Serving society

Audiological training via blended learning

The Swiss International Hearing Academy (SIHA), a Sonova Group initiative, runs a pioneering blended learning program in audiology for aspiring hearing care professionals. Its integrated approach combines the advantages of face-to-face tuition and e-learning.This attractive blend of online, offline and practical learning experiences provides a comprehensive grounding in a globally sought-after profession that still has a shortage of qualified specialists. Besides audiological skills and expertise, the programʼs modular structure also imparts a deeper-than-usual understanding of the sales process and business requirements. In addition, the study program makes training courses viable in emerging economies where opportunities for vocational education are thin on the ground or non-existent.

Albert is in his mid-70s and living with hearing loss. It hardly bothers him, but has been a source of concern to his wife. It is she who persuaded him to seek professional advice at an audiology store. He is at the store right now, not quite sure what to expect. How can Albert be encouraged to acknowledge that he needs assistance? This question is one of many in a fictional consultation within a teaching module designed to help budding hearing care professionals to focus on the customer. This case (which closely mirrors real life) and the ensuing role-play represent a typical scenario in a consultation. Such customer interactions need to be practiced – virtually, in the first instance, via SIHA, a global training program for aspiring and qualified hearing care professionals alike that has been running for Sonova Group employees and external participants since 2020.

Along with their other activities for the Sonova Group, Bettina Turnbull (Director of Audiology, Knowledge Management & Education), Jean Anne Schnittker (Research Audiologist), and Barbara Münch (Audiology and Product Education Manager) have been working on the program as a global, interdisciplinary team for about five years. In addition to their audiological qualifications, they all have many years of experience in education. This has enabled them to structure the SIHA program to meet both varying international educational standards and the needs of a diverse range of participants.

Bettina explains the background to the resources on offer on the SIHA learning platform, which is already used to complement practical training courses at audiological centers such as the Sonova Global Hearing Institute in Suzhou (China): “Whatʼs special about these teaching resources is their problem-based structure. Itʼs not just a question of correctly diagnosing hearing loss and selecting the appropriate device. There are lots of psychological elements that play a significant part in customer consultations, and the SIHA program can help participants to practice understanding these and approaching them professionally. A consultation will only succeed if the client is prepared to accept help and audiological treatment.” In short, if aspiring hearing care professionals are to navigate challenging real-world situations effectively, they need more than just technical expertise – they must understand the importance of empathy and be able to listen and ask open questions. “We donʼt concentrate on hearing and the ears in isolation. Our interest is always in the people to whom those ears belong. We focus on the customers, with all their needs.”

So how does this new blended learning program work? It comprises twelve modules that are worked through in parallel with the practical and technical components over a period of 1,500 to 2,000 hours. The qualification takes about a year to obtain. Those selected to participate log in, use face-to-face teaching resources, do virtual hearing tests, solve sample cases, do homework assignments and receive grades. Bettina gives a concrete example of the process. “Letʼs take Albert, the pensioner with hearing loss who is not convinced he needs hearing aids, as a typical case. Several consultation examples are simulated with him, and there is a choice of various response options for each scenario. If the participant clicks on the wrong answer, they are sent back to the start and keep practicing until they are able to provide the correct answers to each scenario.”

Almost 100 participants have benefited from the new program since its launch, with the first external cohort of trainees beginning in Suzhou in May 2020 and finishing twelve months later. Previous graduates from the highly successful test phase hail from various English-speaking countries (USA, Australia, and New Zealand), where the program was introduced in 2019. Although still in its infancy, the SIHA program has already picked up a final-round nomination for “Best Online Distance Learning Program” at the 2020 Learning Technology Awards in London (UK) and won a gold medal for “Best Advance in Technology Innovation for the Remote Workforce” at the prize-giving organized by the Brandon Hall Group, a global research and analysis organization based in the USA.

As many sectors switched to virtual working during the pandemic year of 2020, demand for the new program skyrocketed both in-house and further afield. Online learning has also been used at Sonova in vocational training for employees in the marketing department, as Bettina explains: “Almost half of the sales reps in the USA had no experience of audiology when they were hired. The SIHA program, minus its clinical components, was incorporated as onboarding training so these new employees could quickly get up to speed on the hearing aid industry. Thanks to SIHA, the settling-in period, which would otherwise take years, can be completed in just a few weeks.”

Because of its digital approach, the teaching program is also suitable for countries that have no infrastructure in terms of schools and training centers for the audiology sector. To ensure increased access to hearing care in such areas, Sonova is using SIHA to support the expansion of local provision worldwide and to train audiology experts to the highest standards.

In February 2021, Barbara Münch launched a one-year SIHA course that attracted considerable interest and three times as many applications as anticipated. Participants come from a host of different countries and regions, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.

In light of this high demand, the online resources are to be rolled out in as many countries as possible in the future, and in developing economies in particular. Additional language versions are in the planning stage and several joint ventures have already been set up with local vocational training institutions around the globe. The German Jordanian University in Amman is to work with SIHA to develop a portfolio of courses in Arabic for the Middle East, while the Academy of Hearing Acoustics in Lübeck, which has been offering international courses for more than ten years, also sees great potential in working with SIHA. The range of SIHA courses on offer at Sonovaʼs Global Hearing Institute in Suzhou is intended to attract interest from across Asia. As the SIHA program was also designed for external participants and not exclusively for Sonova, it can be used on a broad international stage. Against this backdrop, SIHA has been working with the Hear the World Foundation, which is able to run the program for cooperation partners on the ground in low- and middle-income countries where audiological training is not provided.

SIHA aims to continue rolling out its pioneering training program on a global scale with a view to providing practical vocational training in as many countries as possible. Given that training rates in the field of audiology – especially in low and middle-income countries – have historically been very low, SIHA is already making a significant contribution towards enhancing provision worldwide.