How do you do online learning when the workforce isn’t online? Sounds like an impossible brief? Well I’ve been talking to the account team at Lumesse Learning who are increasingly taking on just such briefs – and this is definitely not the non-starter it might sound like at first hearing.
In certain parts of industry – within the fast-growing service sector, for instance – large swathes of the workforce don’t come into contact with any sort of computer from one week to the next – let alone a computer with internet access. Think of the vast managed services industry, which supplies legions of cleaners, drivers, security guards and traffic wardens. Or Transport, or Energy – or the building trade: industries that employ legions of people in hi-vis tabards who are very much ‘in the field’ and don’t sit down at a desk to work.
Large companies that do this kind of work need the power and scale offered by digital learning at its best as much, if not more than, organisations where staff are plugged into their desktops all day long. Many have strong compliance drivers and large workforces. But sometimes it seems that the learning technologies crowd simply don’t see this problem.
Too often it seems that, so far as the elearning community is concerned, digital learning is just for people who measure out their days with coffee cups and post-it notes, sat at desktop computer and plugged into the corporate network.
However, we at Lumesse Learning love nothing more than a challenge. And more and more, it seems, we are rising to this particular challenge of creating learning programmes for staff who don’t work in offices – online learning for people who aren’t online.
Here’s how we’re doing it.
Hi-vis learning – what does it look like?
Our core capability in Lumesse Learning is bespoke elearning production. But increasingly we are being challenged, as we work with clients, to go beyond the ‘first wave’ model of digital learning. Creating learning programmes for offline workforces is an example of just the sort of challenge that necessitates this new type of mindset.
One of the key assumptions of most ‘conventional’ e-learning is that the individual learner interacts directly with the system. This is not necessarily the case when a programme is aimed at in-the-field workers. In such a programme, the focus is likely to be more on empowering and supporting team leaders, line managers, or compliance ‘ambassadors’. Learning is more likely to take place in group sessions, led by these intermediary agents. Digital content production will therefore be focused on them to:
- Bring them up to speed in acquiring knowledge that they will then cascade to their teams
- Deliver materials that they will then share with the teams in group learning sessions
- Support them in running group learning sessions where this involves new skills for them
The digital content involved might well not be a course. Instead, we might create what we call an L-book; an interactive PDF workbook, printable and saveable locally by the user. They can use this to support them in conversations with their team(s). Typically, content for such an L-Book might include:
- An FAQ section
- Guidance for facilitating group discussions
- Advice handling challenges
- Hints and tips for embedding behaviours
The L-book might be loaded on a tablet or laptop for use by the manager. In certain circumstances, workers might be supplied with tablets themselves, with similar materials preloaded onto them.
At the same time, there would likely be an awareness campaign using posters, hand-outs or FAQ sheets – physical world materials to reinforce the message. This means that the programme becomes a learning campaign – taking on something of the character of a comms or marketing programme. This plays to a trend we call campaign learning.
Staff themselves might get hands-on with the digital content. Depending on factors such as the IT literacy of the workers involved, whether the company has a BYOD policy, the physical layout of the working environment, and so on, the staff could have a varying degree of personal interaction with digital materials as part of such a campaign. There could, for instance, be a room set aside with one or more computers where they could go through more conventional online learning materials – either individually or as a group.
Mobile is a driver
A couple of points come out very clearly from the above example that have implications for the way digital learning is developing within workplaces. One is that mobile can be seen very clearly to be a driver for this sort for learning.
Tablets are becoming normal to see in all sorts of workplace situations, and replacing clipboards as a standard piece of equipment for team leaders and managers (although obviously, a lot more can be done with a tablet computer than with a clipboard!). This means that a delivery mechanism for digital learning content is now there within the working situation and does not necessarily have to be purchased in specifically for a learning programme. Tablets also have high acceptability as a business tool, and so will not feel out of place in a group discussion about working practices or compliance. Depending on the profile of the workforce, smartphones will also be similarly available and acceptable as a potential channel for learning apps.
So mobile has been a real driver for changing possibilities in this type of digital learning.
Secondly, the use of this type of learning could have big implications for learning infrastructure. Earlier, I mentioned the role of compliance requirements in driving a need for the scale and consistency that digital learning can bring. However compliance also requires the recording of tangible proof that the message has been delivered and received by the learners. Where this is measured through an LMS, it would of course have to be the case that the organisation’s LMS was mobile compatible: in our experience this is not always so!
Also, to run digital content and apps supplied by the company on personal smartphones and tablets may well require a BYOD policy to be in place. Again, not all organisations have IT policies that allow this.
Make mine bespoke
Such infrastructure/policy challenges can mostly be ‘worked around’, but it is clear from this, and the many other parameters affecting programme design – such as IT literacy of staff, layout of workplaces, etc. – that each programme of this type is liable to be very individual to the organisation concerned. In other words, it requires a level of comfort with bespoke programme design that not all learning providers can deal with (needless to say, Lumesse Learning has no trouble meeting such a challenge!).
It will also be clear that any such programme is inherently a blended programme, because it combines digital content and human interaction, and has to be conceived as such from the outset. However these programmes are unlike ‘conventional’ blended learning of the ‘pre-learning + F2F workshop + online assessment’ variety. This too requires creative thinking and the right kinds of skills from your learning partner, as well as the ability to think outside vendor silos (ie digital learning versus face-to-face training) and outside the traditional constraints of instructional design theory.
Beyond the low-hanging fruit
We see this as fascinating development in workplace learning, and a sign of what is to come. You could say that its emergence is a sign of digital learning ‘growing up’. The first wave of e-learning focused very much on deskbound workers and IT skills as being the ‘low-hanging fruit’, moving fairly painfully into soft skills, compliance and more complicated blends.
Now it is being called to address the very large percentage of the workforce that is not deskbound, and to bring the benefits of digital learning to a far wider range of working situations, helping to embed learning within normal workflow.