Digital Environments for Training and Development

Introduction

The use of the internet to support teaching and learning has become a mainstay with the increasing use of online content, discussion boards, chat rooms and the like (Adams and Morgan, 2009). The use of internet tools has facilitated a more diverse learning and training experience but there are also a number of additional factors that need to be considered when using this technology for e-learning. In light of these factors, the effectiveness of training and development delivered via e-learning will be discussed by looking at the benefits as well as the challenges of some of the tools and technology used to deliver e-learning. This will be achieved by looking at the structured versus flexible approaches such as structured versus self-directed, synchronous versus asynchronous and the use of pedagogy 2.0 which reflects a combination of the structure of pedagogy and the more flexible web 2.0. The paper is therefore divided into three parts reflecting each of the three aforementioned sections. Within each section readings relevant to the section heading are discussed in terms of their merits and demerits. The concluding section will provide an overview of major points and recommendations.

Structured vs. Self-Directed

The discussion of structured learning, which is largely focused on organisational objectives, and self-directed learning, which is geared towards personal objectives, highlights beneficial and challenging factors that need to be considered when using e-learning for training and development.  In their article on first and second generation e-learning, Adams and Morgan (2007) discuss the use of first generation approaches to e-learning, which are used to deliver expert knowledge and skills training, and second generation approaches to e-learning, which are based on learner control. The authors state that one approach is in no way superior to the other and that they can be used collaboratively but they do not advocate the use of first generation approaches in soft skill training. In critically discussing first generation approaches versus the second generation approaches and justifying the use of second generation approaches for managerial soft skill training, the authors argue that high dropout rates and failure to complete courses are characteristics of first generation approaches.

However, as highlighted by Frankola (2001) other factors contribute to this dropout rate such as a lack of time to complete courses at work and at home, a lack of student support or poorly designed courses. In fact, both Frankola (2001) and Osberg (2002) state that the two main factors that impact the dropout rate are lack of management support and lack of interaction among students or between the students and the lecturer. Additionally, while Adams and Morgan (2007) imply that the high dropout rate is specific to first generation approaches neither Frankola nor Osberg emphasise this. The latter authors state that the high dropout rate is in fact characteristic of e-learning in general. What this means is that for training and development activities that utilises second generation or a combination of both approaches dropout rates and associated factors need to be considered.

 Shah et al.  (2001) discuss structured versus unstructured learning from a slightly different perspective. Their article focuses on how e-learning can facilitate the delivery of structured courses from corporate universities as well as self-directed learning where learners are given access to online compact discs or electronic information to utilise in their own time. Shah et al. see the use of corporate universities and self-directed learning as a way to develop employees and as a way to attract new employees to the organisation. They also highlight that the implementation of the necessary technology to support e-learning is costly and that it may not meet the needs or the budgets of smaller organisations. They are also able to identify that the absence of the interactive element in online learning and management commitment are potential problem areas that need to be considered.

Liu (2009) takes more of a theoretical perspective in developing a framework for a self-directed web-based course. The author states that course design should be informed by pedagogical theories which reflect content design and teaching strategies, social theories which focus on learners interacting with each other and psychological theories which look at the various ways in which learners approach online learning. Liu also highlights the technical infrastructure which will be needed. While Liu highlighted some problems with the course such as teacher student interaction and student preference for course content in text rather than audio and video form; one other criticism that could be put forward is that the technological theory proposed by Liu, is less of a theory and more a statement of the tools (hardware, software) that are needed for implementation, all of which need to be considered for training and development (Rogerson-Revell, 2007).

The viewpoints of all the authors in the aforementioned discussion need to be considered when using e-learning for training and development. Adam and Morgan’s suggestion that first and second generation approaches can be used together but that second generation approaches are more geared toward soft skills training while valid raises the issue of the factors that affect the dropout rate for either approach. Shah et al highlight the importance of the cost associated with setting up e-learning programmes and Liu’s theories are vital underpinnings of e-learning.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous   

The use of online discussion boards as part of e-learning poses new considerations for training and development that utilises this medium.  In their paper which assessed the number of student postings against the number of tutor postings and the effect that frequent postings by instructors had on the length of the discussion threads Mazzolini and Madison (2003) unearth two important points. The first is that frequent postings by instructors do not lead to frequent postings by students and the second is that more frequent postings by instructors did not positively impact the length of the discussion threads of students. What does this mean with regard to the level of interaction that is required by instructors? Padoff and Pratt, (1999) argue that the role of the instructor is neither sage guide or ghost but has switched, from the more prominent role of teacher, to the background role of facilitator whose main objective is building a learning community among learners. Padoff and Pratt go further to state that instructors have the additional responsibility of preparing students for learning via this medium and in so doing ensuring that students are aware of their role in learning as well as the instructor’s new role as a facilitator.  

In designing a more structured version of online chat termed chatiquette, Smith (2006) emphasises the importance of structure while conversing within this synchronous medium. Smith also emphasises the role of the instructor or tutor in creating this structure during synchronous chat. While Smith’s points are valid and chatiquette is relevant and useful the structure that Smith purports needs to be balanced with flexibility. This view is supported by Schwier (2002) who is of the view that a certain amount of flexibility is needed when using chat.  Schwier also purports that instructors need to facilitate the flexible use of chat and allow the conversation to move in unplanned directions. In fact in taking part in a practical class room session which utilised chatiquette this issue of flexibility became of paramount importance. The instructor after receiving feedback from students about the rigidity of chatiquette, decided to use an adapted version of it which facilitated easier communication.

The use of second life also adds a new dimension when it is utilised for training and development that utilises e-learning. Second life takes place within a simulated, multi-media environment usually run over the web. It allows individuals to interact via their own self representations which are known as Avatars (Maged et al. 2007).  Past students of the Management of Training and Development’s (MTD) programme took part in a project which demonstrated how merging role play and second life and using it within the performance appraisal process could remove some of the anxieties associated with performance appraisal (Morse et al. 2009). Their research makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of how second life can be used for the appraisal process. However, some additional considerations are needed if second life is to be used for training and development. Maged et al (2007) highlight the need for the mastery of new skills to coordinate movement of their Avatars; a statement which I can verify after using second life. Similarly, Warburton (2009) stated that there is a certain amount of playfulness which is inherent to second life. This playfulness may distract users from the main purpose of using this form of virtual communication.

The foregoing discussion highlights   the importance of  a number of positive and negative factors if virtual communication is used for training and development: Firstly, as Padoff and Pratt (2009) state preparing learners for training and development activities using e-learning is essential; Secondly the role of the trainer, lecturer or tutor has changed from teacher or instructor to facilitator (Mazzolini and Maddison, 2003; Padoff and Pratt, 1999)  Thirdly,  while chat is a useful virtual communication tool it needs to be utilised with flexibility (Smith 2002; Schwier, 2006); and Finally, choosing an appropriate virtual communication  medium is important, since the seriousness of particular activities may be lost by using a particular medium (Warburton, 2009).

Pedagogy 2.0

The increased use of Pedagogy 2.0 which combines pedagogy with web 2.0 tools such as facebook or twitter  has potential positive as well as adverse impacts on training and development. Ravenscroft (2009) and McLoughlin and Lee (2008) highlight the added benefits of using  Pedagogy 2.0 with McLoughlin and Lee emphasizing its use in connectivism which focuses on sharing of ideas and Ravenscroft detailing its use within higher education. Apart from the benefits of pedagogy 2.0 the authors highlight a number of challenges associated with its use such as the inability of students to screen information for quality and reliability and issues of safety for younger students. Additionally, both authors make the point that there is a digital gap between educators and students which needs to be considered when using Pedagogy 2.0. However experience leads me to highlight that this divide does not exist solely between educators and students but among students as well. Usually referred to as the digital divide there are differences or disparity in the technological capabilities of students which may be due to social status or in some cases age (Norris, 2001). This divide can also affect the use of pedagogy 2.0 within the training environment.

Twitter is a web 2.0 tool that has been used to facilitate the use of pedagogy 2.0. While its use has been highlighted within academia http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OxIz_3o3O0 where it is used to increase the levels of engagement and interest and within the Management of Organisational Learning and Knowledge module of the Management of Training and Development where it allowed additional topics to be discussed and aided in continuity between lectures, the use of twitter is not limited to these spheres (Walsh, 2010). Its use has also been extended to training where can be  utilised to provide helps reminders or prompts on training events, learning content and links to articles of interest (Rapid Business Information, 2009). Likewise, the use of the hash tag has been viewed as a useful way of developing a community of practice where group members can share information on a topic of common interest (Johnson, 2009).  On the other hand another factor needs to be considered in utilsing twitter for pedagogy 2.0. As with social networking tools such as facebook, there may be a tendency to become focused on checking status updates or in the case of twitter, monitoring tweets (Johnson, 2009). Within the work environment this may be perceived as a source of distraction which will need to be considered if twitter is to be used as part of training and development.

As highlighted by Ravenscroft and Mc Loughlin the use of Pedagogy 2.0 within the academic or training environment can add value to the e-learning experience. While the benefits of using pedagogy 2.0 can positively impact the training environment and the role of the training and development professional there are some other factors which need to be considered such as will all learners be technologically competent enough to use  pedagogy 2.0 and would its introduction be a distraction within the organisation.

Conclusion

The focus of the foregoing discussion was on the effectiveness of e-learning in delivering training with emphasis on the benefits and challenges associated with utilising e-learning for training and development. Some of these benefits and challenges will be briefly revisited here: Firstly training and development that utilises e-learning can aid in the development of soft skills for managers; Secondly, it can be used to form communities of practice; Thirdly it can be used to provide a more engaging learning experience, and Finally it can be used to offset some of the anxieties associated with some developmental activities. However, alongside the advantages there are challenges such as the cost of the infrastructure for e-learning, the fact that dropout rates are perceived to be higher for e-learning for various reasons, the potential distraction that the introduction of e-learning tools can cause within the learning environment and the fact that the role of the training and development professional changes with the use of e-learning.

The advantages and challenges have implications for training and development professionals, while some of these advantages and challenges apply outside of the use of e-learning they still warrant discussion. Namely, in designing and developing training and development programmes that utilise e-learning training and development professionals would need to give consideration to factors such as the  cost of e-learning tools and technology, suitability of the e-learning tools to the work environment, and whether the initiative will be supported by management. The training and development professional will also need to ensure that they have the skills that would allow them to function as a facilitator and foster community building. Additionally, all of these skills need to be deployed with a degree of flexibility.

In summary, training and development that is delivered by e-learning can be effective in numerous ways. However the extent to which it can be effective will be determined by how well the challenges are considered and managed when designing and delivering training activities that utilise e-learning. This onus for managing these challenges therefore falls on the training and development professional who should have the required skills to meet the demand of utilising e-learning to deliver training.

Word Count

2407

 References

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Paloff, R.M and Pratt, K. (2001) Lessons from Cyberspace the Realities of Online Teaching, California, Josey Bass Inc.

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