E-learningby Geoff Allan
What support might be needed?
To get the best out of e-learning, you should not think of it in isolation. You should always consider what forms of support might be needed. Just as a workshop can be a waste of time if the knowledge is not reinforced and put into practice, or if the organisation environment clashes with the training, so, too, e-learning needs to be supported.
An e-learning champion
If e-learning is not already used in your organisation, the first level of support might well be championing e-learning itself, so that it becomes a totally accepted way of learning. This will make support for individual learners much easier to provide, especially the technical support.
Championing could involve making other managers aware of what e-learning can offer, organising demonstrations of e-learning materials and encouraging your own members of staff to use e-learning when appropriate. And you will, of course, set an example by using it yourself.
Supporting the individual
In considering what support might be needed for an individual e-learner, there are two separate issues. The first is specifically about e-learning and what support could be needed to ensure that the identified learning needs are actually met. This will include space in which to study, technical support in using e-learning and, where it is not included, some opportunity to discuss and reflect on what is being learnt.
The second is about adults as learners and what barriers to learning could exist that would be mitigated by support. These include possible feelings of insecurity about learning because of past experiences, lack of feedback about progress, motivation affected by work and home pressures, people feeling isolated if using e-learning on their own, and the problem of how to integrate what they are learning into their everyday work.
The learning environment
Every type of learning needs to take place in a supportive environment if optimum results are to be achieved, and e-learning is no exception: it is not a way of opting out of the need for support and hoping that cyber-space will miraculously create the ideal environment.
This includes both somewhere suitable to work and time set aside for study. Because it is usually computer-based, it is often assumed that e-learning will take place at the desk. This is OK, provided that some time can be set aside for study and that disruptions, such as phone calls, can be minimised. This can be the ultimate in flexible learning, but the learning time needs to be diarised and interrupted only in an emergency. A slightly less flexible approach, because it will need to be shared, is to have one or more dedicated e-learning computers available.
As e-learning modules tend to be quite brief (around 15-20 minutes), they can be fitted either into quiet periods of the day or periods immediately before or after work. In some organisations, it is assumed that e-learning will take place mostly in the employee’s own time, but this can have a demotivating effect unless carefully negotiated.
Even those familiar with computers may need some support in getting e-learning packages up and running. This could be provided as a help-line (perhaps part of your IT help-line, if you have one). Alternatively, you could either have a number of staff trained as e-learning mentors and make them available throughout the organisation or even just have one named person who could help, if needed. You will probably find that most support is a psychological prop that is rarely used, but effective just because it’s there.
Discussion and reflection
In companies, much e-learning is of the stand-alone variety, where people study on their own at times to suit themselves, but this tends to preclude the social aspects of learning. Encourage informal discussions, either in groups or with you, so that the learner has a chance to start putting what they have learnt into context. In larger companies, you may be able to organise a meeting of all people who have studied a particular topic to share what has been learnt and reflect upon it. And real learning often comes during reflection. ‘Knowing what I now know, what could I do differently?’ is a very powerful incentive to put learning into practice.
Overcoming learning blocks
The same blocks that can stand in the way of other forms of learning also apply to e-learning.
Insecurity around learning
This is likely to apply particularly to new staff members, when you offer them an e-learning induction program. It’s essential to give encouragement and support up front. Make sure that their first efforts are likely to be enjoyable as well as successful, so building confidence. This means matching the level of difficulty to their current ability.
Lack of feedback
Although all e-learning packages should have feedback built in, there is still usually a need for some personal feedback that is not computer-based. A once-a-year appraisal is not the answer – some feedback, given as soon as possible after completing a module, is the ideal. This is not always practical, but at the least it’s essential to give frequent feedback about performance.
Adults tend to be self-motivated, especially when they have decided what they need to learn. It’s a good starting point to make sure that people know why they are learning a particular topic and why it’s important. This is especially the case for topics that may not be of the individual’s choosing, such as health and safety or that required by relevant regulations.
Integration with work
It might be worth training one or more staff to have a learning mentor role to provide the support when sought.
The step from practising a new skill in a safe training environment to performing in the more critical work environment is often ignored, with disastrous consequences. Learners need to be encouraged to put their learning into practice and they require support while they gain the necessary competence.
You will have to consider just how much support the individual needs and how best to provide it. Few people will require all the aspects we have considered. Some may be confident learners, who have used e-learning before, while others may be beginners with no experience of you or your organisation. The support each person receives will make a significant difference to the results of your e-learning venture.