e-Learning Comes Of Age

The Camp Across The Lake

This past summer, the staff at Camp Inthedark trickled in--most without a clue about playing games, leading children, managing difficult behavior or becoming youth development professionals. The director tried valiantly to cram dozens of counseling skills, scores of rules, hundreds of accreditation standards and even a few camp songs into five short days. While the camp seemed to run well, it did not provide an optimal experience for the boys and girls who attended. There was acute homesickness, out-of-control hyperactivity, behind-the-scenes bullying and harsh discipline. At mid-season, many of the staff felt burned out because they lacked the tools to perform their jobs skillfully.

Meanwhile, across the lake at Camp Ontheball, things were completely different. All of the staff--both new and returning, domestic and international, day and resident--had participated in online training workshops in the months prior to arriving for staff training week. They learned about leadership, play, mental health, supervision, social skills, conflict resolution and child development. The directors then took this confident group--all of whom had a solid foundation in camp counseling--and provided in-depth training on key issues specific to their camp.

During the season, children at Camp Ontheball brought the same emotional, cognitive and behavioral challenges as the children did at Camp Inthedark. But from day one, the staff at Ontheball embraced these challenges. Simply put, they knew what to do. From opening day to closing day, they remained poised, controlled and effective leaders. As a result, the campers at Ontheball made more friends and had a better time than the boys and girls at Inthedark. Not surprisingly, the 2009 return rates for campers and staff at Camp Ontheball are already setting records.

The Half-Day Difference

Although the Ontheball staff spent only four or five hours engaged in pre-season online learning, the advanced preparation made a world of difference for everyone. Staff members arrived for training week sure of themselves and possessed the perfect balance of playfulness and professionalism. As an added bonus, the camp’s insurance company praised Ontheball for reducing the risks associated with a poorly trained staff. The modest per-staff cost for the online training may have paid for itself in reduced claims. Best of all, the staff could access the online training on its own time--from anywhere in the world--and the directors could track the staff’s participation and progress in the program from the office computer.

Better, Faster, Stronger

Although some camps have been delivering excellent low-tech staff training for a century, the pre-season online training scenario at Camp Ontheball represents a qualitative and quantitative improvement. Yet it would have been impossible just a decade ago. In the late 1990s, many people still had dial-up modems to access the Internet, streaming video was an emerging technology, and most camp directors were just discovering the online world. Back in the day, “high-tech” staff training meant playing a DVD in the dining hall, while half the staff snoozed, still recovering from mental and physical transition from spring break to camp.

Today, Internet connection speeds are faster than ever, streaming media is an online staple, and nearly every camp director can navigate the Web. The world of blogging, tagging and social networking--dubbed Web 2.0--is here. The staff you hire for next summer is used to learning things in short multimedia bursts, much like a YouTube video.

Gone are the days of sleepy lectures in dimly lit lodges. Today’s staff enjoys content-rich streams of information that members can access online and on their own time. Moreover, today’s directors want accountability, some way of measuring the staff’s understanding of all the content they receive. (You didn’t believe your staff actually read the staff training manual, did you?) Gone are the days of telling standard visitors, parents and funding agencies that you run a good show. These days, you have to prove it to everyone.Of course, there will always be a place for on-site, in-person training at camps. Nothing will replace live, professionally facilitated discussions, team-building exercises and role-plays. Plus, on-the-job training (also called “internal leadership development” or “the apprentice model”) will forever be the gold standard of learning how to work with children. But online and on-site training are complementary.

Early season online training puts staff in the Youth Development Professional mindset, instills confidence, and allows professional trainers and camp directors to go into far greater depth on critical issues. With the online groundwork laid, the on-the-job training can be more enlightening than ever.

What’s On The Web

Five forms of online training are currently available to camp staff: text, audio, slideshows, webinars and videos. In this section, I’ll describe their features and differences. In the following section, I’ll provide some guidelines for choosing among them.

1. Online text content includes articles, blogs, handouts (typically downloadable PDFs) and e-mails. For text to be helpful, it must be well-written, succinct and relevant. For example, staff enjoys clear articles and handouts with practical tips on specific topics. Blogs occasionally contain nuggets of wisdom, but often ramble. Some camps post their entire staff training manuals online, but few staff read all of the content directors assign. Let’s face it--reading lots of text online is tiresome. However, once text documents are printed, they require no technology to access, and are easy to read.

3. Online slideshows combine text with audio as well as photos and diagrams. End users can play or pause the show as they like. Some file formats are downloadable and play on free software, even when the user’s computer or mobile device is not connected to the Internet. Other file formats stream over the Internet and require the end user to stay connected during playback. Slideshows have the advantage of providing an interesting combination of visual and auditory media that engages most users better than text or audio alone.

4. Webinars are--as the name suggests--seminars on the Web. Some are pre-recorded slideshows or animations that can be accessed anytime and viewed multiple times. Premium webinars are presented live by the author and are accompanied by a telephone or video conference call. Some premium webinar presentations allow participants to ask or type questions in real time for the presenter. In some cases, webinars are presented in a series of three or four related broadcasts. Webinars have the advantage of being colorful, multimedia presentations with an interactive component that can bring together five or 500 audience members from around the world. For all their rich content, premium webinars are best viewed with a high-speed Internet connection, something at or above 50 megabytes per second.

5. Video training modules (VTMs) are the newest and richest format for online training. A kind of streaming media, VTMs not only integrate stereo sound and color pictures, but these mini-movies can show detailed demonstrations of actual leadership techniques. Whereas some training formats require staff to imagine what concepts look like in action, well-designed VTMs show staff interacting with campers and other staff in a skillful way.Using free software, staff can play VTMs on any computer with a high-speed Internet connection. Some VTMs also exist in a format that directors can download and broadcast during staff training week using an LCD projector. VTMs have a special advantage for international staff members who benefit from the host culture exposure: practice with English and a window on the camp world that VTMs provide. VTMs are the most expensive of the five formats to produce, and they take up more storage space and bandwidth than other formats, so subscription prices tend to be higher. To provide added value, VTMs can be coupled with free auto-marked testing, such as online multiple-choice quizzes that allow users to test their comprehension at the end of the video.

Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

Anyone who has surfed cyberspace knows that the Internet provides ease of access along with the challenge to assess. In other words, there is more information at our fingertips than ever before, but the volume and convenience force us to be highly discriminating. Before the Internet, it was important to know where to look for worthwhile material. Now it is paramount to know what constitutes worthwhile material. Be assured that for every gem you might find by Googling “camp staff training,” there are three or four pieces of junk.

How can a camp director spot premium content?

First, review the credentials of the authors. Because basic Web sites are inexpensive and simple to maintain, everyone has one, and anyone can claim to be an expert in some area. Finding out what kind of education, publications and professional experience different authors have will give you some indication of the content’s quality. In addition to degrees, look for camp experience. Of all the professional credentials a content provider can have, time working at camp is the only one that ensures an understanding of camp from the inside.Second, view or listen to a sample of the content to see if it’s educational, authoritative and entertaining.

Will both your new and returning staff be drawn in?

Educational products that engage learners are superior to those that bore learners. That may seem obvious, but many camps still rely heavily on dry reading assignments and lectures to educate staff on critical areas such as discipline, supervision and diversity. The online material you choose for staff should keep members interested in learning more and excited about working at camp.Third, investigate whether you can monitor the staff’s progress in and understanding of the online program. Most camp accreditation standards in the United States and Canada now require documentation of training. Therefore, the better online content providers allow directors to see who among the staff has read, heard, or viewed the assigned content. And the best online content providers also provide some type of online assessment--such as a quiz--whose results directors can use to verify staff comprehension.

Some online trainers also provide documentation of successful program completion, such as a downloadable certificate that can be filed in a staff member’s personnel folder. Finally, evaluate the host site. Hosting amateur staff training videos on popular sites, such as YouTube, is free, but this practice incurs quirky liabilities.

First, amateur videos look, well, amateurish. Low production values send a bleak message to staff about your camp’s seriousness of purpose. Second, YouTube videos are public. When your camp posts a training video on YouTube, it’s there for all to see. Unfortunately, video training modules intended for camp staff may not thrill prospective parents or be appropriate for children. Third, whether or not your camp’s public training content has some mistakes in it, you may become liable for harm that befalls someone who misunderstands or misuses your advice and suggestions. Few camp directors want that level of exposure. Video training modules are best hosted on password-protected sites that allow directors to vet content and monitor who views what.

Professionalism In The 21st Century

In the last decade, the camp industry has embraced a type of professionalism typical of its late 19th-century roots. Camp directors have graduate degrees, accreditation standards focus on child development, and nature is our classroom. And now a new facet of professionalism has emerged. No longer are camp counselors simply an affable bunch of college kids looking for free room and board and a chance to play with kids. Today’s staff wants expert training in child development and behavior management. Staff members crave the leadership and management skills that will help them do their camp jobs well and put them ahead in life. Online training is one essential way you can give staff those skills and distinguish your camp from the one across the lake.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the creator of Leadership Essentials, a library of online video training modules for camp staff. He is a board-certified clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of camp experience. A popular speaker at national and international camp conferences, he serves as the waterfront director at Camp Belknap. He lives with his family in Exeter, N.H. For more information, visit elearning.campspirit.com.

Bryan BuchkoComment