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Can soft skills be taught through elearning? pt3


Elearning is a method not often applied to soft skills training; Ian Luxford concludes his contentious feature.
The improvements in assistive technologies can also make it easier for people with certain disabilities to participate in this type of training than previously – my view is that we have more work to do here, but there is at least a discernible way forward.
The other challenge was about the issue of practice. This is an easy one to dismiss as there always comes a point when the learner needs to move on from the learning activity, get out into the world and apply their learning. Anyone who has passed a driving test will remember that they actually learned to drive once the licence had been issued and the person practising their mental arithmetic with the computer, will presumably (at some point) want to use this skill in anger at some point.
But the power of information technology, to store data and build wisdom, should not be underestimated. To return to my language tutor's argument – look carefully at the reality of software being used to ask a learner a question in a foreign language, record their answer, play it back to them, compare it with a model spoken answer, provide feedback and then give an appropriate response using meaning and context of what the learner has said. Text-based translation software is available freely on the web and while it might not yet be perfect, we still are moving on all the time.
"Surely technology, as well as people, has a role to play in supporting learners who are developing [soft] skills?"
Understanding the context, meaning and therefore the productiveness of human interactions in the same language is a similar concept.
One area of human interaction where soft skills are critically important, yet often overlooked, is electronic communication. 
In 1998 when email, video conferencing and other mechanisms were still becoming established, I worked on a major research project called Nil by Mouth (published by Investors in People UK 1998). The report predicted, among other things, that email would become as much a barrier to effective communication as an enabler, due to the volume of emails that people would receive and their inability to make the best use of the medium. This inability is not related to use of the technology itself. Instead it is about the skills needed to understand how communications in the medium will be received and used, and therefore how these communications should be crafted.
Likewise telephone and web conferencing promote better communication when people have the soft skills to use them well. Surely technology, as well as people, has a role to play in supporting learners who are developing these skills?
For a number of years, I ran an elearning programme for a major automotive manufacturer, to help service advisors in car dealerships develop the skills they needed to provide good customer service. The skills concerned were wide ranging and included disciplines such as planning and accuracy as well as communication, listening and empathy.
In structure, the programme was not far from conforming to the stereotypical view of elearning highlighted earlier. In addition to the standard types of learner interaction, it had a function enabling managers to log on at the same time as their team members and demonstrate that they were providing coaching support. Other than that, it was a basic, self-paced set of interactive modules and it did not set out to achieve the complete task of building great customer service skills. 
But, it provided a wealth of knowledge and understanding that supported the face-to-face customer service interventions that were available to the same audience and as well as being able to track learners' appreciation of the subject through mastery testing. We were also able to evaluate outcomes by comparing the results of dealers in the (highly robust) customer satisfaction survey with their participation and attainment in the online and face to face training. 
The full range of opportunities for using technology that have been discussed here were not in play, but elearning still made a substantial contribution to achieving the end result.
One of the things we may learn in soft skills training relates to diversity. If we stereotype other people and limit our views of who they are and what they can do, we limit our chances of having productive relationships with them. So it is with elearning.
"A key success factor for any learning intervention is the suitability of the methods used to support learners in constructing their knowledge and skills."
Experienced practitioners in elearning will agree with some and disagree with other statements made in these articles. They will all be familiar with the argument at large. 
A key success factor for any learning intervention is the suitability of the methods used to support learners in constructing their knowledge and skills. Elearning suffers at both ends of the suitability spectrum. In some cases people are beguiled by the possibilities of the technology and want to use it for everything because it's there. Whereas elsewhere, they close their minds to the possibilities it offers and refuse to benefit from them. In other words, it has been used where it is not suitable and not been used when it is.
Its suitability for a particular area of learning content, such as soft skills, however is something which is changing with the general progress of technology. Keep an open mind, take a broad view and watch this space.

Ian Luxford is learning services director of Grass Roots

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