Thursday, May 01, 2008

Getting beyond courses

Yesterday, I attended the Learning & Skills Group conference. This group was born out of the Learning Technologies conference earlier in the year, and served as a follow up during which the community got to discuss issues of interest to us, under the guidance of some leaders in the field.

I attended four sessions and found common threads across them all, which I will probably address over the next few days.

Isn't it frustrating when someone prominent stands up on the platform and says stuff that you've been saying for years? Only, no-one listens when you say it. But when this person gets up and says it, everyone nods sagely and declares it wise and original.

I don't flatter myself that I am an original thinker, but for at least two years, I have been pushing for a concept which has gained little traction, and that is this:

We need to stop thinking that work related needs=training=courses.

One of my colleagues shared how her team has a tendency to claim not to have received any training if they haven't attended any courses. And we're talking learning professionals here, who should know better.

Charles Jennings, in his presentation, spoke of Reuters' 70:20:10 rule (which is a variation on Jay Cross's 80:20 rule. The idea is that 70% of work-related learning takes place as "learning on the job", 20% is learning through coaching, feedback, networks, etc. and only 10% is the result of formal learning. But of course, it is into this 10% that the bulk of our training budgets are poured.

This implies that it is the learning, or worse: the training, that is the goal. But work-based learning is supposed to be a means to an end. It is supposed to enable people to do their jobs better and more confidently.

Two years ago, I presented a proposed solution design to a client. The client was introducing new business processes and new IT systems to support them. The solution I proposed consisted largely of an interactive map of the business processes, which the user could use to drill down into the various phases of the process and the various tasks involved in each phase. It also included:

  • search facilities
  • contact details for identified experts on each of the phases/tasks
  • the option to drill down into a list of tasks associated with a certain job role
  • user generated top tips, discussion forums, FAQs, etc.
When I presented this to the client, the client-side learning professionals looked at me and asked, "How is this learning?" They were adamant that this constituted information, not learning, and insisted on the inclusion of a by-task learning path through the material for each role, topped and tailed into... a course.

My approach had been to talk to the users and identify what would best suit their requirements. I pictured a person working their way through the still unfamiliar process and thinking, "What do I have to do at this point, again?" "How does that go, again?" What I designed was a solution that would give them access to this information as quickly as possible so that they could get on with their jobs.

As it turned out, the project bombed, so the matter became moot anyway, but can you tell thay it still galls me just a tad?

During his session yesterday on the "Curse of the Course" (in between giving teachers an unwarranted hard time) Donald Clark reminded us that much of what is labelled as blended learning is in fact blended teaching, with the focus on the material or the teacher/trainer.

We're supposed to be in the business of enablement. Of empowerment. This is why I drive people nuts by banging on about the learner's perspective. We need to look beyond the learning to the person who's going to be using it and ask ourselves whether it will do the job, deliver the goods.

In fact, Charles Jennings made a strong argument to stop talking about them as "learners" and instead to refer to them simply as "people". By referring to them as learners, we major on their usage of our learning solutions, putting the solutions at the centre of the equation. By referring to them as people, it puts them back in the centre and the solution in its proper role of support resource.

So perhaps it's just semantics, but a paradigm shift is certainly called for, and if semantics will help...

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