eLearning in the real world

23rd Apr 2015

In the ongoing debate about the value of formal learning, one of the most common criticisms is that formal learning (or training) activities are usually separate to the learner’s work. This is a fair criticism. Whether it’s a classroom workshop, a piece of elearning or even a forum discussion the learning activity most often happens outside the flow of work.

Moving learning closer to the work

These days there are very few people who would argue against the huge benefits of informal learning - that activity which naturally happens close to the work itself, usually directly in the flow of work. That closeness to the work is one of the things that makes informal learning so important and so effective.

There will always be some things that require a more formal approach. Typically this includes compliance subjects such as health and safety, fire training or financial services regulations. It may also include standards, processes or ways of doing things that an organisation has chosen to adopt such as a specific project management methodology or a preferred approach to customer service.

However, just because these require a more formal approach doesn’t mean that they all have to be fully removed from the flow of work.

Digital learning tools shouldn’t just make it easier to deliver formal content in the way we always have - they should help us move the learning closer to the work.

Adding formal learning on the job

The most important recent shift in digital tools has to be the widespread availability of smart devices - primarily smartphones and tablets.

They’ve not only changed how and where we interact with digital media - they’ve forced changes in that media itself as it adapts to these new formats. So far, in the world of L&D this primarily means taking content designed for desktop delivery and redeveloping it as ‘responsive’ to make it work on a smaller screen.

What if we used these smart devices to deliver formal learning that actually integrates with the learner’s work? Depending on the nature of the learning activity and the type of work this may be something that can actually take place in the flow of work, or if not at least get a lot closer than the current approach.

Here are some examples of how it could work. In each case I’ve assumed that the learner will complete some real practical work activity, guided by material delivered through a tablet or smartphone. At certain stages they will be expected to record evidence - they might take photos, shoot video, record audio or make notes. This may include observing other people working or asking them questions.

Health and safety - The learner would be guided as they go round the workplace completing a safety check. This would be a ‘real’ safety check, not a staged activity. This has the added benefit of helping to ensure that safety standards are regularly checked and maintained.

Customer order picking - In this case they would be guided through picking one or more customer orders. As well as recording what they have done the learner may be encouraged to identify opportunities for improving the efficiency of the process.

A new project management methodology - Unlike the previous examples this is likely to take place over a longer period, probably the duration of the project. The learner would record evidence as they are guided through new processes and documentation. As with the safety check, this would be a real project completed under real circumstances, with the learner able to access relevant content as and when they need it.

In most cases this approach would form part of a blend. There may be some other activity before or after this, and where necessary there may be some form of assessment (which can be done at the place/point where you will do your job).

If we think about the last example - project management training often involves attending workshops lasting several days, often some time before you actually get a chance to practice the skills. With this approach there may still be a face to face element up front, perhaps a half day or full day introduction to the process, where there is an opportunity to ask questions. However, the bulk of the content is delivered at the point of need - it is most helpful to be shown how to complete a particular document when you are doing it, not six months before.

What learning activities in your organisation would benefit from an approach like this? 

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About the author
Barry Samson

Barry Sampson is a consultant focusing on the use of technology to improve workplace performance. In 2009 he co-founded Onlignment, a consultancy specialising in organisational communication and learning. Previously he worked in a range of delivery and management roles in HR and Learning & Development before becoming Learning Technology Manager at B&Q where he led a number of award-winning elearning and blended learning programmes.

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