Back to the Future
By Carmelle Wolfson
Technology moves so fast that it can sometimes be hard to keep up with it. In the world of safety training, digital shifts mean that courses are being offered in new ways. One such development that has the potential to change the face of safety training is the concept of mediated reality.
In mediated reality, the view of the real world is modified via a computer. Fredericton-based oh&s-training provider Don Sayers and Associates, which has partnered with educational institutions to offer online courses, uses mediated reality to make course content come alive. “We have gone from merely putting the stuff online, the text online, to adding an animation element to enhance the learning,” says the company’s oh&s team leader, Don Sayers.
At a more advanced level, this concept can be applied to create what is referred to as augmented reality — an enhanced version of reality created by computer-generated sensory input, such as sound, video and graphics on an image viewed through a digital device. According to Sayers, when the technology was in its infancy, users would stand in front of a 20-foot screen. Now, augmented reality comes in the form of a handy pair of glasses or as a function on an iPhone.
An example of this is the driving glasses recently developed by auto-manufacturing company BMW. As with Google Glass, when drivers put on the glasses, their view of the road ahead is enhanced by information overlaid on top of what is in front of them, such as speed limits and directions.
“The technology is just exploding,” says Sayers, who has seen augmented reality being used in the oil patch to train workers. For now, it is too costly in many cases to incorporate proprietary software, such as augmented-reality technology into safety training, he notes. Most online safety training on the market these days is one dimensional, comprising only text. “The bells, whistles and the movement, the animation, is not cheap. We are doing it because we think that is the next generation of learning,” he says.
But the introduction of Oculus Rift could change the scene. Currently, Oculus Rift is being marketed to gamers as an affordable virtual-reality headset that enables a user to immerse in a completely different reality.
Not Just a Game
“We are always looking at new technology,” says Alina Martin, president of Calgary-based Danatec Educational Services Ltd., which provides online training on working with hazardous materials and dangerous goods safely. “The technology for that [virtual reality] isn’t on the worksite yet.” It may take another decade before that happens, she notes.
“You will never learn how to properly package dangerous goods unless you do it,” Martin says. “A lot of these things, like dealing with confined spaces, you need to crawl into the space and use the respirator equipment in order to understand. You can’t do that in a two-dimensional digital environment.”
Despite its origins in the gaming world, virtual reality is already being used in the manufacturing of spacecraft, airplanes and cars to test designs. It is also being used to train soldiers, airline pilots, astronauts and police officers.
Sayers has seen a flight simulator in action at a Toronto training facility. “You lose sight of the fact that it is a simulator, and it becomes very real, especially when you are lifting off, you are starting to rotate for takeoff, and your engine fails. That gets really, really real.” Virtual reality has “revolutionized” safety training, he asserts.
Simulations are becoming a key component to education across many sectors, from corporate and safety training to medical institutions and online-classroom environments, notes Victoria-based e-learning consultant Randy LaBonte. At the British Columbia Institute of Technology, students can practise their skills on a dummy that blinks and has a pulse and a chest that moves up and down. He can even bleed out or go into cardiac arrest if not treated in time. “Simulations can now be created much more simply and effectively using some of the technology that is available to us,” LaBonte says.
Screen-casting is one way in which simulation is used in online safety training, Labonte adds. A video recording of an instructor showing how a task is performed can be uploaded and shared via the Internet and in online courses.
For oil and gas workers, a gamut of training programs that include topics such as using a gas detector, performing lockout/tagout, gaining awareness of confined spaces and using a sound-pressure monitor are now available online.
One firm that offers training relevant to the oil and gas sector is Danatec Educational Services Ltd. in Calgary. Its course on ground disturbance is highly sought after in Alberta and British Columbia, especially among workplaces that involve oil drilling, reports Danatec president Alina Martin. The training is applicable to circumstances in which the ground is disturbed in some way, whether that be by a pipeline or a fibre optic cable, she explains.
For those working with hazardous materials, Canada now uses the same standard as those of other countries. As of February 2015, jobs requiring Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) certification must follow new regulations under the Globally Harmonized System (GHS).
While companies have until June 2017 to comply, many companies are starting to incorporate GHS into their training, says Paul Williams, director of sales and marketing at Internet Based Learning Ltd. in London, Ontario. The company offers online WHMIS training for people who work with hazardous materials.
The WHMIS legislation has not been updated since 1988, Williams notes. “It is going to be a strong mandate for all employers to make sure that their employees have been given a refresher course on the new WHMIS guidelines. So there will certainly be a big rush now at the beginning.”
According to Sayers, one promising development is the advent of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) available to anyone, anywhere — free of charge. Unlike conventional safety training, students of MOOCs are not tested on their learning and do not get certification at the end of the program.
“MOOCs are becoming so pervasive. The content breadth is so broad and there is such an incredible depth that there is almost no discipline you can think of that you can’t learn what you need to online, on your own, at your own pace,” Sayers says. “All we have to do is find a way to verify that you have mastered those skills.”
In this open-learning model, learning is mostly self-directed. Anyone, regardless of educational background or financial resources, is able to access the course. As a result, courses may have thousands of participants from around the world.
Some Canadian universities already offer MOOCs. Sayers believes that academic institutions, followed by corporate training programs and professional certification organizations, will embark on this path in the near future. Companies are also using this model in corporate training by picking the courses that suit their needs, considerably lowering costs, Sayers says. A company may also create its own in-house test to ensure that employees understand the material covered.
San Francisco-based online-learning provider Udemy offers a corporate training platform called Udemy for Business, which allows companies to create their own content or subscribe to courses on private portals tailored for high-grossing firms. The website also has free MOOCs alongside other corporate training courses, with prices ranging anywhere from inexpensive up to thousands of dollars.
“We would love to work with more companies who are doing safety training,” says Shannon Hughes, senior director of marketing with Udemy.
Substance or Hype?
While cost savings is the key benefit of providing safety training through MOOCs, some industry professionals think training through MOOCs is irresponsible.
“After 15 years of experience working in health and safety, I am troubled by the concept of MOOCs entering into the health and safety training environment,” says Ottawa-based Don Hoddinott, director of business development at YOW Canada Inc., which offers online safety training. “I really can’t see any way that MOOCs will ever effectively meet the needs of Canadians in terms of health and safety training.”
While Hoddinott sees the value of MOOCs in corporate training, like those that teach employees how to use computer software like Microsoft or Adobe applications, he says he would be “extremely concerned” if the concept became widespread in the oh&s industry. No responsible health and safety company should deliver open content, he says, adding that most jurisdictions across Canada require safety training to be delivered by a competent person or training program. “How can a Massive[ly] Open Online Course ever guarantee that the content added by other members, who may or may not be safety professionals, meet the criteria? The answer is that it can’t happen.”
Other industry professionals echo similar concerns. “I don’t know that many companies would just accept a course that their staff went out and found on the Internet and said that it would be a valid course to meet their needs,” says Paul Williams, director of sales and marketing at Internet Based Learning Ltd. in London, Ontario.
Williams says the completion rate for MOOCs is quite low and that courses are typically one-dimensional. “They are written at a very simple level,” he says. For instance, training might involve only video or a PowerPoint presentation. “There is certainly a lack of interaction with the author or the instructor.” But he suggests that companies might be able to offer internally-created and individualized MOOCs to employees. Corporations may also choose to offer free online courses as a marketing tool.
“There may be companies out there that are providing online training for free, but the consumer might have to buy the certificate when they are done. Or if it is a complicated course, there may be an opportunity to up-sell them on some additional aids,” he notes.
While Martin thinks that MOOCs could play a role in safety training, she has reservations. “We are in a highly, highly technical industry,” she says, adding that regulations and information are constantly changing. “Can you deliver that in a free format? I think it is much more difficult,” she says, noting that the content would have to be updated frequently.
“You write a Microsoft Word program, and it is good for five years. You write a dangerous-goods program, and it is good for 12 weeks, like what happened this year, and then you have to change it,” she says, referring to changes to the TDG Regulations and the overhaul of WHMIS this year. The content itself, due to the fact that it is so technical, can also be complicated to write, Martin adds.
When it comes to safety training, regardless of whether or not it is a MOOC, the same considerations apply as when one is choosing an online-learning product. Some of these considerations include the needs of the particular company, the quality of training and the course selection available. Assessing the desired outcomes of training is a good start, Sayers advises. This can be accomplished by focusing on the risks inherent in a workplace.
“Once you have identified the risks, you can start looking at the skills and knowledge necessary to mitigate the risks and do a simple gap analysis,” Sayers suggests. A training gap can be identified by looking at the skills and knowledge needed and those that are already present within an organization. “Any difference is a training need.”
Hoddinott advises employers to ask questions about potential hazards for each job function. Risks could include workplace violence, harassment, exposure to hazardous products and working at heights. Employers should then determine which provincial, territorial or federal regulations apply.
Ensuring that a course meets a company’s specific legislative requirements and checking out the course provider’s reputation are also relevant. “Unfortunately, there are a number of training providers who offer training with irresponsibility, with respect to the actual effectiveness and legal conformity,” Hoddinott cautions. He points out that employers should carefully evaluate the quality of an online training course. The health and safety department within an organization is often in the best position to establish these requirements.
Sometimes, as in the case of fall-protection training in Ontario and Newfoundland, which requires training to meet a certain number of hours, the duration of the course may have to be taken into account.
While cost is not the sole consideration, it is an important one. Depending on the length of the program, the certification offered and the content covered, the costs may vary. At YOW, prices range from $10 to $50, while those offered by Danatec go for between $35 and $150.
“I don’t think there is a typical cost,” Sayers says. The complexity of the learning environment and the sophistication of the learner also determine the price of training, he adds. “I can teach somebody how to safely handle a paperclip in 15 minutes, and I would probably do that for free,” Sayers illustrates. But “if the question is, ‘How do I use a respirator in a toxic environment?’ that is going to take a little more time and a little more equipment.”
Carmelle Wolfson is the former assistant editor of OHS Canada.