Building a virtual classroom

How one organization developed a Web-based health and safety training program.

How do you create your own Web-based courseware without losing the face-to-face experience students value in classroom settings? That was the challenge for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA) when it decided to develop health and safety training software.

The following illustrates the journey taken by IAPA to create an electronic virtual classroom. IAPA is a not-for-profit, health and safety organization representing 47,000 member firms and more than 1.7 million Ontario workers. IAPA provides industry-leading training, consulting, educational products and informational services to meet members’ needs and the needs of those in their communities.

Responding to growing interest from member firms the IAPA began developing a Web-based health and safety training program. To combat the learner’s desire for an “in-person classroom” program, IAPA wanted to create a virtual classroom that would mirror the “in-person classroom” by including the same ingredients.

In October 2000, IAPA launched three workplace specific hazard Web based courses: Lockout, Basic Machine Safety and Noise. Workplace specific hazard courses fulfil Part Two Certification requirements in Ontario. Originally offered for two hours via the face-to-face classroom, these courses were redeveloped to accommodate the Web medium. Web course template software was selected to develop and pilot the courses. The Web template provided by an application service provider offered IAPA a relatively inexpensive way to create and test Web courses.

To build a rich Web course experience without compromising interactivity and bandwidth, some digital media such as pictures, short video/audio clips and animations were included as well as exercises and testing in the form of a self-assessment and a final quiz. A virtual instructor functioning as a facilitator and other online supports (registrar and technical support) were added to the mix to ensure that participants were guided through the Web course process and to increase completion rates. Registration occurred online via the IAPA home page and through the assistance of a Web registrar. Since many learners would be accessing the Web course from work and because there is a short lag time in terms of learning how the Web software works, two weeks were thought to be an adequate time in which learners could log on conveniently and complete the course.

Since learners could not be seen, some assurances were needed to verify interaction with the course materials and the virtual class. Hence, a “record of training” would be issued to learners who showed evidence of participation through discussion board email, posting of exercises and the successful completion of a final quiz.

Evaluation instruments were developed and added to each Web course – a usability study to ensure that the Web course was accessible and a course evaluation. Learners were asked to complete and submit both evaluations online.

Between October 2000 and August 2001, Web participation increased steadily. The Web courses have been completed by 500 learners and IAPA has learned quite a bit about the virtual classroom experience from a variety of perspectives.

The virtual learner
Virtual learners enrolled in IAPA courses were accessing them 24 hours a day and seven days a week throughout the course duration. Most registrants were from Ontario, but a small percentage came from other provinces, the United States, Europe and Malaysia. Course completion rates were high and most completed the course in less than five hours. Facts discovered from the Lockout course Web learners:
•69 per cent logged on from work;
•53 per cent had a high speed Internet connection;
•93 per cent found the course content adequate;
•94 per cent found the exercises helpful in applying the subject matter;
•85 per cent found the instructor helpful in facilitating learning;
•81 per cent found input received from their virtual class members helpful; and
•95 per cent would take another specific course offered via the Web.

The virtual instructor
Virtual instructors discovered that without the visual and aural cues available in the face-to-face classroom, the skills needed to facilitate and evaluate performance of virtual learners were different. In addition to reviewing the movement of participants through the course via software statistics, virtual instructors evaluated individual performance on exercises posted, e-mail interaction and the final quiz submission.

The written word became very important as this was the primary mode of communication. Virtual instructors needed to read and assess written content more carefully. Instructors also had to learn about how to encourage participation in the virtual environment especially for those learners who were a bit Web shy. These skill areas are presently being reviewed to establish standards for facilitating in the Web environment.

In comparing the time involved with facilitating a face-to-face versus a Web workplace specific hazard course, experienced Web instructors were able to facilitate Web classes more efficiently and reduce facilitation time by up to 20 per cent.

The virtual employer
Employers commented about the convenience of Web training by permitting easy online registration of staff and the flexibility of completing a Web course at any time convenient to staff during the course time frame. In addition, staff did not have to be out of the office at a specified time or travel to a particular training location.

Some employers had to find alternate ways to facilitate the taking of Web courses when the number of available computers and email addresses were limited. This was remedied by allocating specific times to access the computers available and issuing additional individual e-mail addresses available for free from a number of Web sources.

Next steps
IAPA has been pleased with the progress of the Web project and has added four more Web courses to its current offerings: Repetitive Strain Injury; Manual Materials Handling; Solvents, Flammable and Combustible Materials and Personal Protective Equipment. IAPA continues to explore the next steps of Web course development with the hopes of creating state-of-the art Web courses and using the Web medium in new and innovative ways.

Ellen Lederman is a training development consultant for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association. Those interested in trying out a health and safety Web course for free can visit the IAPA Web site ( She can be contacted at [email protected].

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