Exciting developments in education technology look set make it easier to teach, engage and motivate learners on health and safety – and save employers time and money.
Education for the future
We all have all experienced the changing demands of the workplace in the past few years, adapting to new ways of working to be more productive and using technology to enhance communication with our teams. The pandemic introduced a new range of vocabulary, such as hybrid working, ‘zoomed out’ (online meeting fatigue), dynamic workspaces and a personal favourite: the waist-up world (where our video conference facilities only project the upper body of our colleagues).
Our working environments are still dynamic and often in a continuous state of flux, and we are still being required to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of work. However, in the wake of a global pandemic, economic challenges, political instability and global unrest the ‘new normal’ of work may continue to change over the coming years.
The growth and acceleration of changes has been exceptional, and technology has made a huge contribution to this transformation. Our relationship with technology has deepened, relying on digital connections for work, social interactions, purchasing transactions and even entertainment.
Whether we are using QR codes to order a meal in a restaurant, using e-commerce sites, or applying digital face filters to photographs, digital technology, apps and knowledge sourcing are playing an ever-increasing role in our lives. Wearable technology is also maturing, with many people embracing smart watches, for example.
Most organisations have embraced the delivery of training (including occupational safety, health and wellbeing (OSHW) training), via video networking, such as Microsoft Zoom. To provide engaging content and avoid video conferencing fatigue, businesses have supplemented online, video-based training delivered by tutors with live online classes, break-out spaces, videos, animation, gamification, chat forums, apps to test and quiz students and homework activities.
The shift to home working has also broken down geographical borders in work-related training and education across the world. The growth of online means educators can now reach much larger audiences in ‘virtual classrooms’, which makes learning more accessible to all, regardless of their location.
Over the next decade, it seems likely businesses will leverage technology to create highly personalised learning experiences. There is likely to be a major shift from tutor-led to student-led learning (self-directed study, discovery and researching); a major expansion of peer-to-peer learning (interacting and learning from other students); and an increased use of self-paced and self-directed content for learning (allowing learners to study and train at their own pace). These various approaches will allow students to develop knowledge beyond their textbooks or syllabus, to understand how OSH learning applies in a real-world scenario.
E-learning – which is sometimes seen as a poor cousin to classroom delivery, and simply a cheaper alternative to face-to-face – will become legitimised as an effective method of education. E-learning will increasingly be seen as a high-quality form of training that enhances the student’s education journey.
Progression of OSH training
In recent decades, health and safety education has undergone a dramatic shift away from tutor-led training to student-led learning. Instead of passively listening in a classroom, learners now engage with the topics and gain practical hands-on experience, which aids their understanding of how the learning applies in a real-world situation.
For example, when we deliver fire safety training, we no longer just verbally instruct the site’s occupants (usually employees), to leave by the nearest exit if they hear an alarm. We test their level of understanding and expected behaviour via fire drills. We engage employees in fire risk assessment activities to embed and evaluate their understanding of how to follow fire safety precautions. When training people to use a fire extinguisher, we can now use LED-driven digital flames and a laser training extinguisher to provide a realistic simulation of fire-fighting. This can be done without the need for a messy clean-up after firing a foam extinguisher at a tray of flaming oil.
Of course, this digital training does not fully recreate the actual experience of using an extinguisher on a fire, but it does make the training accessible to everyone and can increase the level of learning. Delegates’ expectations of training, technology advancements, the growing diversity of training techniques and an increased understanding of fire safety issues are driving these rapid changes. Standing at the front of a classroom offloading information to a passive audience is not the most effective method for educating, training and engaging employees on the importance of understanding and following good OSH practices.
Along with the progression in the methods of OSH training, we now also have a greater understanding of the different learning needs of students and the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment, where all students feel involved and supported.
And when it comes to using technology for learning – whether it be approaches like e-learning, gamification or live tutor delivery by online video – educators need to ensure these methods are inclusive, and do not create barriers to learning. For example, some people may struggle to use certain technology, so ways of overcoming this should be considered when employers are purchasing training and learning for staff that incorporates technology.
The adoption of EdTech
The pandemic has driven a huge rise in remote and digital learning, and as these approaches have seemingly become commonplace and embedded in OSH education, it is unlikely we will see a return to the scale of classroom training we saw previously.
Trainers are becoming more comfortable using technology in their delivery of education. Many trainers who did not made extensive use of technology in their lessons before the pandemic have found that digital tools make their content more accessible to learners.
With ongoing challenges like global economic uncertainties, unstable geopolitics and the potential dangers of Covid, we will continue to see a huge shift in the global mindset towards embracing technology, including for OHS training.
As well as enhancing the student and trainer experience, technology can create efficiencies by taking some of the workload off trainers, cutting costs, increasing student engagement and improving students’ performance. It also helps organisations to reach across their global communities, operations and supply chains and offer training to individuals who previously had limited access to OHS education.
Education technology (EdTech), will lead to further changes in how education is resourced, taught, consumed and the results that it can yield.
Educational content is becoming increasingly immersive, meaning students are not only more willing to learn but are also likely to stay engaged for longer periods of time. So, creating lots of touch points in apps and learning platforms, will encourage students to access these learning tools more frequently and at greater depth. In turn, this increases the likelihood of them feeling engaged and continuing their studies.
Technology is constantly changing and this also applies to its use in OSH education. For example, developments in mobile phone technology mean phones now incorporate a camera, MP3 player, satnav, video and streaming. Advancements in other sectors are also accelerating, such as the latest in-car navigation, whereby GPS mapping is projected onto the window screen using augmented reality (AR) technology, making it easier to navigate routes. The investment in developing these kinds of advancement will eventually filter into education technology.
Our use of the web, social media and other technology channels is intelligently tracked by software, allowing advertisers to target us with products linked to our interests. Also, providers of entertainment technology, such as Spotify, can predict our likes and make suggested personalised playlists.
This technology will transfer into education, and algorithmically (computer)-generated content will be created that is designed for the individual’s needs. For instance, instead of e-learning course designers developing content – or trainers creating pre-set tasks/assignments – computers will generate content or tasks based on a student’s performance and progress. Computers will be fed with knowledge about the subject matter and given instructions on how to combine it to generate new educational material.
User-generated content will continue to grow, creating more peer-to-peer learning, where learners learn from each other – for instance by sharing knowledge on group chat forums. Students will also be the architects of their own learning. Software will enable learners to create personal study timetables, small bite-size self-learning exercises and tests to evaluate their knowledge and identify gaps.
Hardware will enhance our engagement with learning. For example, ‘telepresence’ (technology that allows a person to feel they are present at a place other than their true location, and enables them to perform actions in a distant or virtual location as if they were physically present in that location), will enable world expert tutors to ‘be in the room’, or even inside a piece of machinery to demonstrate how it works.
Retinal screens for augmented reality (AR) experiences will enable students to visualise information (for example, the Microsoft HoloLens allows medical students to ‘walk inside’ the human body to understand the anatomy).
4D sensory immersive virtual reality (VR) for real world experiences will enable students to move around unfamiliar workspaces to conduct risk assessments.
These various types of technology could also be used to test students on their knowledge in a practical setting by asking them to perform tasks, such as completing an audit, but remotely, online. This could be beneficial particularly for those individuals working from home or who do not have access to a workspace.
Gaming, peer streaming (where students talk to each other using software, such as when jointly completing a task in real time), and social media have connected us virtually. The use of chatbots and robots is increasingly common. Indeed, we have seen a number of chatbot apps – including NHS-endorsed apps like Woebot – giving self-care advice on mood/mental health.
NHS Bristol has been using robots to give advice to patients, where robots ask questions, record information and provide responses and advice. Our level of comfort and trust when engaging with technology is increasing. When we get an immediate response from technology, it can feel individual and personalised, so we accept it. Also, our acceptance of the idea of technology providing information and advice fits our already changing behavioural habits. For instance, we already seem to be more inclined to engage with someone through text (such as messages and online chat) than orally (such as telephone calls).
The increasing global connectivity provided by technology means people (including those receiving training and education), can not only access knowledge via webpage-type programmes but also from live experts. This means training providers can offer the best trainers to their students and are not restricted to using trainers who are geographically located near a fixed training centre. The sharing of knowledge, resources and best practice thinking will therefore result in world-class quality teaching and learning.
Performance and evaluation
Webinar and video conferencing software already allows us to track the attentiveness of students (such as if they have other windows open on their screen or have been inactive on their computer). Being able to monitor a student’s performance and attentiveness will therefore enable trainers to focus on students who need further attention.
Traditionally, we evaluate a student’s performance via end of session tests or course evaluation forms. However, being able to track live data through test and activity results, will enhance both the students’ learning and the trainer’s delivery of the learning.
Education will therefore become an interconnected effort, allowing students to flourish in a changing world. This is particularly important during self-paced learning, where learners can sometimes fall behind or struggle without the trainer noticing, and technology will help spot this before it becomes too late to correct it.
To complement the tracking of learner performance throughout training and studying, methods of assessment will change from summative (evaluating learning at the end of training) to formative (ongoing assessment throughout learning).
However, this continuous monitoring could place an increased workload on trainers and it is likely that technology will be developed to help overcome this. The expected technology developments include automatic marking of assessments using analytical software (this will remove subjective marking by humans and will provide immediate feedback to students). Performance tasks in VR and AR will also be able to test applied knowledge in real-world situations.
Bridging the online and offline gap
Various buzzwords are used in EdTech, such as micro-learning, metaverse, social learning, gamification, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), immersive learning, knowledge apps and peer-to-peer sharing platforms.
These forms of technology are building the foundation for educational growth. The key focus is bridging the gap between offline (where study materials are downloaded for offline use so a web connection is not required for study), and tutor-led learning; creating an eco-learning system that balances between people, content, technology, culture and strategy. The future is about access, anywhere learning and collaboration, both locally and globally. Teaching and learning are going to be more social.
Considerations to think about when purchasing training technology
Tech that benefits offline learning, where students can learn and engage in and out of the classroom
Active learning through our daily experiences is occurring on a continuous basis and therefore enabling reflective thoughts to be recorded through technology, via CPD journals, linking competencies to structured learning, should complement knowledge growth.
Students should be able to access tutorials, materials and interactive activities 24/7 on or offline, via apps or cloud space, during hybrid learning (online or remote learning), such as self-study. Technology should never widen the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, so consider whether students have access to stable WiFi or technology, such as computers at home.
Accessible for all
Technology can also support students with disabilities, such as the use of sub-titling on videos/animation, zooming features, converting text to speech or colour filtering on screens for people with dyslexia. Further development is needed in this space to equalise standards in education and make knowledge and learning accessible for all.
One of the biggest barriers to universal adoption of any EdTech is the lack of access to hardware (tablets, laptops) and connectivity (high speed internet). With the growing dependence on technology in and out of the classroom, a ‘learning poverty’ could widen educational and social inequality, preventing some people from gaining vital OSH knowledge and skills and harming their employment prospects.
Therefore, to leverage the power of technology to accelerate learning, reduce learning poverty and support skills development across society, there must be a much greater focus from key stakeholders, like government and business, towards bridging the gaps in digital infrastructure (namely connectivity, devices and software).
Gimmicks are counter-productive and can only bring short-term benefits. When selecting OSH EdTech for their staff, employers should look for technology that promotes students’ focus and mind growth. They should consider how the technology will support learning and embed knowledge.
Choose technology that enhances teacher/student interaction
Peer-to-peer learning (learning from fellow students) is engaging, social and most importantly led by students.
During peer-to-peer learning, the role of the trainer shifts so they become the ‘guide on the side’, as students take more responsibility for their own learning. Students take this responsibility by using technology to gather relevant information, and this approach to learning is becoming more important for younger generations.
Employers, trainers and educators should ensure that any tech is capable of capturing ‘live’ or regular details on each student’s continuous performance, strengths, weaknesses and behaviours, so this can be monitored and checked as they study and learn.
If the EdTech captures and allows for continuous monitoring and assessment of the learner’s progress (rather than just through an end of course examination), the trainer can intervene to adapt the learner’s approach so they maximise their learning experience and achievements. This will also allow the trainer to improve their relationships with learners. For example, it will help ensure the training method is working and the information provided is comprehensible, and that the trainer is imparting knowledge in a way that learners can easily follow and build on – for instance, through self-study.
Blending of the digital, virtual and human worlds
Technology by itself is not a panacea for ensuring the effectiveness and success of OSH education. At its heart, education remains about human connections and relationships, rather than just the effective use of EdTech. While we can never replace the inspiration, adaptability and enthusiasm that happens between great teachers and students in an in-person environment, we should focus on the social aspects of technology. This means increasing the number of touchpoints for students to exchange ideas and talk to other students, with the aim of enhancing connections from a distance and encouraging students to feel connected with their peers and tutors.
By embracing developments in EdTech, students and trainers can explore innovative ways of making OSH educational journeys more relevant, impactful and engaging. This will lead to better knowledge of OSH, which in turn will lead to better OSH performance and culture.Embracing the blending of the digital, virtual and human worlds will create a greater depth of knowledge and contribute to our legacy of continuous improvement and lifelong learning.
Julie Riggs is speaking at the SHW Live exhibition in Farnborough, Hampshire, on 28–29 September, on ‘The changing landscape of OSHW education and the leveraging of EdTech’. See: safetyhealthwellbeing.live
Dr Julie Riggs is senior head of education at the British Safety Council.
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