Is Online Learning For Me by Dr Alison Wakefield FSyI

Is Online Learning For Me?

Dr Alison Wakefield FSyI, Chairman, Security Institute and Senior Lecturer in Security Risk Management, University of Portsmouth

For frontline security operatives wanting to build careers within the manned guarding industry or wider security sector, an array of courses and qualifications are now available to support professional advancement. Over the last decade the training market for our sector has transformed as security training providers have sought accreditation for their courses, enhancing their credibility and enabling security practitioners to demonstrate their progression through the different levels of the Regulated Qualifications Framework (applicable to England, Wales and Northern Ireland) or its Scottish or international equivalents. For a detailed overview see “What qualification levels mean” on the website.

At the Security Institute, where I hold the voluntary role of Chairman, we promote such progression through our Certificate, Diploma and Advanced Diploma qualifications, respectively at Levels 3, 5 and 7 on the Framework. We were one of the first organisations to get our courses externally accredited, winning the Security Excellence Award for Security Training Initiative of the Year in 2010. Several universities running security-related degrees offer Recognised Prior Learning (RPL) credits to holders of the Diploma and Advanced Diploma, reducing the length and cost of a degree if they decide to progress into higher education. Specifically, Buckinghamshire New University and the University of Portsmouth give holders of the Security Institute’s Diploma credit exemptions towards their undergraduate degrees in Security Consultancy and Risk and Security Management, respectively, and the University of South Wales similarly recognise our Advanced Diploma. University applicants can also make individual RPL applications requesting credit exemptions for other relevant courses at Level 4 or above that they have completed.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my university job is in providing opportunities for security practitioners at all levels to enter higher education, and supporting their academic development. Like the Open University, we typically offer places to our students on the basis of their professional experience and commitment, rather than A-Level qualifications. Students are soon able to start applying their knowledge at work, and often report highly positive feedback from their managers as they do so.

Unfortunately, we find that quite a few students drop out of their studies, especially in the early stages. We know that our students work long, demanding hours while often managing family commitments, and can underestimate the time and energy that part-time study requires (at least 10 hours study per week is recommended). Beginning a course is also a significant financial commitment and we want to see students make a success of their investments.

There are now many free online courses available that give learners a taste of the distance learning experience at no cost, or negligible cost, and these are a great place for many to start. ‘Massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) are a phenomenon of the new millennium which really began to take off in 2012. These are open access courses that allow unlimited, free-of-charge participation, typically delivered by dedicated MOOC providers working in partnership with universities from around the world. These providers include FutureLearn, owned by the UK’s Open University; Coursera, established by two academics from Stanford University in the US but with no university affiliation; Udacity, also founded by Stanford academics; edX, founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Iversity, a European platform; MOOEC, an Australian initiative; and Alison, an Irish enterprise (nothing to do with me and the name is pure coincidence!). A quick Google search identifies a number of other major course providers.

Charges come into play if a participant wishes to come away with a certificate of achievement, and the fees vary. FutureLearn, owned by the Open University, offers certificates of achievement from £39 upwards and certificates of participation from £19. In order to be eligible for a certificate of achievement, the participant must complete over 90% of the course and achieve an overall average test score over 70%.

MOOCs have much higher dropout rates than conventional online courses that carry a fee: according to Onah, Sinclair and Boyatt, it is estimated that completion rates for most courses are below 13%. This is perhaps to be expected, with the research by Onah and colleagues suggesting that many people commence courses with no real intention to complete them, and with motivations for registration including “out of curiosity” and “to learn more about MOOCs”. Other reasons that the researchers identified include lack of time, course difficulty and lack of support, lack of digital skills or learning skills, starting late and unrealistic expectations.

Despite these limitations, I believe MOOCs are a great starting point for those wanting to develop themselves, but uncertain about whether to take the plunge and invest money and time in a vocational or academic course. Many of the students beginning our bachelor’s degree at the University of Portsmouth unsurprisingly express feelings of nervousness at the start of the course, having left school at 16 and perhaps not had a terribly positive school experience. For this reason we place a strong emphasis on study skills development at the start of the degree, and offer a range of support options including access to one-to-one telephone appointments with a dedicated Learning Support Tutor. A MOOC probably will not offer this level of support, but it will give a flavour of what to expect, and a fantastic variety of subjects is available.

At the same time, individuals working in the security sector can participate for free in the Security Institute’s continuing professional development (CPD) scheme. This is a means of logging your development activities, collecting points for each hour of activity and, on achievement of a minimum of 36 points per year across a variety of eligible activities (such as reading this magazine!), receiving an annual CPD certificate from the Security Institute. CPD participation over X number of years can be referred to in your CV in order to demonstrate that you are actively updating your learning and committed to developing yourself. Completion of MOOCs may also be considered by university providers as evidence to support the RPL in related subject areas, potentially reducing the length and cost of academic courses.

In my blog I list a number of courses that may be of interest to security practitioners, a small selection of which are included below. If you are inspired to start undertaking a MOOC, I would be delighted to hear of your experiences, via the comments section at the end of the blog article.

Dr Alison Wakefield
Dr Alison Wakefield

About Dr Alison Wakefield

Alison is an academic criminologist based at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, where she is course leader of the Professional Doctorate in Security Risk Management.

Dr Wakefield is also Chairman of the Security Institute, the UK’s largest member association for security professionals with over 2,600 members, and is a Fellow of the Institute.

In 2010-11 she chaired the Institute working party that devised the pathways to becoming a Chartered Security Professional, and became Vice Chairman of the Institute in 2015, also serving as Academic