Online Learning Comes to Camp

by Paul A. Schlag, Ph.D.


ACA's e-InstituteE-Training is using electronic or digital materials to train employees. Such training involves creating reusable materials, which can be transmitted easily and can be accessed anytime and anywhere. I first encountered the concept of e-Training (Electronic Training) while working toward a master’s in public administration at the University of Colorado. Having a background in recreation in general, and camp specifically, the idea of e-Training intrigued me. The recreation field is constantly training seasonal and other employees, especially in the camp profession. Thus, I began to consider how organizations could benefit from using digital technologies to train employees.

An opportunity to experiment with e-Training in the camp field came when I was a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. Dr. Gwynn Powell put me in touch with Camp Twin Lakes, a camp with a training problem. Camp Twin Lakes hosts a different special needs camp each week during the summer. Each of these weekly camps brings their own volunteer counselors to the site. Since these counselors were volunteers from all over the country, very little uniform training was taking place. The training they did receive differed from camp to camp, and it was difficult for many volunteers to attend the training sessions. Thus, most of the training was crammed into a few hours before the campers arrived.

Camp Twin Lakes saw the value in providing e-Training that was reusable, consistent, and would allow counselors to take the training on their own time, at their own pace, and at any location anywhere they were. Therefore, we created an online training course that contained an interactive map, the policies and procedures of Camp Twin Lakes, an example of a daily schedule, and a photo slideshow of the camp. These topics were included in the program based on research conducted regarding the training needs and wants of directors, returning counselors, and new counselors. The tools available at the time to create the online program were primitive at best, but the program did serve to increase the baseline knowledge level of counselors so additional time could be devoted to more effective, face-to-face training on site.

Since the creation of the Camp Twin Lakes Online Training Program, the tools to develop digital materials (particularly online materials) have been dramatically enhanced. Moore’s Law asserts that the speed and capacity of computer hardware doubles every two years. Thus, computer hardware is increasing exponentially, and the tools available on computers are increasing proportionately. Many of today’s teenagers are familiar with and comfortable creating digital media (movies, songs, picture slideshows, blogs, Web sites, etc.). Even if they don’t know how to create such media, they typically are immersed in social worlds that use such media and are comfortable in these environments. Thus, it is up to the camp professionals to adapt to these technological changes in order to incorporate them in an effective and efficient manner — particularly with regards to training.

A Question of Comfort

Speaking with many people in the camp profession over the years, several questions continue to pop up. How can we learn to embrace technology when it is unfamiliar and foreign to so many of us? How can we learn to trust technology when we sometimes feel it is antithetical to the principles of camp? How can we learn to use technology when we feel we are in over our heads and are way out of our comfort zones? These are questions we must all face as society and technology change about us. These questions are not new. Throughout history, technological advances have threatened some and been embraced by others. Let us consider how education in particular has been influenced by technology in the hopes of gaining a moderate view of the preceding questions.

Technology has continuously influenced and changed learning and education. Technology has been used to make education more efficient in order to reach larger numbers of people and generate reusable instructional materials that can be shared easily. The printing of books gave vast numbers of people access to information that was unavailable to them until that time. Chalkboards or slates enabled students to easily write and do math through a reusable medium. Papers and pencils made those processes even more convenient. Mimeographs and copiers also greatly influenced education and instructional materials. All of these inventions increased the efficiency through which information and educational materials could be shared and accessed.

Other innovations strove to overcome the obstacle of geographical dispersion. Correspondence courses sought to overcome this obstacle and promised to radically change education. Correspondence courses constitute some of the first attempts to use technology to overcome the obstacles of time and space in education (the first correspondence course I am aware of dates to 1728 in Boston [Holmberg 2005]). Similarly, closed-circuit television was going to do away with traditional teaching and revolutionize education.

Currently, online education is a hot topic because it combines the aspects of previous technology; it can be efficient in reaching large numbers of people, provides reusable instructional materials, and overcomes the obstacle of space. However, as has been shown across countless technological innovations that affect education, there is no substitute for face-to-face, student-to-teacher, and student-to-peer interaction. All of the aforementioned technological advances, including online learning, however, can be used as tools to enhance learning.

Having considered the history of technology in education, let’s look to answer the aforementioned questions:

  • How can we learn to embrace technology when it is unfamiliar and foreign to so many of us? In the past, some people embraced new technologies, and others shunned them. How did people embrace new technologies? They saw the potential and immersed themselves in the technology until they were familiar with it. They took courses on what they wanted to learn, they played with the new technology, and they made a commitment to learn how it could enhance their lives and their work.
  • How can we learn to trust technology when we sometimes feel it is antithetical to the principles of camp? Should we wholeheartedly embrace current technology and assume that it is the only way to go? Should we simply provide virtual camps with MP3’s of birds chirping, virtual cabin tours, and avatar camper friends? No. However, we often don’t trust what we do not understand. If we can honestly assess how technology could be used to enhance the camp experience, we will learn what to trust with regards to technology and what not to trust.
  • How can we learn to use technology when we feel we are in over our heads and are way out of our comfort zones? The answer to this question lies in sound educational principles. The way to learn something is to follow the principles of flow. Flow is a theory that asserts that skill must be matched to challenge. If the challenge is greater than our skill level, we feel anxiety. Therefore, if we feel anxious about technology, we need to start off small and build our skill levels. We can do this by taking a course, by having someone who knows what they are doing and is patient demonstrate what we want to learn, by researching tutorials online, by reading reference books, etc. (see Resources sidebar).

Another way to learn is to teach others. Once we learn a computer skill, we can teach someone else how to do it. To become comfortable with something, we need to have a desire and commitment to learn. Finally, with the rapid advance of technology, we need to be open and adaptable to change. We might not need to know how to use the technology, but we should know how to use it to enhance the camp experience.

Tips for Online Training

Returning to the topic of online learning, solid online training can enhance the camp experience. You don’t need to know how to create online learning by yourself, but you should be familiar with its concepts in order to communicate effectively with those who may develop a program for you. Following are some tips as you think about how e-Training can be used with your camp.

Tip #1 Tap into existing resources
The first way to tap into existing resources is to locate a university with an Instructional Technology program in your area. Students in these programs are often required to create real-world learning modules. Your camp can partner with a student for free or for profit to develop training materials or an online training course. It is a good opportunity for you to obtain cost-effective, digital training materials — and for them to gain experience in developing online training material for others. If you are interested in developing a digital training product using professionals, academics at a university near you could also help you identify good professional to contact and the production costs.

Your second major resource is your camp’s counselors. There may be counselors who have the skills to create some fantastic digital products. You could tap into their skills by having them film a digital video that could be posted on YouTube. Counselors who are coming to camp could be e-mailed a link to that video as a means of preparing them for camp or for some aspect of camp. Similarly, you might have counselors who are comfortable developing Web sites within Facebook or MySpace. They could help to develop an online forum where counselors could discuss common problems faced at camp and what steps were taken in a given situation.

Other online training resources exist at this point. The American Camp Association® offers multiple online education courses through e-Institute. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) also provides several free, online training courses, visit www.olc. These courses integrate video and interaction with those videos into each course. Although specific to BSA, some of these training courses apply to our counselors and staff. Undoubtedly, there are other training courses that currently exist that could be used as part of your training curriculum. All you have to do is search them out.

The final suggestion for tapping into existing resources has already been introduced. Tap into applications already in existence such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Blogger. These sites already have applications built in, so it is easy for you to post digital content. Further, using these existing resources saves you the time and headache of hosting content on your own server.

Tip #2 Know your learners
Without understanding the needs and wants of your learners, any training you provide will be less meaningful. For one summer I interviewed camp directors, new counselors and returning counselors to see what they needed and wanted out of training. Most of the time there was a disconnect between the perceived needs and wants of each group. My recommendation here is for you to ask new and returning counselors what they feel they need to know to be effective at camp. Add their suggestions to your required training material and figure out what content could be delivered online. Regardless of the online content you choose, all training should be developed to be personally relevant to the trainees. This leads us to the next tip.

Tip #3 Bad training is bad training
How many of you have sat through a session that devoted much of the time to something not relevant to you? Many returning counselors feel this way about camp training. Camp directors see training as a refresher course for returning counselors, but these counselors are mostly bored while being trained on information they think they already know. This underscores the need for training to be personally meaningful and relevant to counselors. The training should also be based on real-world scenarios, so trainees are able to easily discern how the information applies to them. These principles apply to both face-to-face learning and online learning.

Many times people take bad face-to-face training, put it online and assume that it will work. However, bad training is bad training. If the training isn’t well thought out and engaging, no matter the format, trainees will be bored. Your task is to engage the trainee in a stimulating exploration of training content. This can be done by understanding what they feel is most important to know, identifying what is most important for them to know, and covering those topics first. This content should then be delivered in a way that helps them to see its real-world significance.

Tip #4 You get what you pay for (most of the time)
If you decide to develop some type of online training, you get what you pay for (most of the time). A student in an instructional technology program will typically have a lesser skill set than a professional or company in the same field. Therefore, if you want a totally seamless (the whole training course is integrated into one module or interface), interactive, online training program that tracks users’ progress, you will most likely have to pay for it. Obviously, you need to determine what your camp can afford and act accordingly. However, be sure that you are not overpaying for what the developer produces. Contacts within the academic community can help you determine if what you are being charged matches the overall product.

Tip #5 Blended will win
As we considered the history of technological advances and how they affected education, I hope it became apparent that there is no substitute for face-to-face, student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction. However, these advances did allow educational materials to be reusable, to be accessible by large numbers of people, and to be produced cost-effectively. Online training is another way to overcome the obstacles of time and space, so trainees can participate anytime, anywhere, and at their own pace. After the initial startup cost, the online training can be reused with the only additional cost being hosting the training. Online training is also a medium with which our current crop of counselors is comfortable.


Having listed the positive characteristics of online training, it should be noted that it is only one arrow in our quiver of training tools. Online training can be used to provide information and education that does not necessarily need to be passed along at camp. Counselors and staff can then come to camp ready for more effective, hands-on training to prepare for the coming camp season.

Holmberg, B. (2005). The evolution, principles and practices of distance education. Verlag: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, p. 13.

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Paul A. Schlag, Ph.D., is a professor at Western Illinois University. His interests include human development, administration, and technology. He has a B.S. in recreational management/youth leadership, Brigham Young University; master’s of public administration, University of Colorado; M.Ed. in Instructional Technology, University of Georgia; and doctorate in Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Georgia.

Originally published in the 2008 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.