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Using technology for work based learning

March 20th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

Those of you who I have had the pleasure of talking to lately will know we are working on a sereis of new ideas. However, we have been so busy that this blog and website are running beyond. Hopefully int he next few weeks, I will I have the opportunity to get it back up to date. In the meantime, here is the abstract of a paper by Ludger Deitmer and myself, submitted for the PLE2012 conference, which describes the work we are developing on using technology for informal learning in the workplace and specifically in Small and Medium Enterprises in the building and construction trade.

Developing Work based Personal Learning Environments in Small and Medium Enterprises in the Building and Construction Industries

Graham Attwell, Pontydusgu

Ludger Deitmer, ITB, University of Bremen

Introduction

Research and development in Personal Learning Environments has made considerable progress in recent years. Yet such research continues to be focused on learning through formal educational institutions. Far less attention has been paid to work based learning and still less to the particular context of learning in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Yet it could be argued that it is in just these contexts, where work can provide a rich learning environment and where there is growing need for continuing professional development to meet demands from new technology and materials and changing work processes that PLEs could have the greatest impact. However, for this to happen requires a dual approach, based on informal learning and the development of network and mobile technologies. This paper will describe an approach being developed for learning in SMES, specifically in the building and construction industry in north Germany.

The challenge for knowledge and skills

Many industries are undergoing a period of rapid change with the introduction of new technologies, processes and materials. This is resulting in new quality and certification requirements and standards, and in the emergence of new skill requirements. It is generally acknowledged that a key factor for enterprises to staying agile and adaptive is to have a highly skilled workforce. With the rapid development of new technologies, staying up-to-date with know-how and skills increasingly becomes a challenge in many sectors.

Technology Enhanced Learning

While technology-enhanced learning (TEL) has been suggested as a means to address this challenge and support learning at the workplace, its potential has not yet been fully realized. Especially in many Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), the take-up has not been effective. A critical review of the way information technologies are being used for workplace learning (Kraiger, 2008) concludes that still today most solutions are targeted towards a learning model based on the ideas of direct instruction in a more or less formal manner. That is, TEL initiatives tend to be based upon a traditional business training model with modules, lectures and seminars transferred from face to face interactions to onscreen interactions, but retaining the standard tutor/student relationship and the reliance on formal and to some extent standardized course material and curricula.

Informal learning and Personal Learning Environments

However research suggests that in SMEs much learning takes place in the workplace and through work processes, is multi episodic, is often informal, is problem based and takes place on a just in time basis (Hart, 2011). Rather than a reliance on formal or designated trainers, much training and learning involves the passing on of skills and knowledge from skilled workers (Attwell and Baumgartl, 2009). In other words, learning is highly individualized and heavily integrated with contextual work practices. While this form of delivery (learning from individual experience) is highly effective for the individual and has been shown to be intrinsically motivating by both the need to solve problems and by personal interest (Attwell, 2007; Hague & Lohan, 2009), it does not scale very well: if individual experiences are not further taken up in systematic organisational learning practices, learning remains costly, fragmented and unsystematic.

The Building and Construction Sector

The building and construction trades are undergoing a period of rapid change with the introduction of green building techniques and materials followed by new processes and standards. The EU directive makes near zero energy building mandatory by 2021 (European Parliament 2009). This is resulting in the development of new skill requirements for work on building sites.

The sector is characterized by a small number of large companies and a large numbers of SMEs in both general building and construction and in specialized craft trades. Building and Construction projects require more interactive collaboration within as well as under different craft trade companies. Following the logistical chain also with planners and architects as well as with suppliers of new materials.

Continuing training is becoming increasingly important for dealing with technological change. Much of the further training offers are too little connected with real work projects and there is often little transfer of learning. The cost pressure in building enterprises limits chances for time-consuming training measures far away from the workplace. (Schulte, Spöttl, 2009). In all this there is an issue of how to share knowledge both between workers in different workplaces and of how to provide just in time training to meet new needs and how to link formal training with informal learning and work based practice in the different craft trades.

Mobile technologies

In the past few years, emerging technologies (such as mobile devices or social networks) have rapidly spread into all areas of our life. However, while employees in SMEs increasingly use these technologies for private purposes as well as for informal learning, enterprises have not really recognized the personal use of technologies as effectively supporting informal learning. As a consequence, the use of these emerging technologies has not been systematically taken up as a sustainable learning strategy that is integrated with other forms of learning at the workplace.

An approach to developing PLEs

We are researching methods and technologies to scale-up informal learning support for PLEs so that it is cost-effective and sustainable, offers contextualised and meaningful support in the virtual and physical context of work practices. We aim to:

  • Ensure that peer production is unlocked: Barriers to participation need to be lowered, massive reuse of existing materials has to be realized, and experiences people make in physical contexts needs to be included.
  • Ensure individuals receive scaffolds to deal with the growing abundance: We need to research concepts of networked scaffolding and research the effectiveness of scaffolds across different contexts.
  • Ensure shared meaning of work practices at individual, organisational and inter-organisational levels emerges from these interactions: We need to lower barriers for participation, allow emergence as a social negotiation process and knowledge maturing across institutional boundaries, and research the role of physical artefacts and context in this process.

The paper will explore the evolution of this work in developing work based PLEs, capturing informal learning.

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2 Responses to “Using technology for work based learning”

  1. This is important work, which has implications well beyond the work-based context. I am also struck by the irony that the PLE idea has gained more traction in formal contexts, whereas it is specifically in the informal learning environments that it is most needed (and I would include Adult Community Learning as well as work-based environments here). It seems that these sectors have a tendency to lag behind, and lots of providers are still devoting much energy to implementing the Virtual Learning Environment – perhaps too late to be of serious value now? I wonder if (in the UK) funding constraints may mean that we are going to see the rise and rise of the part-time learner, which in turn might raise the profile of the PLE?

  2. The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. – B. F. Skinner Contingencies of Reinforcement, 1969

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