Learner-centric Training: Beyond the Buzz

Knowledge workers deal with larger amounts of information every year, and avenues of knowledge dissemination increase at a similar rate. The knowledge manager needs to ask more and more often: Is my training programme working? And, further: Are my training costs justified? Do I need to adopt a new training paradigm? I can’t retain all my employees, but can I retain their working knowledge?
In particular, managers are becoming more aware that trained employees “take their knowledge with them” when they leave the organisation.[1] They are also becoming more aware of the value of learner-centric training; of the elegance and cost advantage that comes when the learner is involved in the execution of a training programme.[2]The phrase “learner-centric” can become yet another paradigm, but when understood for what it is, involving the learner at every step of the process becomes the intuitive way to maximise the potential of any learning programme.
Structured Learning: Why and Where
The term “traditional approach,” among many other, similar terms, refers to one where the learning experience is linear and rule-based. When we are talking about a structured learning programme, we are talking about the traditional approach—which is suitable when established subject matter is the focus, and where the topics are well-understood and well-structured.[3] In some areas, such as training related to policies and procedures, the needs of the training manager are probably best fulfilled by a structured learning programme.
At one time, the venue of structured learning was the classroom. What was “classroom training” became “structured learning,” which is reflected in the large-scale implementation of most e-learning programmes.In 1994, the Telematics for Education and Training Conference[4] described the shift from classroom to computer-based training as driven “by organisations seeking trained personnel and by learners looking for more open, accessible and relevant educational experiences.” The implications included[4]

  • teaching materials becoming outmoded more rapidly
  • organisations continuously needing to review their knowledge bases
  • accessibility of training materials becoming more important
  • organisations looking for ways to deliver training at low cost
  • classroom training being resistant to productivity gains in this scenario

Computer-based training arrived in India in the late 1990s; the incentives to roll out training on large scales were high.[5]Between the late 1990s and now, knowledge workers—as well as knowledge managers—have evolved. New learning paradigms have emerged, diverse delivery methods have become the norm, and there are almost too many answers to the question “What kind of training?”
“Rethinking”
Towards an answer that makes intuitive sense, managers might ask two questions:

  1. “From traditional wisdom, I know that the instructor is central to the learning process. Lessons over the past decade now tell me to also keep the learner at the centre of the process. As a paradigm, this is called ‘blended learning.’ Is this what I need?”
  2. “I keep hearing about ‘rethinking learning paradigms.’ I even hear about ‘informal learning’ and ‘emergent learning’ as paradigms in themselves. Are all these similar? Are they different?”

There is confusion around such questions, but in attempting to answer them, we can draw upon the experiences of many individuals and organisations worldwide.
Back To The Basics
Some recent academic papers give us the idea that the seemingly different paradigms we hear about are not really that different. A good example is The Learner Centric Ecology of Resources. The keywords there are “collaborative learning; improving classroom teaching; interactive learning environments; pedagogical issues; teaching/learning strategies.”[6] The paper is a scholarly attempt at linking the fundamental elements of the learning experience, followed by two real-world examples where the proposal was implemented.
The proposed framework is interesting because it uses the simplest of words. A paraphrased excerpt:[6]The learner is the starting point for our Ecology. In an educational situation there will also be some “stuff”—that is, skills or knowledge that our learner needs to learn about, and some Resources that might help this learner learn it. The Resources might be books, pen and paper, technology, and other people. The “stuff” is usually filtered through some kind of Curriculum. What we call Administration helps learners access the Resources. There is a two-way relationship between the “stuff” and the Resources; there is also a two-way link between the Curriculum and the Administration.
When the knowledge manager looks at learning in this way (after having placed the learner at the centre) he sees that: The instructor/trainer is important, but that person cannot always “decide” the learning. Technology is a valid delivery method, and so are books, verbal training sessions, and other employees. One very important role of the instructor/trainer is to actively facilitate access to resources.This is what “blended learning” means when we use the phrase in the true sense.
Blended Learning: Idea to Implementation
Implementations of blended learning vary, and the interpretations of the term vary as well. As instructor-facilitated e-learning, the idea of blended learning is relevant for the manager because:1. People have world knowledge; systems act as containers and distributors of organisational knowledge. There is always some mismatch.
2. The aim of the knowledge manager is to minimise this gap.
3. However, with top-down approaches to learning—including CBT—the gap widens as the organisation grows.
In practical terms, blended learning gives[7][8] a greater role to interaction, collaboration, and virtualized systems—systems that are learner-centric. Learning processes and learner control (that is, control by the learner) are seen as more important than teaching techniques.[9]The progression from a CBT course implementation to a blended learning system should correctly balance the factors involved. Some success factors backed by studies include:[10] 

  • Designing the “blend” considering the learners’ environment
  • Selecting methods and formats based on learners’ education and motivation levels
  • Student support, where tutors / SMEs respond in a timely fashion
  • Designing the “blend” considering individual learning styles

It is obvious, and also significant, that each of these factors places the learner at the centre.
A Learner-Centric Scenario
Let us take the case of a retail firm with a skills training programme, which has a fresh recruit. A traditional Training Needs Analysis would recommend that the manager clarify the goal, then identify the target group and the skill set required, then determine the current skill level and the skill level required, and then determine the skill gap. After these, he would develop the training plan for the fresh recruit, which would detail dates, training strategy and the resources required.What can “learner-centric” mean in this case?
1. The learner can participate in the needs analysis.
The manager and the trainee can work together at understanding focus areas, perhaps through a pre-training assessment. This first step of their interaction would be followed by setting training goals together. The interaction would aid the manager towards a more realistic picture of training needs, and it would aid the trainee towards a better initial picture of organisational needs.
2. Other team members can become part of the learner’s training.
During the needs analysis, the manager might realise that one of the identified training needs is applicable to other trainees, or perhaps even to experienced team members. Conversely, the trainee can be helped by other team members, including the more experienced. That is, the manager need not be the sole point of contact for the fresh recruit.
3. Each learner can contribute to an organisational knowledge repository.
Let us suppose that there is a company intranet, which makes product knowledge available to all team members. If a wiki (a set of web pages that can be edited by anyone, without authentication of credentials) were implemented to augment the intranet, trainees/employees can add their working knowledge to the repository. Further, if the wiki were supervised by the training manager, it could become a reliable source of product knowledge for all team members.
4. The learner can share not only knowledge but also training experiences.
After the formal training is complete, the fresh recruit might complete a questionnaire that asks: “How useful were the training sessions? What can be changed to make future sessions more useful? Were the sessions too long / too short / just right?” This process can have practical utility for the training manager, and also bring about a sense of participation in the case of each recruit.
Why Change?
Let’s recapitulate what a knowledge manager stands to gain in transitioning to a blended (or holistic) learning environment.You can use more of what you already have. With a holistic learning environment in place, you will be using the aids that classroom instructors have always attempted to—informal group sessions, computer programs that assist in knowledge sharing, and so on.
You will probably end up spending less. Determinations of ROI in this context are complex, but they have been attempted—and it might be useful to look at the examples. One is the Thomson Job Impact Study[11], an experiment that tried to determine if blended learning increased overall learning. More than a hundred people from top-level US corporate and academic organisations participated. The blended learning group out-performed the “traditional” group; the conclusion was that the performance improvement had been 30%.[11]Your employees can pace and plan their time better. Of course, this also implies a larger role for the instructor/facilitator in terms of balancing the flexibility of the training schedule of the “learner” and the productivity parameters of the “employee”.More communication is good for organisational feedback. Whether it is about employee/learner, employer/manager, or their associates, the idea of a holistic learning environment contains the ideas of more communication and feedback at all levels.
In transitioning to a holistic learning environment, the manager needs to be careful in ensuring that the interests of all stakeholders are served. Organisational change is a topic in itself, but we can say this here: “learner-centric” should remain that way, and not become “for the learner only.”
With that in mind, we can indicate some first steps.Focus on individual departments, but look at people beyond departments. (“What do the people in that department do to accomplish what I’m trying here?”)Keep abreast with technology. We are used to Next Big Things not becoming so, but useful tools keep coming up now and then. It is up to the knowledge manager to evaluate and implement these.Do not make a tool—or technology—an end in itself. (Out of habit, we might end up thinking of a tool as always necessary. Flexibility in methods sometimes pays off.)Implement new incentives for encouraging training initiatives. (“This team member can probably train the new employee, but how can I make it worth his while?”)Initially, emphasise feedback. (“I’m making this system more flexible, so I need to keep looking at how everyone is doing.”)Realise that holistic learning has a lot to do with culture. In placing learners at the centre, one must see that their beliefs and attitudes will last throughout the process.
Further Reading / References
1. Field, A. 2003. Locking Up What Your Employees Know. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3465.html.
2. Connolly, C. 2004. Developing learner-centric content. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.managersforum.com.
3. Percepsys.com. 2005. Simstudio: Second Generation 3D Simulation. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.percepsys.com.
4. Telematics for Education and Training. 1994. Proceedings of the Telematics for Education and Training Conference, November 24-26, 1994. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.eric.ed.gov.
5. Rajpal, S. 2008. Status of educational programs in India. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.iaeng.org.
6. Luckin, R. 2008. The Learner Centric Ecology of Resources: A Framework for using Technology to Scaffold Learning. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://learnergeneratedcontexts.pbworks.com.
7. Barker, T. 2008. E-Learning 2.0 and Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory. Retrieved 25/06/10 from www.edgehill.ac.uk.
8. Owen M et al. 2006. Social Software and Learning. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.futurelab.org.uk.
9. Alexander, B. 2006. Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning. (EDUCAUSE Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, March/April 2006, pp. 32-44)
10. Moebs, S A. 2007. A good mix in blended learning for small and medium-sized enterprises in particular from the IT and tourism industry. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.specialtrees.net.
11. Thomson Job Impact Study: The next generation of corporate learning. 2002. Retrieved 25/06/10 from http://www.delmarlearning.com/resources/job_impact_study_whitepaper.pdf.
 
 
Have a take on "the learner within the learning"? Have informal techniques worked for you in the past? Comment below, or mail the author at ram@focalworks.in.