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Growing e-learning


Jim Flood, Director of Learning at COROUS, looks at three different models for developing e-learning in an organisation.

This paper introduces and explores three different metaphors for developing e-learning in an organisation:
1. The prairie farming agro-industry approach
2. The organic grower model
3. The allotment model.

It concludes that the greatest chances of successful implementation and growth lie in selecting the model that is appropriate to the organisational context and culture.

This paper also provides the basis for an inter-active online game in which the good decisions will make the flower grow and poor decisions will make it wither.

The prairie farming agro-industry metaphor

The last 20 years has seen the ripping up of hedgerows to create bigger fields that are more suitable for large machines, and the growing of single crops to standards set by the large purchasers: ie the supermarket chains. This has led to a reduction in costs, attractive looking products and a steady state of supply to the market. On the downside this has required the heavy use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides - and a loss of bio-diversity as natural animal habitats are changed. It also changes the whole ecology of the system as the balance of natural defences has to be replaced by technological inputs that require large amounts of energy to maintain them.

The main driver for the agro-industrial approach to farming is the reduction in costs, the increase in uniformity and a greater control over the outputs – a driver shared with the ‘industrial’ approach to e-learning. The attraction of abandoning the small pastures of the training centres for the limitless horizons of the Internet and the use of new technologies to replace much of the hand-crafted teaching, as well as the trainers who do the handcrafting, has enormous economic appeal.

Organisations that opt for a monolithic style of Learning Management System with homogeneous content provided by external providers need to think about how this will change the ecology of their learning environment. Will it cater for and encourage a healthy diversity? How will individual learners be encouraged to flourish? How might it change the culture of the organisation?

One way of exploring answers to these questions is to consider what makes people want to learn. Generally it is an individual balance of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation can be provided through financial reward (or the possibility in the form of promotion), a charismatic teacher/trainer or exciting and engaging content. Intrinsic motivation can be triggered by the latter points but is more to do with rising to a challenge and improving confidence and self-esteem.

The challenge for e-learning is to offer different balances between these two aspects and so cater for a wide range of individuals. For some the motivation is simply the cash nexus, for others it is about personal growth – and for most the balance is a dynamic that shifts in response to the immediate context. In a conventional learning environment, it is the skilled teacher/trainer who can identify and respond to differing needs in this respect - but we have yet to see an analogue of this function in an e-learning environment that is devoid of close learning support and participant collaboration. If is not provided, how can it be compensated for?

A further question relates to the means of implementation of e-learning; should it be revolution or evolution? For ‘industrial’ e-learning the pressure is on fast implementation in order to recoup the outlay and for the new technology to be seen to be being used. However, revolutions that do not win hearts and minds do have a tendency to fail – and can create a long-lasting resistance to similar developments in the future.

The organic farming metaphor

Once the indulgence of tree huggers and trendy dabblers, organic farming is now becoming a serious business – witness the amount of shelf space now given over to organic produce in the major supermarket chains. So there is a clear economic driver, however the principles of organic methods are different and might well inform the growth of e-learning. These broad principles are: small scale operations, an emphasis on diversity and balance, working initially within the limitations of the existing system, working towards gradual changes and being prepared to accept and work with variations in the output. Instead of determining and controlling growth conditions, an organic approach seeks to discover what is effective through sensitive monitoring of a broad range of criteria within the system environment.

In terms of e-learning this could be interpreted as being concerned about the process as much as the output, and having a broad range of criteria by which success is judged. Such broader criteria might include participant satisfaction, staff retention rates, promotion rates within the organisation, improved team working and willingness learn new skills and take on increased responsibilities. By being influenced by such criteria, an organic approach is more likely, in terms of staff involvement, to be more ‘bottom up’ than ‘top down’. Within this approach there is also less of an emphasis on powerful new technologies and more of an emphasis on appropriate and effective use of robust small-scale technologies that the users feel comfortable with. This model can also the time and opportunity for existing trainers to find an appropriate rÔle in the emerging learning environment.

On the downside this is an investment with slower and less certain returns. It might mean trying several different systems and evaluating results over a longer period before an effective policy emerges. It might mean being prepared to write-off costly exercises under the heading of ‘valuable learning experiences’.

The allotment metaphor

Few allotments are serious business; they are patches of ground that people use for their own pleasure and interest. The rewards rarely lie in the material returns but more in the quality of experiencing the total process of food production and consumption.

In terms of e-learning this could be a metaphor for organisations that encourage enthusiasts to target small patches of learning needs and to develop all of the materials in house. Amateur it might be but this approach can produce low cost, proof of concept models that give staff with the skills and knowledge to commission a larger scale operation that is tailored to the needs of the company and its employees.

Which model for the learning organisation?

Models are not only limited versions of reality but also tend to be ideal types. In reality, aspects of the three models are likely to exist in any one organisation. However an understanding of the strategic importance of each aspect can facilitate an analysis that decision-makers can learn. For an organisation requiring a drastic change of culture and practice, the agro-industry model might provide the quick re-skilling that is deemed necessary. For a more stable organisation this could prove traumatic and an organic model might prove more successful in evolving new methods of working and learning. For the organisation that wishes to defer the decision, the allotment model can provide e-learning enthusiasts with an outlet that can provide informative results.

There are other factors in the equation of success, such as management buy in, a product champion in the management team, effective project management and clear communication of the aims and anticipated benefits to those involved. However an analysis of different models can provide a sharper focus to planning an environment that will promote the effective growth of e-learning.


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