We are at the start of a revolution in how adults access and use learning opportunities in the workplace. In this article, the second of two blog posts on digital learning in the workplace, EPALE thematic coordinator Andrew McCoshan looks at the challenges it presents for practitioners in the sector.
The opportunities presented by new technologies in workplace learning grow almost by the day. In another blog post, I’ve looked at some examples of how this is happening. At the same time, digital learning is throwing up an array of questions that are confronting practitioners.
/en/file/digital-learning-workplaceDigital learning in the workplace
1 How can we get the most pedagogical benefit from digital technologies?
Digital learning technologies have enormous potential to support changes in pedagogies in the workplace. However, as the OCED has noted:
‘[…] the mere presence of technology is not by itself sufficient to innovate […] Nor should innovation be assumed to be synonymous with going digital, as this may only be reproducing traditional methods and pedagogies with a different format.’
Online learning resources can enable teachers and trainers to access more resources whilst not necessarily having much impact on learning processes. But the same resources can be used to shift pedagogies in new directions, e.g. more blended learning and ‘flipped classrooms’. How can we make sure we grasp such opportunities? Which opportunities do we want or need to grasp and why?
The answers to such questions are not easy. But with teachers and trainers in the ‘front line’ of any pedagogical changes, it’s clear we need to make sure they have the requisite knowledge, skills and competences through appropriate training. We also need to help providers to have the strategies to accommodate technological change and ensure opportunities are maximised in a coherent and planned way. But how should such developments play out in practice?
2 How do we know when online resources are good quality?
The rapid growth of digital learning raises important questions about quality: there are so many online resources available, how do we know what’s ‘good’ and what is not? It’s an issue teachers and trainers often raise. Even though they will use their professional judgement – as they would to select a textbook – they frequently seem to lose confidence in the face of so much overwhelming choice. Interestingly, as we saw in the accompanying blog post, the vast majority of companies mix off-the-shelf content with their own customized content, which is one way of addressing issues of quality and relevance. But online learning also massively expands opportunities for self-directed learning. In a such an environment, how can learners make sure they access relevant and high quality provision?
Here, it might help to develop the reputational side of things on the internet. Stay in a hotel and you get invited to post a review online. Buy something from an online provider and you’re asked to rate it. Perhaps such ‘market mechanisms’ also need to develop for online learning - a ‘LearningAdviser’ equivalent of ‘TripAdvisor’ perhaps? But maybe other mechanisms would be better?
3 Who should be validating online learning and against what standards?
Online learning also opens up the issue of who validates learning and against what standards. Online learning is shifting the boundaries between formal and non-formal vocational education and training. Alternative modes of validation are emerging, such as ‘digital badges’. But where do these leave the learner in relation to qualifications that are recognised and validated by the state and social partners?
The response to such a challenge might be different in different countries. Where validation systems are long established and deeply embedded socially and economically, accepting new validation methods may be difficult. In contrast, countries that are individualising their learning pathways and embedding opportunities to validate prior learning, as in Finland, may be well suited to cope with these new challenges.
4 Private provision is growing – do public providers need to respond?
Many digital products and online resources are created on a commercial basis by specialist firms. Whilst it is difficult to estimate the size of the private sector, its presence is increasing. Adult learning in the workplace has always been supported by the private training sector, with employers purchasing programmes or small one-off training activities to meet their skill needs. We probably have quite a ‘mixed economy’ now emerging with, on the one hand, an ever-increasing amount of free, open access learning resources, and, on the other hand, expensive products, like learning tools based on virtual and augmented reality, that require substantial upfront investment and therefore are available only for purchase from private providers.
However this may play out in coming years, the ability to access training so easily online is a growing challenge to traditional boundaries in vocational education and training and to the position of formal, public sector providers. Adaptation to these new conditions will be important to vocational education and training providers, especially in the adult workplace learning market, and it would be interesting to hear of examples from Europe where this is being done – maybe you have some examples you can share in the comments section below.
5 How can we make sure new learning tools are developed in small as well as big markets?
In all markets there is market failure – and the market for workplace learning is no exception. Some business sectors are too small to make the development of online learning and digital tools commercially viable. The same goes for languages spoken by comparatively small numbers of people. International commercial providers will work in dominant languages to maximize sales. Is some form of public intervention needed to ensure all sectors and countries benefit? Open access to resources and the ability of teachers and trainers to tailor learning resources to their needs may be some of the tools that could help all sectors and linguistic groups to benefit from new learning technologies.
6 Might digital learning lead to more inequality in learning?
We have to face the possibility that digital learning may have the unintended consequence of widening the gap between people who learn as adults and those who don’t. There is an unfortunate logic here …
Question: If online learning opens up more and easier opportunities for people to learn (not least through self-directed learning), who is likely to benefit most?
Answer: Those who are already most likely to learn, i.e. those who are already socially and economically advantaged.
This is a worrying thought when Europe already has many social divisions. We already know there is a ‘digital divide’: although it has been reduced in Europe, it persists. Lack of access to digital technology is most prominent amongst those with fewest educational qualifications. Overlay upon this poor access to digital learning opportunities, and this emerges as a challenge policy-makers need to grasp urgently.
There must be other challenges too
These are just six of the challenges in digital learning in the workplace that I’ve
identified. I’m sure there are more. Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training in Europe for over 30 years as an academic researcher and consultant. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.