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H.O.T. interview: Jim Flood, COROUS


H.O.T.Training Solutions: The H.O.T. Conference - featured interview

The Open University has 30 years of distance learning knowledge behind it. Two million students have deliberately not passed through its doors on a path to study, but have emerged with a degree they might otherwise have been unable to work towards.

With somewhere in the region of 200,000 OU students now studying online, the University has seen a market for taking its expertise to individual companies. Launched last Autumn, COROUS entered the corporate e-learning market as an offshoot of the Open University, with the intention of placing an emphasis on developing 'instructional materials of the very highest quality', but also to put together suitable technology and establish corporate learning strategies for organisations.

At next week's H.O.T. Conference, Jim Flood, Academic Director, Corporate University Services at The Open University will be explaining how e-learning works within universities at present and how it can foster continuous professional development in companies.

TrainingZONE: In a crowded e-learning market, what is special about COROUS's offering?

Jim Flood: As part of the Open University, COROUS draws on thirty years of experience of distance teaching and ten years of delivering online learning courses, supported by research - both action and using questionnaires, both qualitative and quantitative. Therefore we know a lot about how learners learn online. With more than 200,000 students online within the OU, there are also large numbers involved. COROUS is trying to distil a lot of what we know through students.

TrainingZONE: What about drop-out rates - how do you deal with the problem?

Jim Flood: It is something we have experienced, and of course, retention rates are critical - the government is measuring them! We believe that preparation is the key - our contact with organisations suggests that a lot of people are being thrown in to an online environment without the necessary skills to cope with it. People may need a reminder of study skills, and they need to develop the skills for studying online. We draw on the OU's experience of foundation courses, which are all about learning to learn in a distance environment.

Other factors to consider are the look and feel of the material, ease of navigation, the need to keep text short and allowing people to go to the level of analysis they want to. People can access a number of layers of material - either to get an overview, or to go deeper for more detail. You get what is termed a level of learning redundancy - students choose the bits that relate to their need. By mixing media you can also cater for different learning styles.

We're beginning to understand what barriers to learning are about - it's to do with emotional issues, cultural issues, self-esteem, self-image. We need to pick the best aspects of conventional training and recreate them in an online environment - e.g. treating people with respect, encouraging people to share, building knowledge, gaining success. People don't learn by being subject to failure.

TrainingZONE: Does COROUS offer open courses?

Jim Flood: Not at the moment, but we may offer courses to OU associate lecturers at some point. It could be that OU regions could offer courses, but that's some way further down the line.

TrainingZONE: Establishing e-learning in the workplace isn't cheap - how do you think SMEs can benefit?

Jim Flood: We're a company, floated with OU money, and we have to pay back the loan, hence there's a need for us to concentrate on large contracts. We're committed to working with SMEs and are hoping to work with consortia. E-learning is actually more critical in SMES. A lot of larger companies are actually offering it to their supply chain, which will benefit some SMEs.

TrainingZONE: A recent article in the Financial Times highlighted the difficulties some US business schools were having with getting e-learning going - do you expect there to be a fall-out in the UK market as well?

Jim Flood: I am aware of predictions and understand the logic - the market we are in is akin to that of the motor industry in 1920s, where there were hundreds of suppliers and the market didn't sustain them all. There will be some casualties, but also a convergence towards good practice.

TrainingZONE: The government itself is keen on opening up access to higher education to all - how does COROUS's work fit with this?

Jim Flood: The OU has always had open access, but anyone starting a foundation course is committed to 180 hours of study and has to put up a fair amount of money. The OU is however moving towards bite-sized courses. COROUS gives people short courses enabling them to learn how to learn online, cope with it and enjoy it - it's akin to learning something new. COROUS and other e-learning courses will be taken by a wider section of population than the OU has been able to attract - they will raise people's aspirations.

TrainingZONE: Is it desirable to offer programmes which are entirely online? What about offering soft skills modules online?

Jim Flood: We think we can deliver soft skills online, using supported learning with e-moderation. By using very sensitive and skilled conference moderation you can build trust and confidence. You can then blend this in with other forms of learning - reading from case studies, or if possible, getting a group to meet face-to-face. It's more e-enabled learning than e-learning.

TrainingZONE: Last May, the Open University Vice Chancellor Sir John Daniel said that print on paper is likely to remain the most powerful learning medium, at least for university learning, because e-learning doesn't take into account the complexities of higher education and misses the social aspects. What are your views on the subject?

Jim Flood: I think that print is likely to be the catalyst for learning, which could be audio or could be video. Real learning takes place when people start to take ownership of their ideas, share and trade them with others.

TrainingZONE: How do you see the future for classroom training?

Jim Flood: It's definitely under threat in the corporate world, in part because of the high overheads involved in maintaining facilities. My fear is that the economic drivers will result in classrooms disappearing for economic reason.

I hope that trainers, many of whom have vast experience as good learning facilitators, and can offer good skills and good training materials, are empowered to make the transition to some of their work being online. Instead of a company buying content and hoping it runs itself, I hope to see a transition so that people involved in training develop e-learning in a company and develop their materials in online environment. For example, a trainer currently working in a classroom might find themselves working more online, but coming into the workplace for meetings as well.

TrainingZONE: Do you think that conflicting platforms pose a problem to those working in the e-learning field and those who are looking to buy into it?

Jim Flood: Incompatibility of technology does appear to be a problem, but the introduction of international standards should help. We're making our materials to SCORM IMS and Dublin Corp standards, which should enable our materials to drop into any LMS.

There's also a lot of disappointment with Learning Management Systems - few seem to meet the claims they set out.

TrainingZONE: What are your predictions for the market in e-learning over the next year?

Jim Flood: I don't think there will be many dramatic changes or expansion; rather a consolidation. Many organisations have made big strides in last two years with implementation, but there'll be more of an emphasis on good practice, good strategy, and getting smaller cohorts of participants involved before rolling out. There will be a developing understanding of what constitutes good practice - those who've gone in to e-learning early need to review it, to take a step back.

Appropriate technology is a good model to look at - it was developed for technologies in developing countries, to making it relevant, because too often expensive technology - for example, £50,000 tractors - was being sent in to countries without giving people the means to maintain or use it. Appropriate technology takes what is available in the country and skills available and train people to do it. Recently in e-learning I think we've seen the '£50,000 tractors'.

Jim Flood can be heard at the Changing Face of Learning day of the H.O.T. conference on June 27. To book, see


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