purdue.edu.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2009

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