Instruction Goes Virtual

International Reach in the Classroom

Audrey Fraizer

COVID-19 jump-started a remote instruction initiative that Bonni Stockman, IAED Associate Director of Instructor Services, anticipated not so far down the road.

“We had it in our plans,” she said. “COVID simply pushed it to a priority.”

Stockman did not go it alone. She enlisted the expertise of Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC™) Program Administrator Ken Hotaling and Client Success Manager Jose Rodriguez and together, the trio launched an IAED/PDC Remote Course Resource Group on virtual GoToMeeting software. The software allows them to train instructors in the delivery of all courses under the certification and recertification umbrella and, also, present a virtual classroom experience for their students.

“We’ve learned it’s a whole new way of doing things,” she said.

And, for the majority, it’s a way of doing things that’s caught on to their satisfaction.

Not built in a day—but almost

The medical, fire, and police protocol curriculums were not built in a day and neither was launching a remote platform to continue and advance the realm of emergency dispatch when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

The urgency, Stockman said, brought the first round of instructors (IAED/PDC staff) together for remote training within two weeks.

“We knew what we wanted and went with it,” Stockman said. “We literally started from nothing to create an online program that shows instructors how to use the platform and how to set it up.”

While few could predict the longevity of the pandemic, its persistence opened the virtual door to incorporate established contracted instructors. Prior to welcoming online students, instructors take a three-hour Online Universal Telecommunication Essentials Course applicable to all disciplines.

As of nine months into the effort (December 2020), there are 78 instructors and 39 facilitators trained and commanding virtual classrooms in all protocol disciplines, including ECNS, Emergency Telecommunicator Course (ETC), and Q certifications. On any given weekday, an average of 12 courses are scheduled, whether it’s the first day or last day of a course.

New shape to delivery

While the information hasn’t changed, the remote classroom gives new shape to its student delivery and policies and practices that complement virtual learning. Instructors sign into a portal to choose classes that fit their profile (courses they are certified to teach). A Resource Management team assigns instructors. Course Coordination establishes a schedule based on a pre-determined calculation performed by Hotaling and Rodriguez.

Students can log in from home, or they can meet in an actual classroom with the course projected on a screen for group participation. However, and this is a major prerequisite, all students must have their own computers for coursework and taking the certification exam.

No exception, Stockman said. Phones and tablets do not allow the optimal training experience and do not work for the exam. Students can meet in an actual classroom, but there are no exceptions to the computer requirement. Sharing is not allowed.

The three-day/eight-hour standard shifted to six days with four-hour sessions. Full participation—no sloughing allowed—is required to take the certification exam. The materials to cover are scheduled in each slot. The curriculum—housed in materials folders for instructor access and review—includes mandatory videos, audio links, and what Stockman calls “engagement activities.” For example, polls developed for each discipline provide multiple choice questions and instant results. The polls keep a check on student attention and whether there are concepts that bear repeating.

Two instructors host virtual study halls welcoming student questions and further discussion. The live virtual sessions are archived for quality assurance purposes and training those new to the virtual platform. Instructors access the archives to pick up on tips and tricks to virtual success and review presentations before offering their own. A quarterly “Happy Hour” provides instructors with updates, time for Q&A, and networking.  

Stockman said it was “awesome” to get the program up and going, and—like most innovations to work around pandemic restrictions—it remains a work in progress. She’s hesitant to predict the future of IAED’s virtual classroom, although she believes it will never completely replace the brick and mortar of education.

“We don’t know what will happen, where the pandemic will take us,” she said. “For now, we’re focusing on how to strengthen what we have.”

Keys to success

What does it take for success in a virtual classroom?

There’s no simple solution. It takes practice, networking with others teaching the same courses, and the ability to project self-assurance to a virtual roomful of students. In fact, encouragement and guidance by teachers as well as real-time feedback on the digital platform are known to have a positive effect on student motivation and, as a result, achievement.

Stockman agreed. Success lies in the ability to motivate and engage students.

“A lot of it depends on the instructor,” she said. “There’s a chat feature they can use, and we’re working on ways to help instructors perfect their skills in the virtual environment.”

Maria Jacques, Director, Emergency Services Communication Bureau (ESCB) for the State of Maine, and Cory Golob, Operations Manager, 9-1-1 Training and Certification, are facing the same challenges. In March 2020, when everyone’s world changed because of COVID, the bureau transitioned all training—with the exception of NG911 equipment training—to a virtual classroom.

Their story, “Remote Learning” with an emphasis on “Distance Learning, Not Distanced Learning,” was featured in a 911 National Program webinar held on Nov. 10, 2020. While selecting a platform, accessibility, and security issues opened the webinar, Jacques and Golob focused a large part of their talk on student engagement in the dynamics of a virtual world. No one wants a lecture streaming on a screen. No one wants a roomful of distractions interrupting the flow of speaking and listening. Fidgeting or the overuse of the word “um” betray the instructor’s discomfort and unfamiliarity with the remote environment.

“You have to show confidence and ease in giving the material,” Golob said. “You have to be aware of their presence despite not seeing them face-to-face. You need to interact to keep the focus.”

Their tricks are no secret to successful teaching—great learning is driven by great teaching—although adapted to get the most along a learning curve for instructors and students. Their tips include:

  • The instructor must take responsibility to keep the class entertaining and engaging
    • Don’t make it look like this is a chore—delivery should be fun and interesting
  • Take breaks
    • These can be established at the start, added as intervals between subjects (a transition), or taken randomly depending on student attention or perceived inattention
  • If nobody volunteers to participate then people will have to be volun-told
    • “Remote learning is not a one-way street,” Golob said. “Students must participate or you lose them.”
  • Don’t always go for the “hand up” to answer questions—pick random students to make them part of the conversation
  • While flexibility is one of the greatest benefits that virtual learning programs can provide, set clear expectations in participation, pacing, and progress

Despite the advantages (such as cost savings and travel time), remote learning is not for everyone and not suitable for every situation, Golob said.

“Remote learning is not a replacement for direct, in-person instruction,” he said. “If it gets where modifications [to suit the medium] compromise the learning, you might want to consider dropping the process and trying something else.”

The ESCB is responsible for the training of all emergency dispatchers through the ETC Course and in the use of the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS®), Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS®), and ProQA® computer software. ESCB also offers a separate virtual quality assurance training program.

A PDF of the National 911 Program “Remote Learning” webinar is available at https://www.911.gov/pdf/National_911_Webinar_November_2020.pdf.

Audrey Fraizer is managing editor of the Journal. She can be contacted at audrey@emergencydispatch.org

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