Lorna Ross, Food & Safety Support Officer at Aberdeenshire Council discusses how taking the plunge to online learning has resulted in a positive change and how learning in person may be a thing of the past. 

1. Describe you work before the pandemic? 

Life before COVID-19 was busy, 4 or 5 courses a week including weekends and Saturdays for some clients. I was presenting nearly the full range of REHIS courses from Food Hygiene, Health & Safety, Infection Control and my personal favourite HACCP, at all levels from Elementary to Advanced.  Each day was different as my area covered the whole of Aberdeenshire from Laurencekirk in the South to Portsoy in the North and everywhere in between.  On some occasions I even got to break out of the ‘Shire to as far away as Elgin or even once to the Shetland Isles!  I loved meeting new people, seeing their enthusiasm for the topic grow and watch new friendships being formed in the room.  Having delegates successfully pass their end of course exam was the cherry on the cake, but the learning journey was far more important to me, as it was during that journey that new best practice would really be embedded.  I wasn’t stuck in an office all the time so I could honestly say that for each and every day I loved my job.

2. What have you been doing since the pandemic started? 

Everything was rosy in the garden then COVID-19 came along! At first I thought it would be a wee short lived problem so cancelled the courses for the coming month, then extended it to 2 months until finally admitting that COVID-19 was winning, so all future face to face courses were cancelled.  I don’t mind admitting that it was a really scary time, as effectively my own job was now cancelled, so what on earth do I do now!  A quick phone call and discussion with Jackie McCabe then quickly put me on the new track, as REHIS had approved the use of virtual video exams.  Now that was something I could work with, if I can’t train people in a meeting room, could I train them in their living room? After much trial and error, sleepless nights and a bit of swearing I cobbled together an online course that could be done from any device then concluding with a video exam and Microsoft Forms.  It is by no means perfect but hey Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I do work for the Local Authority so nothing happens that fast!!

3. What are/were the challenges? 

Where do I start with the challenges!? For anyone who doesn’t know, Aberdeenshire is just under 2500 square miles of hills, valleys, trees, small villages, and a few larger towns not an area renowned for its superfast broadband!  The lack of viable broadband coupled with a variety of electronic devices being used in peoples own homes made for intermittent meetings, breaks in communication and more than its fair share of ‘try logging out and back in again’ moments.  For a lot of my candidates this would be their first venture into online training, so the fear of the unknown added to the fear of the course material itself.  Getting access to the best computer packages was another hurdle that I haven’t quite overcome yet, as being a local authority closed a lot of doors as we are not seen as a centre of learning. 

More personal challenges also had to be overcome.  I had gone from meeting up to 100 new people each week to working at home with a farmer husband who funnily enough could not work from home, and a wee border terrier who is not much of a conservationist! Anyone who knows me, will know I am not best known for being quiet and not speaking, so this was hard.  Thanks goodness for colleagues who felt in the same boat, so lots of venting could be had over Skype!! And here I am more than a year sitting in the same spot in my house, still powering on.

4. Do you think any of these changes will last beyond the pandemic period? 

To be honest I think the old way of training and learning is a thing of the past.  Having 20-25 complete strangers in a room at the same time for up to 8 hours will not be happening anytime soon if at all, so we need to brave a new future.  I was not a huge fan of the thought of blended learning at first, but after I pulled up my big girl pants I realised that if I could do it well, it would work.   I think the awareness of supporting delegates while they are training is more important than ever, and not just knowledge support, but listening to them, hearing their concerns and being flexible.  I have had to reschedule exams last minute, due to family emergencies, to unforeseen work commitments and even once because a tractor and trailer of cattle had broken down!  Planning courses months in advance and hoping people can book on, will be replaced by more tailored training reacting to the delegate needs rather than when I fancy training in Stonehaven!  Change can be good if done in the right way, so bring it on.