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Taming Online Training at the San Diego Zoo

Animal Encounter Wanna touch a 'gator? Animal Encounters offer guests a chance to get close, very close, to some of the rare and exotic creatures at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. Chance encounters with animal ambassadors give guests an opportunity to interact with animals and their trainers. Pictured is an encounter with a baby alligator, which will never stop growing, regardless of its age!

The demands on animal care staff in zoos and aquariums have increased dramatically in the past two decades. Positions that once focused on the care and feeding of animals now require an extensive knowledge of regulatory requirements, safety procedures, conservation, education, animal enrichment and customer service.

The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park traditionally addressed these demands with formal classroom training. However, they realized they needed a more cost-efficient strategy. Further, the approach had to offer an effective way to reach animal care staff who prefer a hands-on approach, have unconventional schedules and varied learning preferences. As leaders spoke with colleagues across the zoo and aquarium industry, they learned their challenges were not unique.

Gary Priest, San Diego Zoo’s global curator for animal care training, led the traditional training for animal care staff at the two venues using a model he helped to develop with a group of curators and keepers to design content. The classroom sessions had been the standard since the 1980s, but Priest said he knew change was necessary. “The increased complexity of regulations; the evolution of the subject matter and data explosion; the availability of our experts lessening due to conservation projects around the world; variations in the information being presented; and just the overall challenge of getting all the animal care staff and experts in the same place twice a year — our model was sputtering.”

A recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which had successfully implemented an online training program, led the zoo and park to partner with CypherWorx, a Rochester, N.Y.-based company that helps nonprofit organizations transition to online training. (Editor’s note: CypherWorx was founded by the author’s husband).

Strategic Partnerships
In its initial stages, San Diego Zoo Global, which operates the zoo and park, also reached out to five institutions — the Birmingham Zoo, Lowry Park Zoo, National Zoo, Reid Park Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium — to build a consortium of experts to develop standard, universal content and best practices for training within the identity of San Diego Zoo Global Academy.

“We knew we had a great opportunity with this online platform to overcome the logistical challenges that many organizations face with professional development, whether it’s budgetary or scheduling constraints,” said Jon Prange, director of San Diego Zoo Global Academy, the company’s online learning platform. “Yet we also knew the greater significance of what a collaborative learning environment would mean for our animal care staff and our industry as a whole in sharing knowledge, training, best practices and expertise on a global scale.”

In partnership with this consortium the academy identified 13 courses that now make up the Animal Care Training Certificate Series. These are topics that would immediately benefit zoos and aquariums with animal care, staff safety and regulatory requirements, and serve as basic courses, a kind of Zoo 101. After implementation, San Diego Zoo Global and its partner organizations tested the efficacy of the first four courses in the certificate series.

  • Zoonotic Disease addresses the transmission and prevention of such diseases as West Nile virus, swine flu and avian flu.
  • Regulations and Inspection Readiness concentrates on compliance with rigorous government standards.
  • Working Safely With Dangerous Animals provides training on industry standards for keeper training and safety when working with dangerous species.
  • Fundamentals of Animal Learning teaches zoo personnel about animal behavior and how to apply this knowledge to improve animal care and management.

Each course took four to six months to develop, and each identified a subject matter expert who was world-renowned in a particular field who could also engage colleagues to develop and enhance specific content. Instructional designers translated that material into an interactive online format with case studies and strategies to make sure the content was user-friendly, engaging and effective.

The instructional designers also: used case studies to attain and maintain the learner’s attention and make learning relevant; showcased rich visuals to convey content; built confidence by illustrating facts and concepts; maintained attention with variability; developed confidence and ensured satisfaction with feedback; and used elaboration theory to motivate.

James Marshall, a faculty member in the Department of Educational Technology at San Diego State University and an independent consultant to corporate businesses and school systems, analyzed the zoo’s approach and shared his findings in an article in the October 2013 Journal of Applied Instructional Design. Marshall also reviewed the success of the ARCS Model of Motivation — attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction — a model developed by professor John Keller in 1987. The zoo used it as the framework for each course’s design (Figure 1).

“When designing e-learning, careful attention must be paid to the e-learner,” Marshall wrote. “Including attaining and maintaining attention, demonstrating content relevance, building confidence and ensuring satisfaction. The range of tactics employed in the SDZG e-learning carefully attend to each ARCS model category in an effort to motivate the learner throughout his or her online learning experience and beyond, as he or she applies trained skills in the workplace.”

The academy also commissioned its own efficacy study through Marshall and San Diego State University to evaluate the training, obtain feedback and identify any adjustments needed. The study evaluated the initial course offerings, with professionals from four organizations serving as study participants.

A total of 155 individuals completed one or more of the courses. Pre- and post-tests, aligned with each course’s designated outcomes, were administered just prior to and immediately following training. A follow-up assessment also was administered to a small group three months after the post-test to gauge knowledge retention.

Participant responses confirmed they favored the online learning module, and were more engaged by the real-world video case studies, real-life examples and practice questions to build confidence and knowledge. Participants also rated the value of each course, with results for each above a 4 out of 5 for highly valued.

Promoting Mastery and Retention
Findings in these studies are critical to guide instructional design, and the academy recognizes the investment. Since 2012, the academy has grown to include hundreds of individual members, as well as more than 111 member zoos. The online catalog has grown to more than 300 course and webinar offerings, and now extends beyond animal care to operations and human resources.

For instance, all new academy employees are required to complete an online course on sexual harassment in addition to the previously mandated training. California and many other states have increased compliance requirements as it relates to training regarding harassment, and it has become more challenging to deliver this training in person, said Tim Mulligan, chief human resources officer for San Diego Zoo Global.

“The online training model is cutting-edge from an HR standpoint, because we are able to train more people, be more current, and it’s much more efficient and engages all learners,” he said.

“The response has been great. People let us know they love the classes, and that we offer quality courses,” Mulligan said. “It’s not just about animal care anymore. We have a product that is top-notch, interactive and has expanded to courses beyond animal care to business, management and communications, and really provides an opportunity for personal and professional growth. There’s still a great deal of potential in how we raise engagement levels, knowledge levels and best practices in how we are training our employees.”

Academy officials also have initiated development of a certification program to further document course completions and build a repository for employees’ professional growth and accomplishments. It’s becoming an industry-wide standard in training.

With so many possibilities for growth and partnership, academy learning leaders recognize their partners’ and members’ role in enhancing online education efforts on behalf of conservation and animal care work, and they recognize that any one institution should not work in isolation.

“We are all invested in this industry to end extinction, enhance animal welfare, ensure zookeeper safety, and this is on a global scale, not just our own,” Priest said. “There’s a saying that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that is the same with sharing best practices. The academy is just getting the ball rolling, and there’s huge potential for other experts to share their expertise and collaborate as well.

For instance, the American Association of Zoo Keepers recognized the benefits of collaborating with the academy while creating its own platform to provide specialized education and professional development.

“Historically, teaching animal care professionals has been a hands-on educational process,” said Bob Cisneros, president of AAZK. “By offering state-of-the-art information online, San Diego Zoo Global Academy is allowing animal care professionals everywhere to have the knowledge necessary to be at the top of their field.

“It’s a trifecta for us as zookeepers. We care for the animals, solve problems and communicate effectively in an online network to build those qualities.”

Lanette Cypher is a freelance writer. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.