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Keep the faith


Have we lost our faith in our learners? Ken Ingram discusses how technology has given learners a new lease of life.

Ever since we crawled out the water on to dry land we have survived and thrived through our ability to learn. It strikes me that much of this is pretty innate within us. We remember things that seem important and interesting and forget the rest. We learned that the best way of understanding the world was to experiment. And although this process was not always quick or comfortable, the constant trial and error brought a real depth of understanding. We also tended to concentrate on learning things that we needed immediately rather than trying to guess what we might need in the future.

There were, of course, wise people who we could consult with but this would not necessarily be through any kind of formal process but rather by chatting over a meal or walk in the woods.

The evolution of learning

Over the years however we have created more and more rules the learning. From a very early age, and throughout our careers, we are told what we need to know, how we should learn it and how long it should take. And although this standardisation means that there is a better chance that we all have the same opportunities, it seems to me that it can also prevent us learning naturally. In all forms of learning, whether classroom based or online, I see an increased insistence on a single learning path - standard curricular, standard testing and assessment, even a standard number of hours that have to be taught.

Online learning gives us the opportunity to give far more freedom to a learner. Even if the learning is laid out in a fairly linear way with a definite start and finish, it is easy for the learner to pick and choose those bits of the learning that they feel will be most helpful and will give them something new. I think that this is often an advantage of elearning that can be missed.

If you attend a face-to-face course there are likely be some bits covered that are really relevant and timely, there will be others that are interesting but can not be applied now and there will be some parts of the course that probably not that relevant at all.  Now, of course, which bits are which will depend on the individual and what one person may see as vital learning will be dismissed by another. With elearning, none of this is an issue as learners can easily choose what they learn and when they learn it. 

The ' just in time' factor is also interesting. We all know that unless an individual applies learning quickly much of the benefit to them will have been lost. I remember joining one organisation where in my first week I was asked to go on a word processing course. It will give you an idea how long ago this was if I mention that the course was on 'word perfect!' More pertinently, it was also so long ago that on the floor on where I was based there was only one PC which had to be booked in advance.  Although I remember that the course itself was great, the circumstances meant that I hade very little opportunity to apply my skills and by the time I had my own computer pretty much, if not all, of the learning had been lost. A real shame and a big waste of time and money. Again, the very nature of elearning means that is much more likely for people to learn at the most appropriate time for them.

Choosing your own elearning path

Increasingly, at the National School of Government we are trying to provide platforms that have a far less rigid structure which allow learners the greatest freedom to choose their own learning paths.

Of course, there are some difficulties with the more flexible approach. Many people find it hard to operate without any structure and therefore I think it is important to provide guidance, for those who want it, on how best to navigate through a piece of learning to best meet their needs.  But this should not be rigid and there needs to be no insistence that everybody takes same path. For example, for our 'government select package', which provides short, sharp learning interventions on all things management and leadership, all of the learning is mapped to government competencies. In other programmes such 'Understanding the Civil Service' which, as the name suggests provides and introduction to some of the core knowledge a civil servant needs, we give a quiz at the beginning (or whenever the learner wants) which allows users to ascertain their own levels of knowledge.

A flexible approach can create a difficult for sponsors of elearning programmes in terms of how they might audit and measure their success. Those in departments who have a responsibility for a piece of learning are often under pressure to provide figures on how many people have received a piece of learning in the same way that they would be able to count how many people had attended a face-to-face course. As I have already mentioned, a good elearner will pick and choose the bits or a programme that are right for them and not bother with those bits that are less relevant. If the learner has been asked to interact with the programme in a flexible way that is most effective for them, statistics on completion become a little meaningless. A far better way of measuring the effectiveness of any learning package is to measure performance rather than attendance.

In short, if we are going to make the most of the opportunities that elearning provides - we need to be prepared to have far more trust in our learners and their ability to know what is right for them.

Ken has been working in the field of learning and development for more than 20 years specialising in training delivery, facilitation and consultancy. He is currently head of eLearning for the National School of Government.

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