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e-Learning That’s Saving Lives

Ethan Edwards

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

We recently had the pleasure of partnering with a wonderful non-profit organization, Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI), that provides public education programs to prevent collisions, injuries and fatalities on and around railroad tracks and highway-rail grade crossings.  They were seeking to address specifically the unique challenges in training  drivers of all types of trucks in the procedures for safe rail crossings, and they wanted to maximize student access by building an appealing online learning experience.  The first module is complete and in use and was recently featured in a news article in USA Today.

I want to share this case with you because it is such a great instance of the value in really designing around the Context-Challenge-Activity-Feedback paradigm for instructional interactivity.  On the surface, this content seemed like so many other content-bound topics.  At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the content as trivial (“When the red lights flash and the arm comes down, you stop.”)  But looking at performance instead of at content, it became obvious that there is a real training problem, based on the number of truck/rail accidents that happen every year.   And when the cost of training failure is human lives rather than just unrealized productivity, it is even more imperative to figure out training that actually makes a difference.

While there were several additional nuances to consider that I’m omitting here, the core content was to teach the Six Steps for Safe Rail Crossings, which included such rules as: slow down, listen, look both ways, don’t stop on tracks, etc.  Each step seems pretty obvious and easily recalled in a traditional “content” test, yet this information is apparently difficult to translate to performance.

So a simplistic “presentation and test” model was clearly not sufficient for this problem.  The design team took this challenge seriously and came up with an amazingly engaging and, at least on the surface, effective training piece.  While long-term results are not yet available, anecdotal evidence suggests that the piece is going to exceed all expectations.

Operation LifesaverThe key was developing a realistic context (you are in the cab of your truck with a view of the road, traffic, and passing terrain and buildings), a fun and compelling challenge (you have three trips to take, each with several rail crossings, and you must arrive safely and without any traffic violations), realistic activities (you can do whatever you can do in your cab--accelerate, slow down, adjust radio, inspect surroundings, look side to side, etc.), and content rich feedback about your performance (the six safety steps and other techniques are reinforced through individualized content based on each user’s performance).  While I think the end result is really impressive, I want to point out that it isn’t because the designers insisted on some remote, highly-sophisticated theoretical approach to the content, or one where the learner was to be immersed in media of overwhelming dazzle.  Rather, they looked at the content and asked the question, “How do we want the learner to ultimately use this information?” and then created a learning experience that made those elements most prominent in the instruction while balancing quality with constraints of time and budget.  The various experiences were devised so that OLI could feel confident that all of the primary variations and nuances of the content would be covered in the three “trips.”

It’s also important to note that this was achieved on a non-profit organization’s budget.  Effective engaging e-learning doesn’t mean it has to cost a fortune; it just makes a difference where you focus your resources.

I’m  confident that this training will change performance of drivers and save lives.  Now that’s powerful e-learning. 

Below you’ll find a link to a short promotional video for the training and another link to the actual courseware.

View the Trailer  e learning survey

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A Fresh Approach to e-Learning Project Management

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