Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 10 October 2007   Friday, October 19, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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Towards maturity in e-learning
Lessons from the e-skills UK research
by Howard Hills

In 2006 the Skills for Business Network commissioned e-skills UK to conduct some detailed research amongst commercial organisations into the 'ingredients' for successful e-learning. The study encompassed over 200 organisations and over 1,000 learners. It related the impacts of e-learning to a number of reported actions taken by e-learning management teams inside organisations. The prime aim of the study was to investigate and isolate what makes for a successful implementation of e-learning in relation to business impact, staff uptake and staff impact. Although the study was primarily aimed at the non-education sector (including commercial organisations, charities and local and central government departments) 20% of respondents were from the education sector, which allows comparisons between this sector and others to be made.

The research has identified a number of features of direct relevance to the use of e-learning within the education sector. The study defined business impact as: impact on business metrics, positive financial impact, cost savings, better focus on the business, quick implementation of learning and application of learning to the job. Employer respondents are divided into quartiles based on the business impact dimension. Figure 1 shows the percentage of respondents in each quartile who offer e-learning to top managers, technicians and skilled workers. These three grades showed the biggest difference in probability of use when compared to business impact leading to the supposition that organisations which train these grades through e-learning are more likely to achieve greater business impact. Organisations that use e-learning for these particular grades of staff are more likely to achieve greater staff and business impact.

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Figure 1: Business Impact varies according to usage by different groups of staff
(reproduced from the Towards Maturity report (Hills, 2007)).


The report also compares success across sectors. Companies in the non-educational sector are more likely to report that e-learning attracts more learners, more learners complete courses and a wider range of roles use e-learning. The research reports that the education sector is 10% less likely to achieve a satisfactory take-up of e-learning than companies in other sectors.  To a large extent, the use made by top management and directors influences this successful take-up. The study reports that "those organisations that can increase the use of e-learning by directors, technician grade staff and those in skilled roles are most likely to improve their perception of business impact" of e-learning (Hills, 2007: 23).

Grade of learner
Percentage of education sector offering e-learning
Percentage of other sectors offering e-learning
Technician Grade

43%

61%

Top Management

40%

50%

Skilled Workers

10%

36%


Table 1: Comparison of provision of e-learning to different grades
(reproduced from the Towards Maturity report, Hills (2007)).
 
 
There are some excellent progressive examples of Further Education Colleges providing e-learning to technician and skilled workers however. One such example is the Hair and Beauty School at Walsall College. This Midlands College has comprehensively embraced the use of e-learning with its students, both at home and in the workplace.  Students and lecturers praise the success and flexibility of tool such as City & Guilds' Learnxtra, SmartScreen and the Moodle virtual learning environment. E-learning is available in the College salon (which operates as a fully-fledged business). On a Thursday morning the salon is full of customers; customers who pay real prices for cutting and styling.  The students have direct access to e-learning to remind themselves of the theory and practice of their work.  Local businesses have also embraced e-learning, and have direct access to the College IT facilities.  VIP Hair Limited, for example, are very enthusiastic about the training provided to their workforce. VIP Hair Limited have students working toward the Diploma in Hairdressing Level 2 and 3. According to Vanessa Horrocks, Director of VIP Hair, Level 2 students now qualify in less than half the time they would have taken without e-learning: "It used to take a student two years to gain a Level 2 qualification; now they will be able to do it by June next year". This represents a halving in trainee costs for the business and significantly increases the speed at which VIP Hair Limited can expand.
 
Much of Walsall College’s success can be attributed to the Head of School of Hair and Beauty, Sue Reynolds, an enthusiastic advocate of e-learning.  She commented: "We use several arms of technology in Hair and Beauty; the students have access to it at home, in the salon, at work and anywhere in the college". Every student in the school has an email account with 24/7 availability to tutors, to the learning material and to each other. Sue has established close links with local employers, with an advisory board group and an apprenticeship group. This enables local employers to influence the direction that the College takes in related vocational areas. The College also has a strong IT and e-learning strategy and has established links with several on-line academies, notably Roland, Microsoft, Apple and Carillion.  This enables the College to offer employer specific professional qualifications, such as Microsoft Certified Engineer, alongside the more traditional academic qualifications.

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Figure 2: A student at Walsall College accesses e-learning in the College Salon

Jayne Holt, Director of E-learning at Walsall College, explained that "There is a different approach to e-learning in different areas of the college: for engineering and motor vehicle mechanics we have got simulation equipment whereby computers simulate electronics or hydraulics and similar systems. We apply e-learning to whatever the need is of the area and whatever is appropriate".

The role of technology in simplifying the assessment process has been particularly significant. According to Jayne: "We use technology throughout the learner journey, from initial assessment, right through to final assessment; this is far more efficient than the paper-based old-fashioned way. We use City and Guilds Global Online Assessment (GOLA) tool [1]for on-line assessments, both formative and summative".

GOLA has not just been a success in Walsall College. Geraldine Kenny-Wallace, Director of City & Guilds New Ventures, comments: "We know the use of GOLA truly transforms the learning and testing experience with the flexibility of on-demand exams and the reduction in administrative burden for lecturers and tutors. Employers are enthused to receive rapid confirmation of the candidates skills at times of skill shortages when a four to six month delay can make a huge difference to workforce development".

The benefit perceived by colleges is a saving in marking expenses and freeing up lecturers to spend more time (perhaps online) with students. The business benefit to local employers and students is the speed with which students can take re-sits: instead of waiting three months they can take a re-sit within a fortnight. This has been particularly beneficial to many Colleges. For example at Bedford College, Michelle Moffat, lecturer and course manager of Beauty Therapy, commented: "Some tutors were a bit sceptical at first but the managers are very encouraged about using GOLA and now hairdressing is going on-line next year".
 
The fact that Walsall College supports students 24/7 reinforces another message from the report, this time for the non-education sector to listen to. Organisations within the educational sector are twice as likely to support learners as those in other sectors. Although much of this support is via telephone and email the educational sector makes extensive use of various collaborative tools.  They are twice as likely to use chat rooms and two-thirds use virtual classrooms, compared to less than half who do so in other sectors. Figure 3 shows type of support to learners offered in the education and non-education sector and Figure 4 shows the learning technologies currently in use in the educational sector and others.

The educational sector places greater emphasis on using technology for collaborative learning than do organisations in other sectors.  E-learning in all its various forms is perceived as a means of linking the tutor and learner in more productive and timely interactions.  It may be that companies in the non-educational sector are more likely to perceive e-learning as a means of self-study.  
  
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Figure 3: Support Provided to Learners
(reproduced from the Towards Maturity report, Hills (2007)).
 


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Figure 4: Learning Technologies in use (reproduced from the Towards Maturity report, Hills (2007)).

However, even with this increased support companies in the educational sector achieve less business impact and less uptake, as shown in Figure 5.
 
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Figure 5: Difference in E-learning Impact (reproduced from the Towards Maturity report, Hills (2007)). 
 
Whilst this difference may be partly attributed to the use of e-learning by the key roles of top management, technicians and skilled workers, another difference to emerge is that the educational sector places much less emphasis on change management (only 22% apply this to e-learning compared to 45% for all sectors). They are much less likely to develop an e-learning brand (17% compared to 40%), less likely to provide easy to use information about the availability of e-learning (67% compared to 83%) and learners are less likely to know what is available through e-learning (33% compared to 51%). It is clear that the educational sector places less emphasis on the need to market and promote e-learning. It is possible that they rely more on the attitude and enthusiasms of individual lecturers; hence the significant success of the School of Hair and Beauty in Walsall College where Sue Reynolds provides all that enthusiasm and energy in promoting e-learning. She has brought the workplace into the College and e-learning into the workplace. "In the hairdressing salon by the side of each student we now have a touch screen computer, so we’ve actually introduced the use of technology into the practical environment which is quite rare really. There aren’t many hairdressing salons where you can see technology sitting right on the side of the practical, and everything that they have access to is now at their fingertips while they’re running a commercial operation, a real business".
 
Conclusion  
The Education sector will improve the success of e-learning by focusing effort towards top management, technician job roles and skilled worker job roles. Some educational organisations have demonstrated they can do this and better meet the business needs of their local clients. Other sectors can learn from the education sector to use more on-line support to learners and develop more collaborative learning and working tools. 
 
References
Hills, H. (2007) Towards Maturity: Facts and Figures E-skills UK [Online]. Available from www.e-skills.com/elearning [Accessed 10/10/07]


[1] GOLA City & Guilds Global Online Assessment capability launched in 2002 and has recently passed the milestone of two million completed tests. Candidates take multiple choice City & Guilds exams on screen under exam conditions, which are marked automatically giving them near instant results. They also take exams on-demand when they feel ready for assessment and retakes, when necessary, are available soon afterwards

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