Virtual Food Safety Training: The New Normal
Training has always been at the core of system implementations and needed changes, no matter the activity. In food safety, training helps us understand the direct impact we have on both the food production activities and the safety of the consumer. As a result, food safety training is one of the key components that can make or break a Food Safety Management System.
As mentioned in the IFC article “Coaching: The Key Element for Successful Implementation of a Sustainable Food Safety Management System” (see www.ifc.org/foodsafety), IFC food safety training has always been designed to ensure that the participants gain new knowledge and skills, while also changing their attitudes toward food safety. The training sessions facilitate a thorough understanding of the background knowledge for the food safety team and establish an effective link between the current and targeted knowledge, so the participants can readily adopt the new knowledge.
In the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic revolutionized the way we live and work. As a result, the IFC team has had to move its usual training delivery from the classroom mode to the virtual mode.
So, what does virtual food safety training really entail? How can one prepare to deliver it? And what are the pros and cons of this new trend? These are the questions with which we have wrestled.
Traditionally, IFC has delivered food safety training in a classroom setting, often onsite at a food processing facility. However, faced with the need to move its classroom training into the virtual mode, IFC took the following actions:
Step 1: Converted face-to-face courses to blended, eLearning courses leveraging instructional designers and GLC Conversion Training
We needed to understand and consider that, in moving training to the virtual mode, our face-to-face training could not be delivered virtually without being “converted” to enhance learning in this specific context. Research shows that people learn differently online than in a classroom. Individuals tend to lose focus more quickly when they are in front of a device than they do in a live classroom, so it is critical to keep the participants’ attention without compromising the training content, while also ensuring that your material is as accessible as possible in the e-context for the learner. Our “Foodborne Illnesses and Personnel Hygiene” online training, which can be found on our website, is an example of redesigning.
Multiple and blended options were pursued:
(1) “Self-study” where participants complete eLearning experiences independently, without interaction with an instructor.
(2) “Virtual” where the training is done through a live session held via technology like a webinar, so the instructor and the participants do not need to be co-located. We used this approach initially with many of our clients during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to have a quick delivery option.
(3) Blend of both “self-study” and “virtual” where participants learn in the two learning modalities: they complete self-study eLearning experiences and have virtual, instructor-facilitated sessions. We recently started using this method with some clients and are planning for it to be our primary method of delivery in the future.
Step 2: Choose the platform(s)
For our live, online sessions, we needed to choose our technological platform (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx, Google Classroom). For our self-study modules, we needed to determine whether to host them on an LMS, using the World Bank OLC, or host courses on our IFC landing page (not trackable).
Step 3: Enhance the teams’ online delivery skills
Indeed, just like for classroom training, facilitators need to be well acquainted with the training material, and in the case of virtual training, also with the technology. The trainers also had to go through the entire course to prepare not only as a trainer but also as a participant to appreciate, identify, and sort out the possible loopholes or issues they may encounter.
Step 4: Customize blended learning for projects
As we successfully applied these steps, we also found that virtual training must be customized according to the various needs. Here are some tips based on our lessons learned:
- Platform: It is important to make sure there is a good connection network on both sides (trainers and participants). The platform should also be user-friendly and be able to accommodate any limitations, including special needs and access to technology.
- Duration: Remember the audience and the attention span of online learners. Keep training short and provide breaks in live, online learning.
- Participants: Gather information about your participants before the training and throughout the training to assess their knowledge as it will help in customizing the course delivery for things like talking speed and use of video on the trainer’s side. If the participant group is large (8 or more), encourage co-located participants to join in a conference room, instead of connecting individually with their own devices, to lower the demand on bandwidth. Note: if you encourage this option, limit the use of chat.
- Trainers: It is recommended to have at least two facilitators in case of connection issues and also to promote live interaction with participants, monitor chat (comments, questions), and moderate the training.
Virtual training is not without its disadvantages. Our learners turned out to have little experience with learning in the virtual environment, so the learning curve was steep—they had to learn the course content and the technology. Connectivity provides additional challenges, especially in emerging markets, where the availability of reliable electricity and network speed is not guaranteed.
On the other hand, even though we are used to the benefits of traditional, face-to-face training, which includes direct interaction between participants and the facilitator and the ability to do practical exercises in groups, we noted that these same benefits can be achieved in a virtual training portfolio and even more. We have therefore found other advantages of online training. It:
- Allows for the continuity of training if one cannot travel (e.g., travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic).
- Provides broader geographic reach than face-to-face training as physical location is no longer a barrier.
- Reduces costs inherent to travel and stress on the trainers.
- Adapts to learners' needs (e.g., course duration) and allows for scalability.
- Provides easier data collection to measure the training delivery outcome
The post-COVID world may not see the complete disappearance of virtual food safety training. Rather, it would become an integral part of the available training delivery options. Finally, every approach, virtual or classroom-based, has advantages and disadvantages, but the onus is on the trainer to make the best out of every situation.
Here are a few resources we recommend:
- Chapter 5 of the new version of the IFC Food Safety Handbook on “Food Safety Training”. It is available in 3 languages: English, French, and Vietnamese.
- IFC webinar on “Food Safety Training in the New Normal”: very insightful thoughts were provided by Mark L. Nielsen and Mandy Grant.
- Other online materials and food safety courses led by the IFC Global Food Safety Advisory Program.