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Barriers to e-Learning in SMEs

July 4th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

for the last eighteen months or so Pontydysgu have been a partners in a project called Webquests for HRM coordinated by the  Management Observatory Foundation (MOF) from Poland. The project is developing a Collaborative and Blended Learning model for what we call Webquest 2.0 defined as “an inquiry–oriented activity that takes place basically in a Web 2.0–enhanced, social and inter-active open learning environment, in which the learner can decide to create his own learning paths choosing the Web 2.0 tools and the on–line resources needed for the completion of the final Webquest 2.0 product” (Perifanou, 2011).

The project is funded by the European Commission under as strand of the Lifelong Learning project called ‘the transfer of innovation’. In our particular project, we are seeking to transfer a pedagogy and approach to the use of technology for learning develop in schools and academic education for training in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). We have published the first drafts of the methodology and a guide for trainers on the project web site. Over the last six moths or so, we have been piloting the approach with SMEs in Poland and in the UK.

The following text, which is the draft of an extra chapter for the second, revised edition of the trainers’ manual, relates some of our findings. I think it is particularity interesting because most, if not all of the findings are more generally applicable to the challenge of introducing technology enhanced learning in SMEs.

 

9. Webquest 2.0 training experiences: Flexibility and Creativity

The first edition of this handbook was published in January, 2012. Since then we have been piloting the use of Webquests 2.0 with Small and Medium Enterprises in Poland and in the UK. The pilots have involved both training trainers in SMEs to create Webquests 2.0 and piloting the Webquests 2.0 themselves with employees of SMEs. We have also piloted different approaches to blending learning, Including using online activities within face to face workshops, and delivering distance learning though the synchronous and asynchronous use of technology. Similarly we have experimented with both individual tasks and group tasks through the pilot Webquests 2.0. In the process of the pilots we have learnt a great deal about the issues involved in using Webquests 2.0 for HRM in Small and Medium Enterprises. This extra chapter in the second edition of the manual summarises some of the issues we have discovered and more importantly what trainers may need to do to deal with these issues.

9.1 Platforms

For our initial pilot Webquests 2.0 we used a wiki on PB Works as a platform. Although not open source, PB Works is free to educational organisations. However the licensing costs for use on commercial organisations may prove a barrier to take up in SMEs. We have subsequently experimented with a number of different platforms including the free and open source WordPress Content Management system. We have found that some organisations do not wish to use a separate platform but wish to incorporate the Webquests 2.0 within their own Enterprise Systems such as Microsoft Sharepoint. Conversely some organisations have told us they are looking for more flexible and cheaper solutions than their present organisation web platforms.

9.2 Web 2.0 tools

In the handbook we have drawn attention to a wide range of powerful Web 2.0 and social software tools that can be incorporated within Webquests 2.0 and can be used to develop a rich, collaborative and immersive learning experience.

In practice we have encountered a number of issues. Organisational firewalls are a particular problem. Whilst some organisations are relatively open in their policies, many firewall particular applications and tools. This can be a serious problem, for instance when employees are unable to view YouTube videos. In some cases we have been able to persuade system administrators to provide access to us to tools needed for training sessions with Webquests 2.0, in others we have been able to persuade them to review their policies, pointing out the value of these applications for learning. In still other cases, we have had to revise our training courses and Webquests 2.0  to reflect the security policies of the organisation.

Useful tip:

Whatever the answer, if you are developing a Webquest 2.0 you need to pay attention to this issue in advance.

We also found that trainers and SME employees often had only a limited knowledge of and experience of using Web 2.0 and social software tools. Almost all enjoyed learning about these tools in the course of the training sessions we organised and trainers in particular appreciated how they could use these tools in their own training practice. However, there was a tendency for learning about the tools to take over the whole dynamic and subject of the workshops. It was also felt that providing too many tools could be intimidating for trainees in SMEs. Therefore we would recommend that you restrict the number of tools you use in a Webquest 2.0, particular for those with less experience of using computers. The tools need to be chosen carefully. Some tools may promote greater collaboration and creativity but may be more difficult to use. Conversely, some tools may be easy to use but have little added value to promoting creative learning and higher order thinking skills.

Useful tip:

Remember that you will have to support learning about the topic and learning about the tools at the same time and think about the best strategy for doing this.

9.3 Blended Learning

One of the main successes of the pilots was the use of different forms of blended learning. Many organisations had not used computers intensively as part of a face to face training session and appreciated its potential. Equally participants were grateful for the opportunity to access the Webquests 2.0 and the learning materials after the training sessions. However one of the issues in this mode of blended learning was access to computers. Whilst in a number of SMEs we were able to find dedicated computer training rooms the layout of these rooms limited opportunities for groupwork and collaboration. One organisation was able to provide laptops for all participants and this worked much better. Whatever the solution, the layout and design of the learning space in a face to face session needs conscious attention.

In some of the pilots we used a mixture of face to face and online learning. This was seen as very successful with many organisations beginning to appreciate the potential of online learning for professional development and training in their organisations. This was particularly so with SMEs with a geographically dispersed workforce.

Furthermore, a number of the Webquests 2.0 involved the development of practice in the use of soft skills in SMEs. It was felt that learning about these practice based skills in a classroom was inappropriate. Online learning could provide better integration with practice in the workplace.

However, one of the issues this raised was the skills and competences of the trainers. Training on line involves many of the skills and competences that any good trainer will have. It is not the same as face to face training and may involve extra competences. We do not have space in this handbook to go into these in detail. At a minimum, we would recommend that any trainer providing e-learning and Webquests 2.0 online for the first time should themselves first participate in an elearning course or session and reflect on the similarities and differences and how they need to adapt their practice to cope with the opportunities and difficulties online training and learning provides. In particular they need to think about how they can support their trainees on line. It may involve the use of different tools and a different way of organising work, as well as knowledge in using computers and a broad variety of software.

9.4 Producing Webquests 2.0 is time consuming

One of the major issues that arose was the time it took to develop a Webquest 2.0. This brings us close to the heart of the problem that led us to develop the Webquest 2.0 project. Producing any online learning materials is time consuming. Of course it is possible to buy off the shelf, online training packages. However, these often do not meet the diverse needs of employees in SMEs. Once more, it is possible to commission commercially produced bespoke training materials. But this is very expensive.

In reality, producing any training materials is time consuming. It is only if these materials are reused that the unit cost becomes cheaper. This is also so for online training such as Webquests 2.0. Producing bespoke a Webquest 2.0 for an individual group will be expensive. We know it is important that the Webquest meets the needs of particular groups of learners. We would suggest that over time the speed of production will increase as trainers become more familiar with the approach and the tools and develop a bank of reusable content and materials. At the same time we would emphasise that online training is not just a cheap alternative to traditional forms of training. Our major motivation is to improve the quality and effectiveness of training and learning, not just to reduce cost. SME managers need to appreciate that they will have to invest in trainers’ time if they are to reap the benefits that online learning through Webquests 2.0 can bring. We will return to this issue further on in this section of the manual.

9.5 Self Directed Learning

The aim of the Collaborative Blended Learning Model (CBLM) is to develop and support self motivated and self regulated learning. Concerns were expressed that such an approach requires new skills from both trainers and learners, especially as much traditional training in SMEs is quite strongly trainer directed.  To some extent this concern may be justified. Learners may have little experience of self directed learning and may lack the skills and motivation to plan and direct their own learning. But this may also reflect a misunderstanding. The overall aim of the Webquest for HRM project is to develop self directed and self motivated learning as we believe such processes are critical to the development of lifelong learning in SMEs. On the other hand, we acknowledge the key role of trainers in providing appropriate support for learners at every stage in a Webquest 2.0. Without this support we will never achieve our ultimate goal.

9.6 Open and closed evaluation

In the manual we propose sharing the outputs from a Webquest 2.0 through the Worldwide web as a means of gaining community feedback and evaluation. Some enterprises are not prepared to allow their employees to do this. We understand there may be legitimate concerns over security and competition, however, in general, we feel the advantages in allowing employees to use Web 2.0 tools and social software in a responsible manner outweigh the dangers for SMEs.

9.7 Sharing Resources

As we said above, one of our motivations in developing the Webquest for HRM project and CBLM manual was to stimulate the development of high quality, online learning materials for use in Small and Medium Enterprises. We were aware that creating a Webquest 2.0 was time consuming. However, we felt that if trainers were prepared to share the Webquests 2.0 they had produced we could develop a dynamic repository of high quality materials. To that end we have worked on developing a rubric for evaluating the quality of the Webquests 2.0. Our initial pilots have revealed that most SMEs are not prepared to openly share learning materials. They either see these as providing competitive advantage or want to sell such materials to others. We believe such an approach to be short sighted and would urge enterprises to consider carefully the most advantageous long term strategy in developing e-learning and e-learning materials. We also note that when the idea of Open Educational Resources first emerged in the education sector, many institutions had a similar reaction. However most are now embracing OERs. Of course trainers will have to respect company policies in licensing Webquests 2.0. But we urge enterprise managers and trainers to think carefully before ruling out sharing resources.

9.8 Flexibility and Creativity

We have attempted to develop models and tools that can help trainers to produce high quality Webquests 2.0 to use in their own training practice. As part of this we have developed the seven step Learning Circles framework and templates to follow in developing a Webquest 2.0.

However, some of the trainers with whom we have piloted the Webquests 2.0 and tools, have felt the template and model to be too prescriptive and too restrictive for what they want to do. Of course any model is just that – a model. And templates are meant to be adapted and changed to meet particular needs.

Useful tip:

If you feel some parts of the model do not meet your needs, this is fine. Similarly feel free to change the templates to suit the needs of your trainees.

Our main aim is to develop flexible and creative training opportunities. And for that to happen we need to engage with trainers who can make flexible and creative use of the opportunities which technology provide for learning.

 

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