by Geoff Allan

What are the options?

How do you decide which is the best option for you? In this section, we will look at two main areas: the type of learning provision available, and the suitability of different topics for one type of provision or another.

We can start by considering what we might call the long-term qualifications, such as diplomas and degrees, which are provided by colleges or universities. Our only decision here is whether to opt for a part-time course that will involve attendance or a distance learning course, such as those offered by the Open University. In both cases, the course administrators will decide whether and how e-learning will be used, and our only consideration is to find out what additional support might be required (See What support might be needed?).

Short courses

Shorter courses essentially fall into three groups – external courses, internal courses and e-learning (which might be provided in-house or externally, via the internet).

External training courses

Inevitably, these will be relatively general, since they must be applicable to any person attending. In the case of many subjects, this will not matter too much. If only one or two of your staff need a particular course, this may be the right choice.

With popular subjects, such as health and safety or presentation skills, you will probably have a wide selection of dates to choose from. With less popular subjects, the drawback is that you may have to wait for a considerable time to satisfy the learning need.

Internal training courses

These can be quite specific to the organisation’s needs and can usually be run for quite small numbers, if necessary. If the organisation has no training staff, external trainers can be contracted, but if relatively small numbers are involved this then puts a question over the cost-effectiveness of the exercise. Timing can be more responsive to learning needs, however, provided that trainers are available when needed.

E-learning courses

These may take place in-house, on the intranet, on CD-ROM or DVD, or they may be available on the internet. The course you need may be available immediately, but in some instances it may have to be developed or purchased, in which case the delay may be considerable. It may be general or organisation specific. Without going into detail here about its advantages, remember that e-learning is very flexible in its use. (See Advantages and disadvantages of e-learning)

Hard versus soft skills

Another important aspect of choosing whether or not to use e-learning is the type of subject involved. Some subjects are more easily dealt with in e-learning than others. Generally, those skills that we label ‘hard’ skills are easier to provide than the ‘soft’ skills, but both skill types can be acquired through e-learning.

Hard skills

Hard skills are those where there are very clear right or wrong answers. For example, learning to use a spreadsheet is a hard skill, not because of its level of difficulty, we hasten to add, but because learning can be demonstrated by constructing a spreadsheet, which either produces the right results or doesn’t. There is no debate over whether it’s right or wrong.

Hard skills can be taught in a class, or we can often teach ourselves using a manual or help menu. In the case of many hard skill topics, particularly in the IT fields, a wide selection of e-learning tools is available.

Soft skills

Soft skills, on the other hand, are much more difficult to assess as right or wrong. They are mostly the interpersonal skills and the creative skills. In these, we may get the process right, but the outcome is a matter of opinion, or certainly less amenable to judgements of right or wrong.

Let’s take presentation skills. Two people may both learn and do all the right things, such as planning, organising content in a logical order, speaking with a clear voice, looking at the audience and so on, but one produces an excellent presentation and the other is mediocre. Skills such as assertiveness and other interpersonal skills need to be developed, rather than simply learnt, and measures of success are regarded as ‘soft’ rather than black or white, as in the case of the ‘hard’ skills. Perhaps this is why most people find that hard skills are generally easier to acquire than the soft skills.

Soft skills are usually taught in a workshop environment, where people can role-play and try out, in a ‘safe’ environment, different ways of behaving and acting. They can practise negotiation skills, or being more assertive, or giving presentations. Obviously, this offers them the chance to practise interpersonal skills with other people in a real-life situation. But for many the learning is inhibited by the potential embarrassment of making a ‘fool of themselves’ in front of colleagues, even in a safe environment.

Learning our social or interpersonal skills involves imitating what we see others do. We copy our parents or friends. In a workshop, we watch a demonstration of a negotiation and then try to copy the critical elements. And we need practice to become proficient. Inevitably, time constraints limit the amount of practice time in a safe workshop. However, e-learning simulations allow people to practise in private and for as long as it takes them to become more confident. Yes, eventually they will have to work with real people, but by then they may have overcome any fears around not knowing what to do.