If a firefighter is trained on the internet, is he still a firefighter? New research from Sweden tells us yes, still indeed—and perhaps he is even a more self-directed one. Comparing interviews of online and face-to-face male Swedish firefighter students with observations of firefighter student training exercises, a uniquely tactile study adds a wrinkle to the plane of our current knowledge on the relationship between learning processes, learning environments, and the adaptive student.
Firefighting poses no exception to the mass of study opportunities that have moved online, in the past decade or more, with some well-meaning guidance through the intersection of convenience and public uncertainty. In the case of professional training in Sweden, by 2008, students seeking qualifications for firefighter services through the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency were able to complete up to three-fourths of their coursework through distance learning. Perhaps more so than in other, less physical professions, questions for the effectiveness of online training here are clear: how do distance-learning firefighter students deal with the challenges posed by their learning environments? Do students learn differently when their medium for learning is virtual?
This study compares online and on-campus groups of students as they surround two centerpoint "activities": coursework and training exercises in firefighting. Data collected in student interviews and observations help to identify the conflicts, contradictions, and influences that result from each subject’s dynamic relationship to an activity and, more pointedly, to compare the ways in which one firefighter’s environment informs one’s learning.
The basic findings are not startling. On the one hand, classroom firefighters take advantage of the experiential knowledge of their instructors, build social communities around their coursework, and pay attention to how they might earn their teachers’ confirmation in mimicking the details they encounter on a daily basis. On the other, online students have only limited exposure to their instructors, they can remain largely anonymous in a mostly asynchronous social forum, and they are often uncertain of what is required of them, or how to perform their profession, without the immediate expert feedback that can get lost over a virtual distance.
Interestingly, though, the discoveries of student learning processes in distance environments are not especially bleak. In fact, where the classroom firefighters engage in teacher-centered learning experiences, online students are required to remain self-directed from the get-go. Their uncertainties, their lack of guidance, according to this study, create tensions in online firefighter students that result in positive adaptations: goal-setting, efficiency, autonomy, and a sense of agency in building one’s own social networks around academic concerns. According to this study, online student learning processes in preparation for in-person training exercises are strong; it is only when they begin to conduct these exercises face-to-face that they revert to a mode of learning that emphasizes meeting instructor expectations.
Pedagogy surrounding the particular skillset intended for student firefighters provides an almost universally concerning case for interpreting how technology-based programs might contradict teacher-centered student training - and bolster self-sufficiency - in ways that educators may not necessarily intend. Perhaps some more reflection on the unique learning processes that online coursework inspires might inform educators of the benefits of leveraging their medium for more intentional goals.
Holmgren, R. (2015). New ways of learning to fight fires? Learning processes and contradictions in distance and on-campus firefighter training in Sweden. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 31(2), 220-234.
Image: Fireman Putting Out Flames via Public Domain Images