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A need to know

What is claimed to be the world's most comprehensive suite of computer aided learning modules has been launched by the Reinforced Concrete Council. NCE reports on how CALcrete is taking off.

Can you afford not to understand concrete?

Each cubic metre of this versatile material costs only around £100 in place, yet the cost of getting it wrong can run into the thousands. Just as important, continuous improvement and risk reduction demand up to date knowledge of innovation and best practice.

Better understanding is now available via CALcrete, a modular suite that provides over 200 hours of concrete information in a lively and interesting way, using photographs, diagrams, examples, animation and user interaction. Modules include precast, hybrid and prestressed concrete, pavements, RC design to both EC2 and BS8110, concrete bridges, buildability and site practice.

The basis of CALcrete is 'information is power', explains Reinforced Concrete Council director Martin Southcott. 'It provides designers and engineers with more easily accessed information than many get throughout their entire training.

With this knowledge, they are empowered to realise the full potential of concrete.'

CALcrete aims to offer something for all members of the project team. For instance, the precast module - also covering cladding and hybrid concrete - is intended for both architects and engineers. It presents new opportunities and ideas while covering the basics to help avoid real life problems. There is also an authoritative illustrated and animated concrete site practice module.

Flexible learning is a particular feature, allowing users to learn when, where and how they want, and for revision, acquisition of new skills and awareness of other disciplines. 'This is not sales literature dressed-up as CPD, ' Southcott insists. 'Rather, it's genuine valuable, relevant, up-to-date facts and information in a readily accessible and digestible form.

'CALcrete can also help the cement and reinforced concrete industries better understand the needs of their end customers.'

Already, around 1,000 copies have been sold, with several major firms looking to network it to all staff. With over 200,000 construction professionals, many training managers have yet to realise the implications of buying up to 20 days of training for the cost of a textbook. In education, CALcrete is available to virtually all UK construction students, and is being used under licence in four other countries.

Southcott concludes: 'I would like to think that in a year's time, virtually every professional in the construction industry will have direct access to our learning packages on their own computer.

'There is now no excuse for complaining about the lack of knowledgeable staff - for concrete anyway. The result of this will be a better trained workforce, making better use of concrete with fewer costly mistakes, and no course fee or days lost off the job in acquiring the knowledge!'

Meanwhile, the development of CALcrete continues. There are plans to extend computer assessment and add tailored navigation (according to user needs), video, and further topics such as conceptual design, architectural concrete, correct diagnosis of deterioration, value and risk management, and environmental design.

CALcrete in higher education In an unparalleled initiative, the RCC has distributed copies of CALcrete to nearly 20,000 undergraduates of civil, structural engineering and architecture students via their colleges. Also included were the RCC's suite of reinforced concrete design spreadsheets and an interactive library of some thirty RCC publications, including case studies and design guides.

The lecturers Liverpool University senior lecturer Steve Millard has been a pioneer computer aided learning (CAL) user since the release of the groundbreaking RC-CAL by RCC/ Phoenix in the early 1990s. He found many students were failing to cope with reinforced concrete in exam conditions, electing to answer steel questions where allowed.

He has been pre-trialling the reinforced concrete design module of CALcrete for the last two years, combined with computer aided assessment (CAA) techniques.

CALcrete releases him to concentrate more on key areas, Millard says, knowing that the complete subject is covered more fully in a form that students can study at their own pace, with alternative perspectives and additional material brought to life with photos and animations, and even a sense of fun. He has discovered that carefully tuned CAA questions and strategy have ensured proper student use of CALcrete and considerably improved understanding.

The combined approach is popular with the students, whose comments include: Cooool! Nice program, well done; An effective way of learning vital information.

Steve will be presenting his findings at the BCA Concrete Communications higher education conference at UMIST on 3 & 4 July.

Oxford Brookes senior lecturer Jacqui Glass confirms that there are similar pressures on the architectural syllabus.

CALcrete allows lecturers to get full subject information to students, while freeing them to concentrate on core areas in lectures. 'They are all very computer literate and love to get their hands on useful new material, ' she says.

The student Robert Livesey, a third year student of engineering science at St Hugh's College, Oxford University, was part way through a design project on post-tensioned bridges when he received his copy of CALcrete.

'There's some really useful stuff in there, ' he says. 'Lectures tend to be a bit dry and academic.

CALcrete is well laid out and, with its photos and diagrams, brings the subject to life and makes for better understanding. The bridges and prestressed modules were of immediate use for my project. I found the tutorials and worked examples were particularly good for self-testing.'

He also liked the ease of use and clarity of the accompanying RCC spreadsheets for reinforced concrete design.

CALcrete in industry With all construction professional institutions insisting on a typical 20-40 hours of CPD a year, the pressure is on employers to provide suitable material. At the same time, they need to control costs which with traditional courses can run to £500/day including loss of income and expenses.

The consulting engineers The list of consultants already using CALcrete is impressive, and includes Arup, Whitby Bird, Curtins, Mott MacDonald, Atkins, Gibb, Robert Benaim and Alan Baxter.

However, some of these are still enlightened single users - the early adopters often necessary to pave the way for company purchase.

Over 50% of purchasers are private individuals, wishing to expand their knowledge, or fulfil their CPR and CPD requirements.

Nevertheless there are signs that consultants are taking graduate and staff training seriously. Arup is developing an e-learning channel on its intranet.

CALcrete comes at an opportune moment as content and policy generation is under way. In early trials, graduates 'raved about it', and were reluctant to pass on the demo copy.

Whitby Bird is also examining CALcrete for its graduate and professional training.

The specialist concrete contractor John Doyle Construction, a leading specialist concrete contractor, considers training and staff development at all levels an important part of company culture.

It regards raising skills, professional competence and fostering staff loyalty as an investment. John Doyle is an M4I member company and is working on the Respect for People initiative.

Chairman Stef Stefanou, an M4I board member and chairman of Construct, takes improvement and innovation seriously. 'We are providing all our key site managers and engineers with a technical reference file. This contains information on concrete best practice and numerous specific issues such as winter concreting.

'The file also includes a copy of CALcrete, which complements existing material, with its collection of concrete related information on materials, design and site practice together with the latest thinking on innovation and best practice. It is an excellent extension to our existing practices.'

The main contractor Kvaerner principal civil engineer Phil Reynolds is looking at how the company can use CALcrete to give its employees access to in-house training in the best and latest in concrete. Luckily, CALcrete is readily networked, as Kvaerner's UK operation is spread over five offices and its system is frequently reconfigured to suit changing project requirements.

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