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Bridging the Gap Between Talk and Walk: Report From the ELIG AGM

John Helmer documents the key events of the European Learning Industry Group (ELIG) AGM

As an industry, it has to be said that we don’t always communicate well with business leaders and policy-makers outside our own special interest ‘pool’.

We speak a strange, arcane language, impenetrable to outsiders. We engage in fiercely contested debates about subjects close to our hearts – but clearly less close to those of baffled onlookers, for whom they must seem about as relevant to what’s happening at the contemporary workplace, sometimes, as the War of Jenkins' Ear. We suffer from an addiction to buzzwords – and currently have a dangerous tendency to retail a particular species of pop/bad science that is coming to be known in scientific circles as ‘neurotrash’.

So it’s with a certain amount of relief that one turns to a networking forum where a lot of the talk is instead about actual business results – and getting across the real value of what technology can do in supporting learning and communications to those external parties who govern and influence the context within which we all live and work.

About the event

The European Learning Industry Group (ELIG) was founded in 2002 in partnership with the European Commission (initially as the eLearning Industry Group), to promote innovation in learning. Its membership is from the learning industry and from academe.

This particular event, which was also the ELIG AGM, was on the theme of ‘bridging gap’. The programme identified a number of gaps ripe for bridging; those between:
• traditional and new forms of learning
• innovation and digital literacy
• formal and informal learning
• the perception and the reality of elearning

In addition, my subjective experience of the conference indicated another series of gaps which the event seemed to be doing its part also to try and bridge; between Education and Training, between the e-learning industry and educational publishing, and perhaps most crucially, between practitioners and learners.

Old versus new

Mike Morris of Cisco gave a comprehensive summary of why traditional forms of education and training are not currently sufficient to meet the changing needs of industry, commerce and society.

On the macro level, drivers for change include the declining economic output of Europe against Asia and US, and the all-important problem of the Environment. New social norms have emerged, new industries. The long-promised demographic time-bomb now means that there are simply not enough young people to do the new jobs: substantial retraining is necessary.

Business has changed. It moves ever faster, requiring rapid decision-making;
new business models and new skills. Accompanying and partly driving these changes have been changes in society. Consumers now expect 24-hour shopping and instant fulfilment. Information is less controlled and more accessible; anytime, anyplace.

Against this background formal education has added greater subject diversity, but in Morris’s opinion hasn’t changed to the same extent as society. He questioned whether it is really engaging effectively with the new skills needed by industry and commerce; as more collaboration and team work is seen in the workplace, as the need for better information management grows; as employers require greater interpersonal skills in their employees, expecting them to be motivated, self-supervising and flexible.

More experiential learning, he suggests, might help Education better to match these needs.

Academics versus suits

But has Education really changed so little? Other voices pointed out that students are now much more likely to encounter collaborative working in schools, and that such students then feel let down when they enter an organisation with a rigid, top-down training culture.

The consensus on both sides of the fence seemed to be that, if there is a new paradigm for learning, its application is patchy, and examples of best practice, though they do exist, not always particularly visible or accessible. It seemed clear that academics consider the richest and most ‘appropriate’ deployments of technology-supported learning to be happening within corporates. As such, they tend to be hidden within the enterprise. This certainly was the view of Andras Szucs of EDEN, expressed in the roundtable session on ‘Perception and Reality in E-learning’ chaired by LINE’s Piers Lea – while in his keynote, he bemoaned the paucity of useful research studies and data that exists to draw on when it comes to learning innovation in Education.

One body that has been doing its upmost to fill this gap, with considerable success for a number of years now, is the estimable Towards Maturity initiative. The organisation’s Laura Overton gave a sneak peek at hot-off-the-presses results from its latest benchmark study, the 4th in a longitudinal research series looking at trends in the use of learning technologies in the workplace.

Among a wealth of other interesting insights (the final report comes out in November 2010) the study demonstrated clearly that those who are more mature in their use of learning innovation through technology derive greater benefits from it. In the top quartile of adopters, respondents report 35% reduction in study time, can deliver learning 43% faster and achieve an average 36% reduction in time to proven competency.

These are the sort of results that, surely, should be shared and taken note of more widely.

Part of the problem in comparing results across the organisational and educational spheres (and they often seem like two different planets) is that e-learning in the organisational context is a different beast from the one you come across in Education. It’s a rich and diverse thing, as Towards Maturity’s data bears out, but has its core, still, in modules of self-paced online content. Where it is adopted, as it has been in something like 75% of large organisations (so far as we know: see our post on CIPD’s L&D surveys) it changes the role of training departments. A degree of disintermediation has taken place – slow and patchy as it is – with many large-scale people development initiatives now happening outside the L&D department, sometimes even outside the remit of HR.

There is no such disintermediation to speak of in the Education sector. There, it’s all about teachers and lecturers, chalk and talk and textbooks. Though the Educational initiatives of the noughties have filled today’s schools with desktop computers and interactive whiteboards, and practically every educational institution in the UK now has a Moodle VLE, there has been no change in the role of the teacher or lecturer.

Why is progress slower within Education than within corporates? The cynical voice says (though never particularly loudly, and certainly not from the podium): because it’s easier to fire a training manager than a teacher. But does it have to be all about reducing headcounts?

Michael Farmer of Link2ICT believes that the teacher has a key role to play in being the bridge between traditional, diverse and open education; providing the structure to enable the learner to go to where they need to be. There is a clear argument here for a change in the role of teachers.

Young versus old

The Towards Maturity results highlight a significant gap in expectation between learners and practitioners of learning. 58% of learners would expect to see serious games used for learning, for instance, but among Learning & Development professionals the figure is much lower: 23%. Perhaps ignorance of the costs involved on the part of learners might explain that last statistic somewhat – however, L&D professionals are no more knowledgeable about technology-enabled learning than their learners, it seems. While 41% of learners lack the knowledge and skills to be independent learners, less than a third of organisations in the study felt that L&D staff had the right skills to support technology in learning.

On the Education side, the odds seem even more heavily stacked against the professionals. Several delegates spoke of educators being challenged by high levels of digital literacy among their young learners. There was talk of close to 100% digital literacy among the young, and use of social media so subliminal that posting to Facebook while listening to a lecture hardly even counts as multi-tasking. Educators react to these challenges in different ways: by banning it, as the principal of Harrisburg has done with social media on his campus; by attempting to learn from how students use social media in planning and equipping themselves for study – as Martti Raevaara of Aalto University, Finland described in the roundtable session I attended – or simply by looking on in puzzled bafflement.

The digital natives/immigrants theme emerging here, so familiar on the conference circuit, is not the whole story when it comes to practitioners/learners gap: it’s not solely about a generational divide. What we’re seeing in that particular story, perhaps, is the most visible symptom of what Andras Szucs described as an enormous change in user habits, involving migration of knowledge construction away from traditional institutions towards a strong, spontaneous culture of online collaboration. This is not just about technology use, but about social change. Arguably the 45-year old Facebook-addicted Mother returning to the workforce after having raised her family, and finding herself frustrated by the organisation’s sclerotic IT department, is as much as part of this shift as the twitch-generation, texting-as-we-speak teenager.

The myth of the social learner?

The morning sessions on Day Two involved some valuable discussions on the subjects of Continual Social Learning, Serious Games and new models and tools, which for space reasons we can’t cover in depth, though Serious Games in particular is an area we will be covering very soon on this blog, so input was timely.

One interesting point came out of the Q&A session on the theme of social learning. Isn’t it naïve to expect social sharing of knowledge between employees within companies, asked the questioner? Humans are naturally selfish and egocentric. Why should they share information with people for free when that knowledge is why they are paid? The assumption undermines the integrity of their job.

The counter argument was put forward that, yes, we are ego-centric, but the knowledge imparted is part of daily interaction within the workplace anyway, integral to team building, leadership and work efficiency. The sharing of information occurs naturally if it’s informal, just as people learn naturally from those with more experience than themselves. Knowledge has to be imparted from those with more experience to allow them to work more efficiently.

Conclusion: the carry-out

A dominant theme of the conference, and one with which LINE concurs strongly, is the need for the learning industry to start highlighting best practice examples, and the concrete results that innovation in learning is producing.

In this regard it’s worth listing the suggestions for action that came out of the roundtable session I attended; suggestions of what can ELIG do to close the gap between the perception and the reality in technology-supported learning:

• Highlight the range of ways in which technology-supported learning can be implemented which are not expensive, difficult etc. (common negatives)
• Highlight examples of excellence from all areas of learning in a way which is digestible by a wider audience around the world – i.e. business leaders, policy makers, etc.
• Focus minds on removing barriers, fostering common standards, and creating the right conditions for growth in adoption
• Provide the evidence to help organisations understand that learning is not something to keep in a box but important for the whole concern

This has been a subjective and perhaps partial report of the two days, so apologies to anyone who feels their contribution was passed over. In particular, Fabrizio Cardinali of LearnExact, Chairman of ELIG gave a lively and stimulating presentation as always; but being a bit of an Apple fanboy, I just couldn’t bring myself to repeat the unkind things he said about the iPad.

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