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Considering the human factor in open learning: The police experience

Karl J. O'Callaghan
Western Australia Police Academy
Increasing demands for a Police Force with a greater diversification of skills to cope with societal, environmental and technological change has led to the consideration of alternative methods of police training. Traditional on campus teaching is no longer as viable as it used to be because competing time demands are resulting in fewer police officers being released for course attendance. To compensate for these problems, open learning has been considered as a viable, alternative method of training which can provide the flexibility necessary to balance the demands of policing and training.

Designing open learning, however, required careful attention to be given to the student learning processes given that many police are traditionally unskilled formal learners and have a negative view of learning and its related experiences. When the first police open learning program was designed at the Police Academy in 1991 many problems regarding learning relationships were encountered and had to be overcome. This paper provides an overview of the humanistic factors that were considered in the design of the open learning program and the impact these factors have for other organisations considering a similar venture.


Despite significant role changes for police in the past 50 years, society still tends to stereotype police officers as law enforcers. The complexity of modern policing, however, frequently encompasses the roles of welfare worker, marriage guidance counsellor, child mincer, mediator, negotiator, first-aider, teacher and ambassador, in addition to law enforcement. The increasing variety of skills that police require to become functionally competent has presented police trainers with a dilemma: given the existing static resource situation, teach only critical survival skills or find alternative training methods.

The quest for alternative methods of training police officers has resulted in the consideration of open learning to provide flexible and individualised learning in the form of developmental modules. Individualisation of police education is critical given that required skill levels are largely driven by a police officer's current position objective, geographical location and contact with other cultures. With these problems in mind it was decided to design a pilot, text based, (distance) open learning program to provide greater flexibility in the police education process. The decision to design such a program was also based on the economic consideration that off campus students should make fewer demands on the capital resources of the Police Academy, such as classroom space, parking areas and human services.

The subject chosen for the pilot program was entitled 'Planning and Command', which basically covers the management of police emergency operations. This subject was selected for trial because, by necessity, it contains only material that is directly aligned with modern policing problems in Western Australia. Total, rather than partial relevancy was considered essential for initial open learning courses in a police environment because officers were more likely to demonstrate a greater commitment to this sort of subject material. It is, perhaps, more difficult to motivate police to learn subjects which they believe are more abstract in terms of their function such as human resource management, computer skills and corporate planning.

The design of the pilot open learning program required primary attention to be given to the development of students for participation in open learning and also consideration of student constructs which would affect their involvement. The development of actual teaching strategies and selection of teaching resources did not take place until after all student learning issues had been addressed. The purpose of this paper is to provide an outline of the considerations that should be given to the human element of open learning, that is, the needs and interaction of the students and teachers, rather than the development of actual teaching strategies and resources. It should be noted, however, that these elements are interwoven in the curriculum process and that the human element must, by necessity, be encompassed in all phases of instructional design.

Student expectations and attitudes to learning

The notion of distance learning is not new to police officers in Western Australia. Promotional examination programs have been run by correspondence for many years. We must be careful, however, not to confuse distance education and open learning. While distance learning is often just another method of presenting standard on campus courses, open learning requires unique instructional design capable of supporting the variety of choices that the learner should be permitted to make. Lewis (1988) states that in open learning the learning choices essentially lie with the students who decide how they will approach the learning, what they wish to learn, where the learning will occur and the methods they will employ in reaching their goals.

Traditionally the police student has been told by the organisation when to participate in promotional courses. This approach is based on an internal correspondence tuition system that provides information on when to enrol, when to sit for examinations and deadlines for submission of papers. The concept of open learning should reduce such bureaucracy and administration, providing students with individual choices (Daniel & Marquis, 1979; Wood, 1981). As with most open learning programs, the Police Academy program has neither set enrolment or completion dates nor are there any assignment deadlines. In addition' students may choose whether or not they require to undertake any formal assessment points that may be contained in the program. This was a concept totally alien to police students, who required familiarisation with the notion of 'freedom of choice' in learning.

Bagnall (1989) suggests that students should view their engagement in open learning as a role position which controls and directs the appropriate sequences of learning with the express intention of facilitating that learning. Educational goals for open learning should also include autonomy and self directedness (Botkin et al, 1979; Brookfield, 1985). The majority of police, however, have had little education beyond year 10 high school and consequently have had little experience with the concept of self direction in learning.

In addition, the didactic methods that have traditionally been applied at the Police Academy have resulted in police students aligning their police learning experiences with pedagogical learning experiences. "For many adults the subservient role of learner is incongruous with the other role positions they occupy" (Birkenbach, 1985, p.8). Police students, in general, have negative attitudes towards learning and educative experiences. Radloff (1990) concludes that negative learning experiences affect student motivation to become involved in new learning. In view of the experiences of police students, steps had to be taken to change attitudes to learning as part of the introduction of open learning programs.

To implement open learning for the first time it is essential to have a managed change process within the organisation. A change in the learning philosophy of police students was initiated simply by providing education about education itself. The structures and benefits of open learning systems were reinforced by police instructors at every contact opportunity. In addition, much attention was given to marketing the concept internally by using journals, newsletter and electronic mail facilities. Changes in learner philosophy have been gradual with those officers stationed in rural areas and having less Academy contact, taking longer to adopt new outlooks on training and accept the value of open learning as an appropriate learning experience. The inception of an Academy Outreach (country visitation) training program during late 1991, however, provided a better opportunity for Academy instructors to assist in the familiarisation of students with the benefits of open learning programs

Developing independent learners

Adults generally have more obstacles to contend with in their learning processes than children. Typically, obstacles such as competing role and time demands, fear of failure and concern about personal capabilities have a negative influence on learning (Knox, 1987; Birney et al, 1969). Policing is a profession which places extraordinary demands on an officer's time. Constantly rotating shifts, job related stress and the effect these factors have on family relationships influence the amount of time and effort that the police student can devote to learning. Consequently, the time that they do spend on study must result in learning that has a significant depth of quality.

Assisting the police student to cope with learning and learning independence meant that student metacognition had to be considered at an early stage of the design process. Flavell (1976) refers to metacognition as being aware of one's own learning processes and exerting control over them. For students to be successful in open learning they must use metacognitive strategies to control the learning task and consequently have a more positive view of themselves as a learner (Bandura, 1982; Radloff, 1990).

Again, it was found that due to the general lack of involvement in 'formal learning' since leaving high school, most students needed assistance to develop their learning process. The instructional material for the pilot open learning course included some directions for the student on becoming a more effective learner. Students are directed to relevant, easy to read texts on strategies for successful learning and study. Other metacognitive strategies which are suggested to the student throughout the program include formulation of own questions about the material, reciprocal teaching (teaching another), talking out loud, focusing on key points and time management. Reciprocal teaching is suggested because its benefits are twofold. Firstly it enhances the student's learning and secondly it allows the dissemination of program information to other potential students in the police learning system.

It was important to consider effective learning skills throughout the entire instructional design phase and not merely to include such strategies as an afterthought. In the Police Academy pilot open learning program, metacognition is given attention throughout the lessons and assignments by providing access to resources which condense, summarise or paraphrase the main ideas and by providing self test questions that reinforce the material in the text.

Giving attention to actual learning processes in open learning design should create learners with better study skills, problem conceptualisation and lateral thinking as opposed to dependent learners who tend to have a narrower approach to learning and are less apt to go beyond the minimum demands of a challenge (Paul, 1990).

Teachers marking assignments from students after the program commenced reported that the students seemed to have developed a more positive outlook on learning. One of the more encouraging trends to arise from the provision of metacognitive strategies in the program w as the willingness of police students to seek advice about involvement in other formal learning experiences Many police officers are now more prepared to undertake learning commitments beyond the scope of the Police Academy in post secondary and tertiary institutions. Providing police students with basic learning skills has been the genesis for the rediscovery of self esteem through learning because of the positive experiences and successes that the student encounters.

The role of the teacher

Even in open learning systems there is a clear role for the teacher. Open learning is not independent of teachers because students rely heavily on teacher interaction, feedback, counselling and support, albeit in different ways from those used in traditional didactic methods. The teacher's role should include the provision of exercises and learning strategies that focus on the learning process, providing honest feedback, sensitivity to the students' external pressures and monitoring student's self concepts (Radloff, 1990; Warren-Langford, 1990).

In the Police Force, instructors are drawn from the rank and file and are usually officers who have considerable policing experience (at least 10 years). Their knowledge of educative processes, however, is often weak and they require some form of instructor or teacher development. In addition to trainer training strategies implemented by the Police Academy, those officers who are to be responsible for the open learning program required extra tuition, not only about their role but also about the whole concept of open learning. To facilitate the preparation of teachers for open learning, a teacher in service workshop was designed specifically for open learning instruction. A critical objective of these workshops was to have teachers acknowledge the importance of developing positive relationships with their open learning students and to suggest strategies which will enhance this concept.

Students enrolling in the program are personally contacted by their assigned teacher at the commencement of studies within the program. Students are also encouraged to contact their teacher whenever they require guidance. Teachers monitor the progress of the students and will contact their students if a lack of response to the program is perceived. This should not be interpreted as an attempt to enforce deadlines but rather to ensure that students are 'on track'. Police Academy instructors are only too familiar with the job demands of the operational police officer and may often be in a position to provide some counselling for those students who may be experiencing personal or work related problems which affect their learning. Face to face contact is encouraged, where possible but the use of other media such as electronic mail, fax and telephones are also encouraged. The teacher's role in police open learning programs still needs to be a humanistic one as in the classroom. The teacher "can be a real person in his relationships with his students. He can be angry. He can also be sensitive and sympathetic...Thus he is a person to his students" (Rogers, 1967, p.5960). It is the interpersonal development that occurs between students and teachers which, in effect, creates the setting for qualitative learning not always achievable by typical distance learning strategies which tend to base student-teacher interaction on the written rather than the spoken word.

Support networks

One factor that caused concern in the design of the open learning program was the informally reported rate of attrition in distance education conducted by the Police Academy and TAFE. Student personal factors have often been blamed for high attrition rates. To counteract these attrition rates it is important that institutions using open learning seek to provide student support and administration services (Paul, 1990; White & Watson, 1990).

With this in mind the Police Academy developed a number of support services for students, including:

The Police Force is, perhaps, more fortunate than many post secondary or tertiary institutions when it comes to the issue of fostering support networks. Students enrolled in the Planning and Command Open Learning Program are often able to get learning assistance from their peers and supervisors who have had actual field experience in the area of study. Student assistance comes from co-workers as well as allocated teachers. The flexibility of the program also allows officers, who are part of the peer support network, but not enrolled in the program, to access information from the teachers. Figure 1 shows the interaction model for the police open learning network which operates in conjunction with the Planning and Command Open Learning Program.

Figure 1

Figure 1: WA Police open learning interaction model.

One of the perceived benefits of on campus education is the sense of belonging and the rapport that develops between students during courses. On campus students inherit the right to participate in tutorials, use library material and access other resources. The Police Academy has taken steps to extend these rights to its open learning (off campus) students. The delivery of lectures and tutorials by satellite and fibre optic technology is currently being trialed in an effort to extend the service offered to off campus students. Library and educational resources have been made available to all student, state wide, at no individual cost. Although it is acknowledged that the social factors of on campus education may never be transferred in their entirety to the distance open learning format, substantial efforts have been made at the Police Academy to increase the congruence between the two.


The development of open learning curricula must consider, above all, relationships. Relationships that exist between students and their learning processes, between students and the instructional material, between students and their teachers and between students and their peers. Open learning should not be a system without human contact. Though teaching strategies will vary from traditional didactic methods, the humanistic approach to open learning teaching is as important as in the classroom. The process of open learning should encompass, at every stage, a nurturing of these relationships and an ongoing commitment by teachers to student learning development.

Open learning aims to provide flexible learning programs which meet the needs of adults in the workforce. This goal will only be achieved if program designers go beyond the content, the 'what' of learning and include a focus on the process, the 'how' of learning. The consequences of such a shift in thinking will be more independent, effective learners who can apply what they have learned to solve real life problems and who continue a lifelong process of learning. (Radloff, 1990, p.281).

Policing is a unique profession that demands multiskilling and continual development of officers in order to keep pace with rapidly changing societal, economic and technological trends. While open learning has the potential to expose police officers to a wider range of skills development, there can be little success without a fundamental change in personal philosophy about learning. It is my guess that the police experience with open learning is not unique to the Western Australia Police Force and the principles adopted for the development of the pilot open learning program can and should be applied by other organisations. Those who may consider developing open learning curricula for the first time would do well to remember that open learning, like traditional classroom teaching is a very human process. This view is supported by McBeath (1990) who states that open learning systems need to be written with the student firmly in mind.

As institutions committed to lifelong learning we must do more than provide access and support. In every day, in every way, we must be passionate advocates of lifelong learning and do everything we can to help students develop the attitudes and skills which will maximise their opportunity for it. (Paul, 1990, p.37).


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Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanisms in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147.

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Author: Karl J. O'Callaghan currently holds the position of training coordinator at the WA Police Academy with the responsibility of integrating training programs through all levels of police training. From 1990 to February 1992 he held the position of senior supervisor, in service training with the responsibility of overseeing the instructional design of training programs for serving police officers. He is involved in the design and trialing of open learning programs within the Police Force and the subsequent measurement of their success. In addition, he is working on an attitude measurement project in the WA Police Cultural Awareness Programs. He can be contacted at Western Australian Police Academy, 2 Swanbank Road, Maylands WA 6051.

Please cite as: O'Callaghan, K. J. (1992). Considering the human factor in open learning: The police experience. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92189-196. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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