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Can soft skills be taught through elearning? pt2


Elearning is a method not often applied to soft skills training; Ian Luxford continues his contentious feature.
Another challenge is about the kind of activities which are used to teach these types of skills. To develop the skills to interact productively with other people, it seems reasonable to assume that the learner will need to interact. With people. Not with a computer. These are skills for interacting with unpredictable, emotional people, not logical, unemotional machines.
This suggests one further challenge. Once the learner has developed the skills, being able to use them and make them feel like a natural thing to do, takes practice. Again, it would appear that this practice must be undertaken with real people. 
Getting great at mental arithmetic is something that lends itself easily to practice with a computer. The computer can display a series of calculations and the learner can complete them mentally and then type in the answer. The computer can then give feedback on speed and accuracy and possibly spot trends, for example, in areas where the learner should concentrate on improving their ability with numbers.
" may be valid to see elearning as the delivery of training through discrete online modules, comprising of interactive activities which the learner can work on at their own pace and therefore completely independently of others."
Interactions with people don't work that way. There are more challenges that people will raise, but the three highlighted here surely are a good start:
  • Elearning is about definites, logicals and knowns. Soft skills involve working with emotions, things that can vary and are hard to pin down. 
  • Elearning involves interacting with a machine. Developing soft skills means interacting with real people.
  • Elearning enables a learner to become proficient in the types of skills that work with definites, logicals and knowns, as it provides infinite opportunities to practise. The opportunities to practise soft skills require access to real people.
These challenges paint a picture of elearning which makes some big assumptions about what it is and what it can do. 
At its core, it may be valid to see elearning as the delivery of training through discrete online modules, comprising of interactive activities which the learner can work on at their own pace and therefore completely independently of others. A classic view of elearning often has the user completing quite a lot of multiple choice questions online as well.
Most people who have looked at elearning in any detail will probably agree that this is an invalid and very narrow view. Before moving on from it though it is worth looking briefly at the possibilities elearning could offer to soft skills development even in this narrow form.
I was recently asked to review a suite of elearning courses which included a module on emotional intelligence. The module was structured very much according to the model described above and it would be fair to say that it did not take learners very far down the route of developing high levels of emotional intelligence.
What it did very well however was to provide learners with the resources to understand what emotional itelligence is, and what it isn't, and how it can make a difference in their working lives and what the key areas are that they need to focus on if they are going to develop it.
If I were running a course on emotional intelligence, or any other discipline related to soft skills, I would be very pleased to have a group of learners who I could be certain were coming to the event with a sound understanding of the first principles.
Underpinning knowledge is a critical building block in most areas of learning and there are a number of ways in which it can be acquired. This illustrates a core role that elearning can play when it is part of a blend of techniques that contribute to development.
Now, back to the challenges. The learner may have acquired this underpinning knowledge but now needs to acquire the skills. What can elearning deliver here?
The idea that elearning can only handle logic and precision is of course a myth. The rich range of media available to us now allows elearning to present all sorts of scenarios and possibilities, allowing the learner to apply their own perceptions and judgements. 
In a face-to-face situation, video and audio might be used to enable learners to observe interactions between people and determine what approaches were productive, empathetic etc. These tools might be used in elearning too.
"The idea that elearning can only handle logic and precision is of course a myth."
The next idea, that elearning is not about interacting with others, is also missing the point. Many practitioners in the field of elearning are committed to developing its potential as a tool for promoting collaboration between learners – and the vast reach of the web allows great possibilities for collaboration with people who would otherwise be out of reach. 
To continue the previous example, after observing behaviours that exemplify certain soft skills (or not), learners can exchange views via forums or email, on what is productive.
The interaction with others does not stop there. Another stereotype applied to elearning is the self-paced idea (practitioners still use the term 'asynchronous' to mean that learners are not all learning at the same moment). Technology now allows us to meet and interact with others using live audio and video. We can therefore also record the interactions for review and feedback, which is another technique often used in face-to-face interventions in this space.

Ian Luxford is learning services director at Grass Roots

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