The SSA’s very own Rob Calder has had a paper published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy about workforce training needs and current use of online resources by substance use professionals. He talks to Natalie Davies about user-centred design, unmet needs, and unpopular mandatory courses.

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Optimizing online learning resources for substance use professionals in England: lessons from user-centered design. By Robert Calder and colleagues. Published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy (2023).

Natalie: Congratulations on the paper Rob!!

Rob: Aw, thank you!

I understand that it’s based on the research you undertook during your PhD. I guess my first question is…you’re five years out from your PhD, and you have a busy job as Head of Communications for the SSA…why was it important to you to spend the time writing and getting this work published?

I think that workforce training is an important area. (But then you have to think that your PhD is in an important area – it’s a long three years otherwise.)

Following Dame Carol Black’s report and the subsequent Drug Strategy, the substance use workforce looks like it is going to get some resources and training opportunities. This is a good time to bring some information about what the workforce needs, the context in which they work, and what they can and cannot access. If the needs of the workforce aren’t considered, it’s possible that we’ll end up with excellent training that no one uses.

On a more personal note, this article took a long time to finish so I’m very happy to see it out there. It can be difficult finding time to write up research from your PhD once you start post-doc work. I have Professor Jo Neale to thank for steadfastly refusing to let me give up.

Everyone I spoke to wanted to improve the lives of people who use drugs, and in a very simple way, everyone wanted training that would help them do that.

You interviewed 31 substance use professionals in England and 14 other professionals working in the field. What did you find?

I found out so much – too much to fit in the article and too much to fit in here. Overall, I found that there is a lot of passion and commitment in the sector. Everyone I spoke to wanted to improve the lives of people who use drugs, and in a very simple way, everyone wanted training that would help them do that.

One thing that kept coming up was the need for training in therapeutic relationships. Everyone told me that therapeutic relationships were central to treatment and there was a real need for training that specifically taught those skills. That said, several people thought it was something that couldn’t be trained – you either had it or you didn’t – which was interesting.

Alongside this were findings about acupuncture, budgets, content vs. format, regulations, shadowing, subject matter experts, time, and admin. Lots and lots of admin.

I understand that you had already been working in substance use services for around 10 years at the time of the research, including as a service manager. Did any of the findings surprise you, or did they confirm what you already knew or suspected?

I wasn’t surprised by some of the structural things – for example, the difficulties providing cover for staff who attend training. But most of the detail was new to me. When I worked in treatment services, I didn’t have a lot of conversations with front-line staff where I just asked them what they needed. I rarely just asked “What do you need in your job?”, which I regret.

I worked in services before online training became commonly used, so most of that side of things was new to me. I thought it was interesting that treatment providers sometimes slipped into using training as a way of auditing staff rather than developing skills. An online course will help prove that all staff have completed a course. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as knowing that everyone has engaged with that course, understood it, and used it to change their working practices.

Lots of people associate online training with training courses on Health and Safety and GDPR. One quote that stuck with me was someone saying that they approached online learning using the ‘next, next, next, next, complete’ approach.

Your paper said that “participants completed many mandatory online courses that were short and unpopular”. What are some of the common mistakes in online learning courses or common mistakes made by organisations choosing online learning courses?

I think online courses have been a victim of their own success. They provide a really quick, easy, and effective way to deliver core training across an organisation. You can either spend years going across the country training groups of 10 at a time, or you can load those courses onto an online platform and tell everyone to do it in the next month. It just makes sense.

The flip side of this is that lots of people associate online training with training courses on Health and Safety and GDPR. One quote that stuck with me was someone saying that they approached online learning using the ‘next, next, next, next, complete’ approach. They were not alone.

The trouble from my perspective comes when you then try to use online courses for training in therapeutic skills. You have to undo those expectations, so people don’t approach it as an administrative chore and head straight for the ‘next’ button.

You talk about the concept of ‘user-centred design’ in the paper. Can you explain to our readers what that is, and how it can combat some of the lingering negative perceptions of online learning?

The idea is that you design things according to the end-user’s needs. If your products meet those needs, then the end-user will probably buy/like/engage with your product. I figured that the end-users of addiction treatments were people who use drugs, but the end-users of training in those treatments would be front-line workers. And there’s very little research about front-line workers.

But there’s no such thing as what ‘the workforce’ wants. People are ridiculously and wonderfully different. User-centred design helps you identify different groups of people with clusters of similar needs. You then use these groups to test your product design hypotheses. There’s lots going on. This research was a very small first step.

Wearing both your ‘researcher hat’ and ‘Head of Comms hat’, do you have any recommendations for treatment services that want to engage with online learning?

I think it’s important to involve the workforce in development strategies. Training needs to be an exciting prospect and needs to deliver something that staff want.

There is a question about mandating courses, which would be part of any sector-wide initiative. Lots of training is already mandated, but only some of this is focused on therapeutic skills or interventions. The tricky side of this is that (as I mentioned above), you can mandate a course, but that doesn’t make it immune from the ‘next, next, next, next…’.

Overall, the people who work in treatment services are dedicated to improving service delivery and to helping people who use drugs. To be successful, sector-wide workforce development initiatives need to harness that.

Rob Calder has worked in addiction treatment and research settings for the past 20 years. As Head of Communications for the SSA, Rob works on developing new science communication strategies, as well as helping to build capacity for research and dissemination in the addiction sciences.

Conversation edited and condensed for clarity by Natalie Davies.

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