When a professional from a developing country needs to be trained in a specific skill, how do they access this training? With funding limitations and pressing demands on their time, flying overseas to receive a week or two of expert training can be prohibitively expensive, limiting access to crucial information. The Quick Start Programme (QSP) project tackled this problem in the field of chemicals management through the development of a ground-breaking electronic distance learning tool (eDLT) at the Chulbahorn Research Institute (CRI) in Thailand. Since its launch in 2014, it has broadened the accessibility of training in risk assessment, reaching over 400 users.

Dr. Daam Settachan, a molecular toxicologist who has worked with the CRI since 2001, was central to the development of this electronic tool. He noted that while the CRI has conducted these types of training for close to 30 years, training over 4,000 participants, more work is needed to build a critical mass of qualified experts, particularly in the Asia Pacific region. He explained the rationale behind the eDLT, describing that ‘despite our efforts in organizing face-to-face training courses, and our attempts to keep these courses short, we understand that 2-3 weeks away from their regular jobs is a significant time for participants. As such, we thought that if we could convert the training material that we already had for the face-to-face training into an electronic distance learning tool, this would make the material available to a wider audience. Other benefits include the ability of users to go over material at their own pace and revisit as necessary, keeping in mind a lot of users in the region do not use English as their primary language.’

While the creation of this kind of tool is time consuming – in total, it took three years to develop, refine and finalize the course – the potential impact is enormous. Dr. Settachan describes the difficulties they faced, including ‘finding the right balance of information (too much, too little, too difficult, too easy); converting the face-to-face lessons into individual study modules that were clear and easy to understand; and using English that was of an appropriate standard for non-native users of the language.’ These challenges were overcome with rigorous testing and then refinement based on the feedback received. This process ‘took time and resources, but was critical in the ultimate success.’

When speaking with those who were involved as participants in the eDLT, it is clear it has utility both as a stand-alone tool and to complement the face-to-face training. Karma Wangdi, a Programme Officer in the Occupational Health and Chemical Safety Programme in Bhutan, participated in a face-to-face ‘training the trainers’ programme for the assessment of risk from the use of chemicals. Upon his return to Bhutan, he organized four days of training on Risk Assessment and Risk Management of Toxic Chemicals to 70 safety officers from different industries and manufacturing units across Bhutan, and used the eDLT at to enhanced the face to face. Mr. Wangdi reported that the tool is ‘very useful, informative and user friendly. This has provided us more knowledge and the participants could learn more in addition to face-to-face training. This knowledge has helped the workplace in managing the chemicals in sound manner.’

Dr. Sam Adu-Kumi, the Director of Chemicals at the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana, participated in this training too. When he considered the role of the eDLT, he described how he views it as useful tool, ‘tailored to developing country needs’, which provides ‘a lot of information, but what is most unique about the tool is that it gives you more or less unlimited access to audiences… that is the way forward in an electronic age.’

However, the eDLT is not yet perfect, the two main criticisms of the programme are that it should be available in other languages, and be made available free of charge. Work is ongoing to improve the accessibility of the website and the content, and new modules, including the development of case studies, are being developed.

While it will take time to fully assess the impact of the course and achieve its goal of increasing the critical mass of qualified personnel in the fields of risk assessment and risk management of chemicals, according to Dr. Settachan, ‘what is clear is that many of the 400 users would not have the opportunity to attend training in risk assessment if not for the availability of the eDLT.’

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