February 14, 2023

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

Online learning: here to stay?

Jenny Pratt, Head of Communications at NEBOSH, looks at the changing landscape of HS training. Be it classroom or virtual, the goal remains the same – to learn and develop.

Online/e-learning and distance learning is not a new thing but the pandemic has fast-tracked its growth; the global e-learning market is predicted to reach $400bn by 2026.

This significant upward trend has fed through to the health and safety market. At NEBOSH, the examination board, e-learning is on the up too. In 2019-20 e-learning represented less than 10% of registrations – this figure now stands at nearly 18%. Similarly, open/distance learning has increased, rising from 6% to 19% of NEBOSH registrations, and virtual delivery now accounts for 9% of NEBOSH courses.

The popularity of different, more flexible modes of study mirrors the macro trends seen in the employee market; CIPD research found that 51% of employees say they have flexible working arrangements in their current role, and more than a third of organisations have seen an increase in requests for flexible working.

Through the eyes of NEBOSH and some of its Learning Partners and learners, we discuss the challenges and opportunities that have arisen from this change in learning methods…

In the classroom: “traditional” learning

Classroom learning is probably the most traditional way of learning and mode of study for delivering courses and training. Typically this will comprise of “block release” when learners will spend days/week in the classroom or part-time where people might attend a daytime or evening class over a longer duration.

Senior Health and Safety Advisor, Simon Steele, holds two NEBOSH qualifications and has studied in the classroom and online. He says “My employers were influential in selecting the classroom route when I took the NEBOSH General Certificate. It was certainly beneficial for tackling my first health and safety course; I was able to gain insights and close support from the tutors. This route also gives you an open forum to ask questions and get immediate answers, build relationships with fellow delegates and get involved in discussions and ideas sharing.”

Nick Higginson, CEO of Phoenix Health & Safety, agrees: “Learners who are completely new to health and safety sometimes tell us that they are more comfortable with classroom training as they feel it’s easier to approach the trainer to ask additional questions.”

Whilst this mode of study offers great tutor contact time and interactivity with fellow learners, it’s not as flexible as other modes and is often the most expensive route due to venue and travel costs.

An increase in digital solutions

For NEBOSH and its Learning Partners, the abrupt cessation of in-person training and assessments due to COVID lockdowns had a significant impact on organisational activities. It was a worrying and challenging time for organisations, like ourselves, which facilitated a significant amount of face-to-face contact for both course delivery and assessments.

Of course, online/remote training is not a new concept but it rapidly became the only option in some countries and regions where lockdown restrictions were in place. It meant that for many organisations, including the NEBOSH community, we needed to rapidly prioritise and scale digital platforms.

How do these online courses look in real-life? They are typically lower cost due to the removal of building/venue overheads and normally fall into two categories:

  • Online only where learners access a portal of digital resources – eBooks, videos, reading, for example – to work through in their own time.
  • Virtual, held using software such as Zoom, where learners can experience the interactivity and immediate tutor support of in-person learning but with the removal of travel constraints. These are often complemented by a suite of online resources for learners to work through in self-study time. These courses may be labelled as Virtual Classroom, Live Online or similar.

Alanah Campbell, Environmental Health & Safety Advisor at West Fraser UK, gained the NEBOSH General Certificate and NEBOSH IIRSM Certificate in Managing Risk via online only study. She explains: “The main advantage is being able to study alongside working. The General Certificate was a big course with a lot of material and a lot to take in but with it being fully online, I could work through at my own pace. The days can feel quite long in a classroom; this way I could ensure I covered and thoroughly understood everything before moving on, take breaks when I needed to and only register for an assessment when I felt really ready.”

Online-only study – whilst the most flexible and affordable of the study options – does present some challenges as Richard Stockley, Managing Director at RRC International, outlines:

  • Self-motivation is required – learners need effective time management skills and discipline to work through the course
  • There is no tutor or fellow learners in front of you to ask questions and get an immediate response.

This is there virtual learning offers a ‘best of both worlds’ solution as Nick explains: “A virtual classroom gives students the time-management framework that many of them are looking for, without needing to travel to a training centre. Feedback from students also suggests that they build a real rapport with their trainer and learning cohort, despite only meeting them virtually.”

Hardik Thakkar, Compliance Advisor at Jemca Car Group, achieved the NEBOSH National General Certificate via Live Online study. He says: “It was convenient, flexible, and did not require to travel so I was able to study out of hours in my spare time. I was able to focus on course and its content, getting knowledge easily shared over the screen (for example, break room activities) and it gave me an opportunity to use my time in the most efficient way.

“The course was very intense but was interactive; it gave me an opportunity to ask questions and get answers straight away, and the group study provided an opportunity to know people from all over the UK.”

Let’s not forget, there are also environmental benefits too – albeit quite dated, a 2005 Open University study found that distance learning courses used nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions. NEBOSH estimates that its digital assessments saved approximately 3,700 tonnes of CO2 and nearly 900,000 sheets of paper in 2020-21 compared to its paper-based examinations, taking into account things such as postage of papers to-from venues and Examiners, and the travel of learners to assessment venues.

Digital assessments

NEBOSH’s own solution was the introduction of an online assessment platform so that people could safely participate in controlled digital assessments, and ultimately gain a qualification, no matter where they were in the world. This had already been in development but its introduction was expedited as a result of the pandemic and enabled us to use alternative assessment methodologies which really test the application of a learner’s new knowledge.

A scalable platform was required – at the time the impact of the pandemic was unknown and the system needed to be flexible, so whether there were 10 learners or 10,000 learners, they would all have the same experience. It began with the first unit of NEBOSH National General Certificates moving to an open book exam format (the second unit was already a practical assessment) but has worked really well in the three years since the start of the pandemic and more assessments have been added to the platform as NEBOSH’s range of qualifications is developed or revised as part of regular review processes.

Alanah says of her experience of an open book exam: “I’m not the best with classroom exams as I tend to go blank, so I found it a lot more comfortable being in my own environment. The format of the paper meant I could draw on the knowledge I’d gained throughout the course and write in a more relaxed way instead of trying to remember buzzwords – I was also able to plan my time to include breaks which I feel benefitted me too.”

The option to study via online, virtual or distance learning, combined with the ability to take assessments remotely, has opened up health and safety education to more people who might have previously been limited by things such as travel constraints, study time off work and costs. In 2020-21, 14 countries that had never held a NEBOSH assessment, were represented.

What does the future look like?

The key word is choice. The pandemic gave us an opportunity for a different way of thinking; employers, educators, learners and organisations now have more choice and flexibility than ever before. For those that choose online or virtual learning, the quality and quantity of the courses are greater and will only continue to develop.

Richard adds: “The pandemic changed how people work, in particular where they work. This hasn’t reversed much since and has meant that Live Online has become a key part of our training offering. For those who no longer commute to work, or who have moved further away from cities, having the option of an interactive course that they can do wherever they are is highly appealing. The option of Live Online delivery is now a standard part of our ongoing course development, as well as our plans for future qualifications.”

Whatever mode of study you choose, Simon offers five pieces of advice to help you get the most out of your experience:

  • Little steps
    Break the course syllabus down into smaller manageable chunks – a study plan can really help here. It’s also important to celebrate all the steps you take towards completing the course to help stay motivated!
  • Be realistic
    How much time can you really commit to your studies each week? Factor in room for the unexpected or days when you aren’t feeling motivated.
  • Practice
    Talk to other people about what you have learnt – it helps to recall what you’ve learnt and identify topics where you need to spend more time.
  • Don’t stop
    Go beyond the provided books and materials – read, research and explore other sources of information to complement your studies and enhance your understanding.
  • Enjoy it
    This is a great opportunity to learn new things!

Advance your career in health and safety

Browse hundreds of jobs in health and safety, brought to you by SHP4Jobs, and take your next steps as a consultant, health and safety officer, environmental advisor, health and wellbeing manager and more.

Or, if you’re a recruiter, post jobs and use our database to discover the most qualified candidates.

Related Topics

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steven Nagle
Steven Nagle
1 year ago

Hope not. After 10 years of cramming distance-learning style, I’ve had enough of it. Classroom learning is now far easier on all fronts for me after self-motivated study for so long.