Richard Honess & Dan Reynolds
This @WeCops blog follows on from the ‘NCALT e-learning’ discussion that was led by our guest Richard Honess to explore what part NCALT e-learning has in modern policing.
It is mainly based on what was gleaned from the discussion on Twitter and as always we want to reflect the debate in the right way.
Three questions were posed and the following narrative pulls out some of the key messages gleaned from the conversation that resulted (with some extra observations from the @wecops team and benefiting from our hosts extended knowledge in this matter)
Q1. What is the actual purpose of NCALT?
Q2. Why is NCALT so unpopular?
Q3. What can be done to improve NCALT?
NCALT: Five simple letters that make up the name of the national police e-learning platform and is the basis of most of the training and cascading of knowledge in modern policing, so what’s the big deal?
Police training for current serving officers (beyond initial and specialist training) is a vital function of the police service for a variety of reasons. Barely an official report or a press story into the failures of the police doesn’t contain the phrase, “Police Officers need more training in [insert issue here].” Even beyond these reports there are changes in law, police procedures, equipment or technology, population demographics and an increasingly complex society – all of which require some sort of update to officers.
The lively discussion on Twitter brought this to life with the view that NCALT is there to teach, expand and share information and perhaps garner knowledge. The general tone about NCALT was that it had potential to be really useful but it is evident that it suffers from a real image issue as the general consensus was it is not well liked or understood by those that use it. It also has some fundamental flaws.
The reasons are varied but in general it appears that NCALT is perceived by many as a ‘tick box’ exercise so that staff can be signed off as ‘trained’. It is seen by some as providing ‘cheap’ training with little value however the actual costs of providing NCALT are high as there is high initial up front development and build costs. It is correct that the main advantage of NCALT is the ability to cascade out as a swift mass delivery when completed. @ScillySergeant was positive that ‘NCALT is a 5 letter expletive BUT really helps in remote locations!’ It was a common theme that NCALT is mainly perceived as a ‘delivery of information system’ and felt that it does not engender learning per se.
So why e-learning?
Chief Officers have a legal duty to provide adequate and relevant training to their staff. Failure to do so may lead to failed investigations, complaints or, in the most extreme cases lead to loss of life. This in turn can lead to legal action taken against them under vicarious liability laws, something Chief Officers would clearly like to avoid. The use of NCALT was cited as a way that forces can discharge their responsibility and provide an auditable record of such. This is a fair point and it is true that in more recent times, it has been increasingly used in civil and disciplinary actions as it can demonstrate that actions taken were contrary to training, reducing vicarious liability in a complex world.
The comment that it is the ‘force safety blanket’ was powerful and raised the question is this reality or perception? It also highlighted that the implementation of e-learning may be at the heart of the issue as well as a general attitude that continual professional development of self is at the bottom of the day’s to do list in the police. There may also be a trust issue to consider when comments such as ‘who does NCALT serve? The officer or the organisation?’ were offered.
It was highlighted that too much training is also an issue. There are so many topics which officers could (and maybe even should) receive training on it would be impossible to cover them all without officers being almost permanently in training rather than being out and about the streets doing their day jobs protecting the public and fighting crime. With budgets being slashed across the board in the public sector, cuts are having to be made often it is training that becomes one of their first victims (HMIC, 2014a).
The general feeling from the chat was that NCALT e-learning was a poor substitute for face to face learning but is this reality given that many businesses and educational sectors are now moving into e-learning as part of a blend of learning? Certainly HAVARD pioneered the use of the MOOC (Mass open online centre) to assist in delivery of learning so it can’t all be bad, as was pointed out by @CCLeicsPolice. @AndreasThinks also contributed ‘I learnt languages, medication and programming online – it’s not that hard!’ and @OU_police_res added with a tweet that ‘self-direction is key, the police centre for research &learning have MOOC’s and OER’s (Open Education Resources) which are available for free use. http://centre-for-policing.open.ac.uk/learning
So what is really happening and is this something specific to police culture? Do we need to learn how to e-learn better?
The National Centre for Applied Learning Technologies was set up to assist the 43 Home Office police forces in England and Wales to develop training via alternative technologies, and they now design and develop e-learning courses on behalf of the College of Policing. Most of these courses are of a particular type known as “programmed instruction”. This is where the training course is delivered as a one-off course via some electronic device (in this case a computer), but without the presence of an instructor. There are advantages to this method of training which include its flexibility over when it can be delivered, it can be repeated if not initially understood, and it means that programme delivery can be standardised across large numbers of people. This is particularly of use if there is a change in the law or police procedures and the service requires a standardised input into the changes (Ostowski Martin et al., 2014).
It was recognised in the chat that the pressures due to financial cuts are unlikely to change so perhaps as a service we need to embrace e-learning. Geographically e-learning works well but the consistent theme was one of a lack of quality time and space to complete NCALT.
From a recent study (Honess 2016), officers stated that they did not even consider e-learning by NCALT to even be training at all, but a tick-box risk aversion process. The organisation seemed less interested in whether officers had actually learned the content of the courses than if they had the completion certificate. Many stated their frustration at being forced to undertake mandatory courses, the content of which they were never going to actually use and that this had introduced a culture of clicking the NEXT icon and “getting through it as quickly as possible”. There were numerous tweets on this and it appears that NCALT is usually completed in the middle of a night shift, when the learner is most tired, least engaged and with a desire to just get through it. This can manifest itself in simply clicking through and then guessing at the knowledge checks at the end until the required score is met. This is reality that is directly at odds with what e-learning should achieve (and the Code of Ethics) but is an operational truth.
The lack of quality time and an environment conducive to learning all contributes to undermining in the learners mind the true value of what they have been asked to learn. It is compounded when NCALT sessions are mandated as important, but no provision is made to allow this to occur. If they are so vital, then our words do not match our actions and this is what is perceived by the end user. This was neatly captured by the tweet from David Herrington (@interlocker) of ‘remote learning is not compatible with shift learning’. It was also commented that ‘this is an implementation and expectation issue – we would not embed research in this way’ by another contributor.
There are other factors at play here which can disrupt or enhance learning. It requires a great deal of self-discipline on the part of the learner to complete training as envisioned, and this is aggravated by the fact that there is little learner support. This is a criticism made by the HMIC in their 2014 report into the police response to domestic violence where they stated,
“HMIC sees little, if any, value in e-learning as an effective training method as it limits the opportunity for discussion, reflection and checking understanding” (HMIC, 2014b).
Criticism within the service of the system appears to be ubiquitous throughout the service and is reflected in the many blogs and social media discussions about the subject. However little research has been conducted into the actual perceptions and effectiveness of the system.
Further from the study of the ongoing training provided to serving officers has revealed the extent of the dissatisfaction with the system (Honess, 2016). In a survey of officers it was found that 71% of officers were not satisfied with general ongoing training arrangements rising to 80% when just addressing NCALT. 62% were not motivated to undertake general training rising to 82% with regards to NCALT and only 43% agreed that they were able to implement their general training within their day-to-day duties dropping to a mere 16% when looking at NCALT. So there does appear to be a problem with the system amongst officers.
As part of this study, the factors that motivate people to undertake training was examined and by far the top factors that increase motivation were that the course content was relevant to their role, was interesting and that it was delivered in a way that was suitable to them. Further discussions with officers bore this out. This also came out in the chat with comments that there was too much content and that it was rolled out with little consideration to the actual user end needs. NCALT is programmed instruction and the consensus was that it doesn’t appeal to all learning styles. There is some evidence that this may not actually matter (Pashler et al., 2008) but what is clear is that engaged people learn better and more effectively.
In fact the issue of the courses being relevant to the day-to-day jobs of officers was a recurring theme with suggestions that instead of making courses mandatory and sent out to all officers as a blanket provision, that local managers actually evaluated and created a suite of courses for specific officer roles, with experts on the other end of an electronic forum (perhaps POLKA) when questions arise. This was also demonstrated in many of the responses with the twitter chat with comments that NCALT is seen as a hindrance and inconvenience ‘getting in the way of the day job’ and a preference that ‘face to face learning seen as a break from the front line!’ Others cited it as dull, not engaging and the absence of a discussion forum or ability to ask questions and clarify understanding as reasons why it was a poor experience.
The absence of a means of querying confusing aspects or ask ‘what if’ questions indicated that there was little means of testing understanding or learning outcomes. It appears that to pass the end knowledge check is a test of free memory recall rather than testing consolidated learned knowledge that could be applied in the future. This gets to the heart of the matter that NCALT e-learning can provide information but is it being used for the wrong purpose to try and do something it cannot; to alter behaviours?
Perhaps it is the use of NCALT as an e-learning tool but in an ineffectual way? The question was therefore posed – How do we make it better? Is this an issue with NCALT or how we approach it? Indeed is there an effective way to learn from e-learning and do we need to teach this first?
The issues of learner support were raised, and that of returning ‘protected time’ for training to be written into officers rosters to avoid officers from doing their courses at 4am on a night duty which was not exactly considered conducive to effective e-learning. If we are serious about getting the best results from the training then people need to feel engaged, enthused and recognize the value of continual professional development. This is a common theme that has been highlighted before in other discussions that CPD is often at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list and is a cultural issue for the modern police workforce. NCALT is frequently seen as a negative compliance to the job rather than a positive investment in self!
In terms of CPD and the role of NCALT – this comment sums it up well. “We are all so busy these days, It’s like we are all always on the dance floor and we have forgotten that sometimes it’s better to stand at the bar for a while and take a break, to see what’s new on the dance floor. Indeed, spending some time at the bar might actually make us a better dancer!”
We are all dancing and have forgotten about the bar – NCALT needs to find a way to remind the front line that there is a time for ‘dancing’ and a time for learning and evaluating.
It was not all doom and gloom though and there was lots of positive feedback from the discussion.
The suggestion that group completion of NCALT packages as a shared experience would ‘bring subjects to life and add local context’ as it would allow discussion, questioning and deeper learning was very well received by all. It was suggested that Supervisors could and should lead their teams on this with protected study time in a suitable environment for learning. Problems with lack of time, work stresses/distractions and outdated computers were by far the most common issues raised which would need to be addressed if this approach were taken.
One tweet asked if NCALT could be made mobile which highlighted that it already is, with most of the content open source and able to be accessed anywhere. The benefit being that it could be completed on a train, at home or in the response car when out of the station. The technology is already in place as most of us now own a smart phone and this led to a discussion of could and would staff complete paid training away from work, perhaps at home, as is the norm in other employment. A tweet that captured the general feeling was ‘officers would refuse – they are being asked to do a lot now already – work at home might be a step to far. Is this reflecting the current stress in the workplace or is it showing a culture yet to embrace CPD? Perhaps it’s just that we like to have a good moan about training?!
Many of the issues raised mirror the work of Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) who is considered to be the father of adult education theory. He stated that for adults to be provided with suitable learning activities they must be self-motivated to do so. There currently appears to be several issues in this regard;
1) lack of autonomy in learning,
2) the perceived lack of relevance in the course material and
3) the perceived lack of value.
These are all factors that harm adult’s motivation to learn and ultimately prevent them from effectively taking on the material provided (Knowles et al., 2012). This is something that senior leaders and programme designers will need to take into account in future training provision.
The final conclusion from the chat concluded that line managers leading their teams through e-learning that was facilitated, had theory, interactive discussions and led to a consolidation by putting it into practice would give better outcomes. To make this happen would need support from senior leaders and this was evident as @HelenKingMPS asked ‘what stops sergeants doing this now? What can be done to support and encourage?’
This discussion and our host, Rich Honess’ own research has perhaps raised the issue of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for policing as practiced by other professions such as law, medicine, nursing etc. The College of Policing is currently developing a CPD programme for police officers that follows these models, although it is clear that e-learning is going to form a part of this programme there are lessons that can be learned and alternative ways of utilising this technology can be developed. @CollegeofPolicing commented ‘we are reviewing all training and following this [Twitter] discussion with interest!’
In closing it was impossible to not make two observations. Firstly, E-learning has an image issue within policing yet many contributed to this online twitter discussion, itself an example of e-learning. Secondly, perhaps what we need to do is learn from the past and find new enthusiasm for lifelong learning so that #NCALTisFun becomes a reality for all! After all Confucius had the idea back in 479BC!
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Etter Sr., G.W. & Griffin, R. (2011). ‘In-service training of older law enforcement officers: an andragogical argument’, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management. Vol. 34, No. 2, Pages 233-245.
HMIC. (2014a). Policing in Austerity: Meeting the Challenge. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary
HMIC. (2014b). Everyone’s business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Honess, R. (2016). The Mandatory Delivery of Ongoing Training within the Police Service of England and Wales and its Relationship to the Andragogical principle of self-motivation. Unpublished Master’s Thesis: Canterbury Christ Church University.
Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F. & Swanson, R.A. (2012). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (7th Edition). Abingdon OXON: Routledge.
Ostrowski Martin, B., Kolomitro, K., & Lam, T.C.M. (2014). ‘Training Methods: A Review and Analysis’, in Human Resource Development Review. Vol. 13, No. 1, Pages 11-35.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M, Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008). ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,’ in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Vol. 9, No. 3, Pages 105-119.