Scouts Canada turns to e-learning to train thousands of new volunteers

For an extra-curricular activity that teaches young boys how to sew and examines proper uniform protocol in empty church basements on weeknights, Scouts Canada is pretty innovative.

The organization has been driven by local volunteers in Canadian communities for more than 100 years. Up until now, those volunteers were trained at community centres and churches, requiring them to commit an entire weekend for the purpose.

But these days, it seems, not many people have that sort of time to spend.

Scouts Canada needs 23,000 adults as volunteer leaders to deliver its weekly program to youth, says Ross Francis, executive director of program services.

“Face to face training worked well in some areas, but not really across the board,” he says. “We were looking for a more convenient way for people to dial in and get trained.”

The answer was an e-learning option that would let volunteers take training online.

Launched Sept. 1 on the Scouts Canada Web site, the e-learning portal allows volunteers to complete an orientation and first basic program training package online. Using San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems Inc.’s Connect Pro server and Captivate software, Scouts Canada can now train volunteers over several evenings in front of a computer screen.

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“Attending a full weekend course is virtually impossible for a parent who is juggling kids and work,” says Ron Loves, director, information and technology services at Scouts Canada.

After talking with existing volunteers, Scouts learned that quick access to training was in demand. Volunteers preferred spending their time with scouts interacting with youth at weekly meetings and on camping trips — not at training workshops. Since launching the program Sept. 1, more than 2,000 volunteers have completed the e-learning course.

Connect Pro is a server product Adobe acquired with the purchase of Macromedia Inc. in 2005. It allows Scouts Canada to host the e-learning content and for volunteers to connect with that content.

Captivate is used to create the lesson content — allowing for a multimedia mash-up that is streamed using Flash.

The software can help trainers design lessons that are appealing, says Shawn Cruise, public sector manager at Adobe.

“If you think of typical training modules, they’re very boring,” he says. “Captivate provides the ability to build stimulating content.”

Scouts had a tight timeline to work with and needed to get a lesson available quickly, Loves says. Captivate allowed PowerPoint slides to be imported to serve as the meat and potatoes of the content, and then the fixings were added with the software, some sound and graphical effects.

“The training curve has been really light on our organization,” he says. “We took it out of the box and were probably up and running in two or three weeks.”

Captivate works with a “pod” approach to content, Cruise explains. A page can have several different pods on it and each pod is designated a content type — such as a video, a graphic, or text.

The Connect Pro server can automatically detect what quality of bandwidth and how much computing horse power a user has. For those with less bandwidth, video content can be turned off and the other content still delivered.

Scouts volunteers simply create a user ID and password to get started with an e-learning profile. Scouting section and location information is also collected and the volunteer’s progress is tracked.

“We can determine fails, passes, and grade,” Loves says. “We can get a lot of granularity, probably more than they want us to know.”

The introductory course teaches leaders everything they need to understand about running weekly Scouts meetings. It includes the liability issues and pointers on how to communicate with parents.

The shift to e-learning is a culture shock for a century-old organization that has long relied on face-to-face learning, Francis acknowledges. The in-person option still exists for volunteers who prefer it, but feedback from the online courses has the Scouts ready to do more online training and expecting less face-to-face time.

“In a face-to-face environment, there’s a lot of time spent on peripheral stuff that’s nice to have, but not critical,” Francis says. “We’ve said: here’s the critical stuff that a leader needs.”

Loves puts it another way: “[At face-to-face events] you spend a lot of time standing around having coffee and donuts.”

Surveys conducted of those who’ve compared e-learning with face-to-face training show a preference for the online option among volunteers, he adds.

Scouts Canada can also run the Connect Pro server on its own network, behind its firewall. This helps to quash concerns about the security of volunteer’s private information, Adobe’s Cruise says. It’s the same reason the U.S. Military, Navy, Air Force and Marines are using the software for battle-field training sessions.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan, they can use this software because it’s inside their firewall,” he says.

Scouts already plans to enhance the online training programs with more multimedia content. It will also be making more training modules available online so volunteers can learn more advanced skills at a quicker pace as well.

Sewing and uniform protocol e-learning lessons may not be too far off.

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