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Let’s Change the Way We Learn – Javid Jamal


Let's Change the Way We Learn - an article submitted by Javid Jamal
Head of e-learning,, India.

We have all heard of corporations moving rapidly into the new economy. However, have you wondered on what goes on with the people? Where are the employees in this mad race towards being the best? With business moving at breakneck speed, corporates face a tough challenge to keep employees in tune with the latest technologies and business processes, that changes month to month, or week to week.

Demand for management education has greatly enhanced during the last five years, and the training budgets have increased 40% annually worldwide. In the last couple of years, Corporate Universities have grown by 400% to 1600 and it is estimated the number of corporate universities will outnumber traditional universities that by year 2010. The corporates, on their part, have also undergone a change. To begin with, there is competition from the global players. The organisations are becoming leaner and leaner, making it essential for the executives to be multi-skilled. Further, the workforce is dispersed as organisations have spread far and wide. Training the executives has become an issue with the training function being seen as a profit centre. More than any time before, focus is being laid on measuring the Return on Knowledge (ROK).

The traditional learning is individual-centred. In most of the cases there is little or no linkage between the individual learning and organisational performance. Team learning is essential for organisational learning and most of the successful business leaders believe that creative, motivated and responsible team members who understand that criticality of change are the most valuable assets.

A survey by Royal Dutch/Shell of the Fortune 500 corporationsconducted way back in 1983 found that one third of those firms on the list in 1970 had disappeared. These findings are often quoted, and are significant even today. Shell's estimate is that the average lifetime of major corporations is less than forty years. For those organisations that have disappeared, the study shows their failure to react to the changes facing them during the decline.

It's not just the corporate outlook towards learning that has changed, the needs of the learner have witnessed a tremendous change too. Learning is now seen as a continuous process. The learner wants to learn at his/her own pace, and at his/her own place. The cost of travel and the time lost in the process is receiving critical attention. Moreover they are exploring if their training needs are met at one place. Likewise, the remarkable change in the learner is the desire for skill enhancement by self-learning. This has led to more and more individuals on the lookout for avenues for developing themselves. The learners have also noticed certain problems that are associated with traditional learning systems. It costs time and money to attend a three-day program being offered in a distant city.

These trends have led business leaders and trainers to continuously seek effective, alternative training and development methods as they come to grips with the evident shortcomings of traditional training programmes. Traditional approaches generally do not promote organisational learning and leadership capability, considered by many experts to be a necessity to survive in a rapidly-changing business environment.

Traditional training methods often fail when it comes to participants transferring their new knowledge and behaviour to the workplace. The problem-solving methods that appeal to participants in training programmes however yield little or no results when practised at the workplace. Consequently, motivation and enthusiasm fades and employees grow more cynical of training program effectiveness. There could be some other problems, as seen by the participants. They may focus on developing the individual without necessarily a clear connection to developing the organisation. More often than not, learning may be viewed as an additional job. Many of the trainers diagnose the problems for the trainee rather than allowing him/her to develop skills to question assumptions and discover alternative problem solving methods.

An effective programme for management learning must ensure that the managers understand how other departments conceptualise their contribution to the organisation. It should create trust amongst the management team by involving them together on real issues. Finally, it should have an effective follow-through action that will reinforce what has been learned and make the whole programme worthwhile personally and organisationally.

Recent studies have revealed that the accepted "truths" about learning and technology, as we have known them until now, may not be all that true. First, there is strong evidence that traditional models of learning, traditional definitions of learning effectiveness don't always work. In place of these age old assumptions, trainers and facilitators are experimenting with new ways to look at learning that promote engaged and meaningful learning and also evoke collaboration by involving real-life tasks. Technology is seen as a tool for enhancing learning, communication, and collaboration.

As far as we are aware, the standard educational setting involved the instructor (or guru, teacher, leader, presenter, or speaker) in front of a group of students. This is the learning model most commonly found in history and at present, whether it is school, college, or corporates. Basically, 90% of all education has been "information transfer," the process of transfering information and/or knowledge from the teacher to the learners. This format also meant that teachers had to do the talking most of the time. Furthermore, this mode of delivery has been seen as effective, efficient, and desirable way to learn. But today's educators will agree that the traditional lecture is not the only way to learn, and people learn in many different ways, at different times, and from a variety of sources.

What does all this mean? There is a strong demand for new ways of learning. The workplaces and communities of today and that of tomorrow have tougher requirements than ever before. They need incumbents who can think critically and strategically to solve problems. These individuals must learn quickly in a rapidly changing environment, and build knowledge taken from numerous sources and different perspectives. They must understand systems in diverse contexts, and be able to relate glocally - understand the practises globally and apply locally. The need of the hour now, very truly summed up by Masie Centre, is "to bring learning to people instead of bringing people to learn."

One way, quite effective in the west, of bringing learning to people is to use the power of Internet. In the last few years we have witnessed the penetration of the Internet in all walks of life. Matrix Information and Directory Services have been quoted to estimate 707 million Internet users worldwide by the year 2002. This is a seven-fold increase compared to 102 million in 1998. In India, it is estimated that there will be 6 million users by the end of year 2000. We already see the change the Internet has brought about in our lives.

But perhaps the most devastating and revolutionary impact the world is beginning to witness is how the Internet will change the way we learn. Because, as we enter the information age, coupled with the era of lifelong learning, we come face to face with the era of e-learning or online learning, as it is popularly known. Although it is also known as 'distance learning', you will be glad to know that distance has nothing to do with learning in this form.

Let us spend some time finding out more about e-learning and how will it impact the way we learn. All of us are aware that the economic forces prevailing now are forcing businesses and workers to learn more, more quickly, and at a lower cost, in order to remain competitive. It is these market forces that create the need and desirability for e-learning in the new economy.

Cognitive learning includes facts, data, knowledge, and mental skills - the things you can test. Studies show that information transfer and cognitive learning can be achieved faster, cheaper and better through e-learning. There are several ways in which e-learning can be better than classroom learning. Let's see how.

A learner can learn best during his/her peak learning time. Once a person is able to identify the peak learning time fairly accurately, he/she should attempt to do most of the serious learning at the period. For instance, my peak learning time is from 10 AM to 12PM. My colleague's peak learning time is between 6 PM and 10 PM. He recently signed up for an online course and logs on mostly in during this period. With traditional in-person classes, only some learners will be involved during their peak learning time. The rest will not fully benefit, and that would definitely be the case with my colleague.

On an online course, a learner can learn at his/her own speed, which is not the case with a traditional class, where the learner has just one or couple of chances to hear a concept, technique or a piece of knowledge. However, with e-learning, a learner can replay a portion of audio, re-read a text portion, review a video, and re-test himself or herself as many times as he/she desires. A learner can focus on specific content areas which he/she feels are addressing his/her needs, while, in traditional classes, all the content areas are covered and given the relative amount of emphasis and time that the teacher deems appropriate.

As is typical of any group, there will be some learners who are familiar with a few topics and would like to skip them. This is possible with e-learning. We as learners can focus more time, attention and energy on those sections where we need more help and learning. It is also possible for the learner to test himself/herself regularly, as he/she can take quizzes and tests easily, instantly receiving the results and finding out how well he or she is doing. Contrary to common opinion today, online learning is more personal and more interactive than traditional classroom courses. In an online course, the instructor only has to create the course containing lectures, pictures, graphics, text, and video, once. Once the course units or modules have been developed, the instructor is free to interact with participants during the course.

Finally, technology is consistently proven to drive down costs. Recent reports indicate that corporate education costs are growing at a rate above the other sectors of the economy. With education costs in the traditional system soaring, technological innovations promise the delivery of e-learning more cheaply. For every 1000 hours of training that is converted from instructor led to online learning, IBM has a saving of $350,000. IBM has converted 30% of their training to online training for cost savings of $150 million. Analysts say IBM's move is a indication of substantial growth to come. Of the $62.5 billion U.S. companies spent on training and educating their workforce last year, more than $3 billion was spent on technology-delivered training. This is expected to hit $11.5 billion in 2003.

In a very general and broad sense, today's world is about convenience and flexibility. Faster, better, smarter is the order of the day. And now, along with personal attention, quality, and cost-effectiveness, we want someone else to go around the market, get the goods and deliver it to us at a certain time. e-learning delivers this same convenience, and is expected to become the norm over the next few years. e-learning is offering the best of the old and the new:

  • Any day, anytime availability with more options to pick and choose when you learn
  • Learn from any place where you have an Internet-connected machine - no need to travel across the country or even to a campus
  • Self paced progression, as e-learning allows you the option to skip sections entirely or take more time on a particular section
  • Interaction with the instructor and the participants, as e-learning incorporates rich graphics, simulations, online tutor support through chat functions, video and audio
  • Cost and time savings, and savings on travel expenses

The heart and soul of an online course, as in most traditional learning sessions, will not be the lecture, or the multimedia it offers. Rather, it will be the interaction between the participants and the instructor, and more so the interaction among the participants themselves. This regular interaction among participants, as we are already experiencing, will form "virtual communities."

In an online course, the discussions can be more and lively. In an online course, everyone can ask questions, as many questions one wants or needs. No one may necessarily feel nervous or intimidated by others, as may be the case in a face-to-face discussion. Moreover, the discussions tend to be lively online, even if only a small section of participants take part. Consider a situation where a group of thirty people are present in an online discussion and six to eight people actively participate. Others do so vicariously. It is quite likely that almost everyone in the group will agree it was a lively session. Now, if you go into a real life face-to-face discussion with the similar situation, again with a few participants making comments, those not participating are likely to conclude that the discussion is boring and stale. That makes online learning a platform where members can participate in discussions easily, absorbing more information in a much shorter time and engaging in a greater number of interactions, not fewer.

There are several forces that will favour the emergence and acceptance of e-learning in a big way, and turn it into a successful and effective way of learning very quickly. Business will be the biggest driving force. Corporates have realised that in order to remain competitive and profitable, they will need employees who are learning constantly. The only cost-effective way for this to happen is with e-learning. When corporates take up e-learning in a big way, will the educational institutions be far behind? As the corporates require more and more people who can learn online, they will want to recruit graduates who are familiar with e-learning. Thus, the educational institutions will adopt e-learning. Competition will be another major factor driving e-learning - one corporate offering e-learning courses at a low cost and reaping rich benefits will force others to do the same.

Can e-learning, a promising technology, change the way people learn - and help corporates better leverage their human resources? Yes, it can! Analysts and users say that as technology improves, e-learning can reduce time and money from the cost of educating employees and help them learn new skills at a faster rate. A recent study shows that companies using online training can save an average of 50% in time and 40% to 60% in cost compared to conventional classroom learning.

Despite the growing popularity for e-learning, several factors could hinder its rapid growth. For one, particularly in the third world countries, online classes can be hampered by the poor state of bandwidth. E-learning, which frequently includes video and audio, may work fine on a faster connection. But what about remote users who have dial-up connections with standard telephone lines? That's too slow to support video or audio, and any given course has to be usable by all participants in order to be effective.

Although e-learning's return on investment is harder to calculate accurately, it is not impossible. The travel savings alone make e-learning worth considering. Besides, most of the learning management systems available today make it possible to track the progress made by the participants, enabling the managers to evaluate the effectiveness before and after training.

E-learning is rapidly becoming recognised as an effective learning delivery system. There will be more and more corporate executives who will be experiencing this format and deriving benefits from it. E-learning has grown exponentially in the US business sector, according to Elliot Masie, one of the foremost experts on corporate eLearning. Surveys by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) forecast e-learning as replacing much of on-site training in the near future. More people will be able to learn more, for much less cost, and with a tremendous variety in choice of topics and subjects. It is something that economies of the past could only dream about. Watch out for the revolution that is about to sweep education in our country and elsewhere in the world too.

Take some time off to see what this concept is all about, learn more about e-learning, compare and contrast its qualities with that of your current training options. Ultimately it is for you and your employees to decide and learn from whatever method appeals most. But remember that this is just beginning of e-learning. Corporates are already building courses for imparting training on internal procedures, products, and other technical topics. Above all to embrace the change and stay ahead.


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