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OE09: The Crisis of Understanding in L&D

Steve Ash and Sean Nugent review highlights from the 15th ONLINE EDUCA Conference on Technology Supported Learning & Training.

Drawing over 2,000 delegates from 92 countries, Online Educa is one of the largest conferences in the industry calendar.

As such it can attract a roster of big hitting speakers, led this year by Lord Puttnam, who argued in the opening plenary for putting the moving image at the heart of learning. This is a theme close to LINE’s heart, since we champion scenario-based, mobile and games-based learning strongly as effective means to embed deep learning. This in turn helps to achieve tangible business results for our clients.

On the down side, as far as Business is concerned, the conference has the reputation of being heavily academic in tone. And it is true that up to 90% of the delegates are drawn from academia. However ‘Learning in the Workplace’ was one of the three defined Areas of Interest in this year’s programme, and we found plenty of useful facts and insights for workplace learning, which we concentrate on in this review.

technology supported learning

Technical and user acceptability barriers fall

If there was one thing that emerged strongly from the many talks and discussions we attended it is how much the landscape for learning innovation has changed in recent years due to mass user acceptance of internet technologies. With something like 25% of the world’s population now online, smartphones proliferating and exponential growth in broadband speeds, the barriers to adoption within organisations are, largely speaking, no longer technical.

Brian Durrant, Chief Executive of the London Grid for Learning Trust described how he has seen people working across London to get the bandwidth they need to deliver learning to schoolchildren, in the process creating the largest metropolitan education Ethernet network in the world. Various other speakers enthused about how the widespread adoption of smartphone technology is revolutionising what’s possible for workplace learning. Web 2.0, viewed with some suspicion on its advent, is now widely accepted as being here to stay. And worldwide recession has, if anything, provided added stimulus to adoption of these and other technologies for workplace learning, since they are seen by top management and government alike as a powerful ways of achieving effective training delivery as well as cost savings.

However, with the partial disappearance of infrastructure barriers, and growing acceptance by end-users, the onus for change has moved elsewhere. The more critical barriers, it seems clear, are now cultural and attitudinal.

The Challenge for L&D

In our report from a recent LINE Forum event we noted a view among business leaders that it is attitudes within L&D departments which are now holding learning innovation back more than user acceptance or board-level buy-in. So it was interesting to hear the experience of Zenna Atkins.

As well as being Chairman of Ofsted, Zenna is also a non-executive director on the Royal Navy Fleet executive board, so she has feet both in Academe and in the workplace. Her reflection is that once you get into the world of work, the people commissioning learning seem ‘unbelievably divorced from their customers’. While in education, learners are immersed in a diversity of opportunities offered by different formats and platforms, once they get into the workplace, it can seem like stepping back 20 years. In short, the expectations of Generation Y are not being met. Where is 3D learning? Her view is that we need to make learning as flexible as life is going to be for these learners; providing 21st century learning for 21st century learners.

Cultural differences

An international event of this type gives a useful opportunity for contemplating cultural differences and their impact on workplace learning. Rupert Beinhauer, lecturer and research and development manager at the department of International Management at FH Joanneum (University of Applied Sciences in Graz/Austria) spoke memorably on cross-cultural learning and teaching. His research shows that pretty much wherever you are the notion of ‘learning by doing’ (or experiential learning) is very powerful. In fact, people crave it … though they don’t necessarily get it.

This was highlighted by the following example. In general, learners within an Asian culture are more willing to sit and be taught than their peers in Anglo-Saxon cultures. However as those students move into the workforce, and in particular when they move into jobs with global multinationals, they tend to shift their preference to ‘learning by doing’.

How much is that game-based learning in the window?

… And just in case you thought the concept of ‘learning by doing’ precludes e-learning, then think again. There were many interesting examples that we saw of technology being used for experiential learning: virtual world programmes that facilitate acculturation in foreign environments, virtual surgery that exploits the growing sophistication of haptics, and so on. This is very much the way e-learning is developing in LINE’s work too, incidentally; towards creating environments within which people can learn and experiment, and away from putting them through linear, course-based programmes.

Even so, there is still a lot of resistance to these immersive and practice-based types of technology supported learning, which often use techniques one might have encountered first in a public virtual world such as Second Life, or through computer games such as Wii Fit.

In a session titled ‘EU 3D: Ctl+Alt+Delete’, featuring LINE partner Caspian’s Chris Brannigan and e-learning legend Jane Hart, fascinating research was presented on the barriers to adoption of 3D game-based learning and online simulation projects.

Five top issues were:

1. Cost

2. The word ‘games’

3. Development

4. Complexity

5. Deployment

Most interestingly, it was found that the number one barrier, expense, was based in many people’s minds on a complete misestimate of how much an hour of game-based learning might cost. 75% of respondents priced an example brief significantly higher than the reality. In fact their estimates were around 50% more expensive than is actually the case.

Best of the rest

Had we but world enough and time, this review would also have dwelt at greater length on the following presentations….

Charles Jennings – telling us that knowledge is no longer power. Power is now all about access to knowledge. At a time when corporates are cutting back on Knowledge Management, Jennings argues that being able to deal effectively with information overload for employees and get them to the right knowledge that they need to do their jobs is now a key determinant of organisational success.

Martin Dougiamas – Founder of Moodle, looking at reducing the cost of training and how technology can support learning within organisations.

Thorsten Randel of Scoyo GmBH – talking about developing at scale with multinational contributors. Covering a topic of intimate interest to LINE, specialising as we do in handling blended learning on a global scale. Randel outlined the things you need to get right; including getting the upfront scoping, designing, requirements capture, etc. done properly, and putting time into understanding the different working cultures involved. Hear, hear, we say!

Security and Defence

The latter talk was given by Steve and Sean at the Security and Defence Learning Pre-conference Workshop, an annual fixture which takes place before the main conference and which is, in many ways, a separate event.

Attendees to the Workshop included representatives from the Swiss Police, INTERPOL, the Scottish Police, NATO and the Ministry of Justice of Brazil. The talk was well received, with many delegates speaking of the clear parallels between their own organisations and those in Defence. The majority of the audience this year, in fact, were from the security rather than Defence sector, but it is clear that much of the work that LINE is undertaking on Training Transformation in Defence has an application within the wider security arena.

Other highlights from this pre-conference workshop included:

Peter-Martin Meyer from the Swiss Police describing the challenges they face providing consistent training across regionalised police forces throughout Switzerland, and the challenge of dealing with Regional and National Police Colleges in a minimum of three languages.

Uwe Seidel from the Ministry of the Interior, Baden-Wuerttemberg on a project they had developed in partnership with Tri-cat software to simulate the use of Helicopters in Police operations. This was good example of the use of high-end simulations to provide training where cost and other logistics prevent the use of practical training with real equipment.

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on January 26th 2010