Archive for the ‘e-Learning and SMEs’ Category

Informal Learning @ Work

June 10th, 2016 by Graham Attwell


Picture: Gothick

On Monday 20 June I am helping to run a knowledge exchange workshop in Bristol, UK. The workshop is fee to participants and there are still a few spaces left. Details are below – register at EventBrite if you would like to participate.

More than 70 per cent of all we learn comes from informal learning in the workplace. Yet despite increasing recognition of the importance of workplace learning in a time of fast changing technologies, work organisation and labour markets, little effort has been made to promote and support informal learning.

Perhaps one of the reason for this is it has previously proven hard to track learning in workplace contexts, let alone to promote the collaboration, creativity and teamwork so much modern work requires.

This workshop is based on work undertaken in the Learning Layers project and is intended to discuss these issues. Conceptualised as a knowledge exchange event, it is organised around short pitches and a hands on exhibition.

The workshop takes place on June 20th from 10am to 5pm at Armada House in Bristol. University of West England Vice Deputy Chancellor Prof. Jane Harrington will open the event.

We want to show you the work we have done and discuss with you whether the tools and applications we have developed might be useful in your work and learning context. We also want to hear from you about your needs and to exchange any ideas and tools you might have for supporting informal learning.

We are piloting our tools in different settings such as Healthcare, Construction sector, Creative Industries and Higher Education:

  • Confer – an application for teams to explore ideas and reach decisions
  • Learning Toolbox – a flexible mobile based, context aware application for supporting learning in practice
  • Bits and Pieces – a web based program for collecting and making sense out of informal learning experiences at work
  • Ach So! And ZoP – mobile based peer to peer video annotation tools
  • Living Documents – a shared document creation environment

Entry is free but places are limited so please register by following the link below if you wish to attend. Coffee and a buffet lunch will be provided, with an informal reception and drinks following the workshop.

Please get in touch if you would like to present something at either the pitch or exhibition sessions. Send us an email to bristol [dot] layers2016 [at] gmail [dot] com.

BS1 4BQ – Armada House Telephone Ave, Bristol, Avon , Bristol, BS1 4BQ, United Kingdom –


Reflections on Communities of Practice

March 17th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

Chahira Nouira sent me an email asking if I could make a short podcast around Communities of Practice. ” I am writing,” she said “because I thought you might have 15 min of your precious time to help me compile an audio playlist where you are the stars! For a year, I have been involved in a project funded by the EU and one of its products is a Community of Practice for Lifelong Learning: DISCUSS. My idea is to get insights from you on CoPs based on how your experience and stories”.

I have been involved – and still am – in a number of projects seeking to support the emergence of communities of practice – defined as groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly – with varying success. In the podcast I try to explain why I think some have worked an others less so.

In early days, in the late 1990s, we mainly saw the idea of Communities of Practice as an analytic tool to understand how informal learning develops in Communities of practice and how knowledge is exchanged. In a later stage we moved on to try to develop or foster Communities of Practice, using IST to support the emergence of dispersed communities.

All to often we thought we could form communities ourselves, not totally understanding the emergent nature and the ownership of CoPs. Too often also, we have conflated organisations with communities. Probably more importantly, whilst we have fused on communities, we have failed to properly understand the nature of the practices which bind together those communities. According to Wenger, a community of practice defines itself along three dimensions

  • What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members.
  • How it functions ‐ mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity.
  • What capability it has produced – the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time. (Wenger, 1998)

In seeking to support facilitation a vital prerequisite is understanding the nature of the social practices within the workplace, both through observable patterns of individual practice and through developing an overall pattern language. This includes the use of objects. Objects are necessary components of many practices – just as indispensable as bodily and mental activities. (Reckwitz, 2002). Carrying out a practice very often means using particular things in a certain way. Electronic media itself is an object which can mold social practices and enable and limit certain bodily and mental activities, certain knowledge and understanding as elements of practices (Kittler, 1985; Gumbrecht, 1988).  One approach to choosing ways to develop particular objects is to focus on what Onstenk (1997) defines as core problems: the problems and dilemmas that are central to the practice of an occupation that have significance both for individual and organisational performance.

If understanding the nature of social practices and patterns is a necessary step to developing facilitation services, it is not in itself sufficient. Further understanding is needed of how learning, particularly informal learning, takes place in the workplace and how knowledge is shared and developed. Michael Eraut (2000) points put that “much uncodified cultural knowledge is acquired informally through participation in social activities; and much is often so ‘taken for granted’ that people are unaware of its influence on their behaviour. This phenomenon is much broader in scope than the implicit learning normally associated with the concept of socialisation. In addition to the cultural practices and discourses of different professions and their specialities, one has to consider the cultural knowledge that permeates the beliefs and behaviours of their co-workers, their clients and the general public.”

Eraut attempts to codify different elements of practice:

  • Assessing clients and/or situations (sometimes briefly, sometimes involving a long process of investigation) and continuing to monitor them;
  • Deciding what, if any, action to take, both immediately and over a longer period (either individually or as a leader or member of a team);
  • Pursuing an agreed course of action, modifying, consulting and reassessing as and when necessary;
  • Metacognitive monitoring of oneself, people needing attention and the general progress of the case, problem, project or situation.

He also draws attention to the importance of what he calls mediating objects and points out that while some artifacts are used mainly during learning processes, most artifacts used for working are also used for learning. Such artefacts play an important role in structuring work and sharing information and in mediating group learning about clients or projects in progress.

In general, when seeking to support online communities, we have developed web sites and web based tools which are separate form the work process. Possibly, we should be looking instead at how we can use artifacts from work processes to support learning and knowledge exchange.

Mobile Learning – the Dream goes on

February 29th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

“What killed the mobile learning dream?” asks John Traxler in an article for Jisc’s Digifest. John goes on to say:

Mobile learning was e-learning’s dream come true. It offered the potential for completely personalised learning to be truly any time, anywhere.

ltbInstead, we’ve ended up with mobile access to virtual learning environments that are being used as repositories. So, in practice, students reading their notes on the bus.

He’s right but I am not sure his reasons are sufficient. The main problem John sees is that when early projects were developed into mobile learning, they were based on supplying participants with digital devices. This was expensive and limited the scale and sustainability of such projects. Now new initiatives are emerging based on BYOD (bring your own Device). This is more sustainable but raises its own questions.

Bring your own device, enabling students to use their own equipment, introduces more questions: is there a specific range of technologies they can bring, what’s the nature of the support offered, and have we got a network infrastructure that won’t fall over when 20,000 students turn up with gadgets? What kind of staff development is needed to handle the fact that not only will the students turn up with many different devices but tomorrow they’ll have changed to even more different devices?

All this is true. And as we prepare to roll out the trial of our Learning Layers project funded Learning Toolbox (LTB) application we are only to aware that as well as looking at the technical and pedagogic application of Learning toolbox, we will have to evaluate the infrastructure support. The use of Learning toolbox has been predicated on BYOD and has been developed with Android, iOS and Microsoft versions. The training centre where the pilot will take place with some 70 apprentices, BauABC, covers a large site and is in a rural area. Telecoms network coverage is flaky, broadband not fast and the wireless network installed to support the pilots is a new venture. So many issues for us to look at there. However in terms of staff development I am more confident, with an ongoing programme for the trainers, but perhaps more importantly I think a more open attitude from construction industry trainers to the use of different technologies than say from university lecturers.

The bigger issue though for me is pedagogy. John hints at this when he talks about mobiles being used to access virtual learning environments that are being used as repositories. The real limitation here is not in the technology or infrastructure but a lack of vision of the potential of mobiles for learning in different contexts. Indeed I suspect that the primary school sector is more advanced in their thing here than the universities. Mobile devices have the potential to take learning into the world outside the classroom and to link practical with more theoretical learning. And rather than merely pushing learning (to be read on the bus although I have never quite understood why mobile learning vendors think everyone travels home by bus), the potential is to create a new ecosystem, whereby learners themselves can contribute to the learning of others, by direct interaction and by the sharing of learning and of objects. Dare I say it – Learning Toolbox is a mobile Personal Learning Environment (at least I hope so). We certainly are not looking to replace existing curricula, neither existing learning technologies. Rather we see Learning Toolbox as enhancing learning experiences and allowing users to reflect on learning in practice. In this respect we are aware of the limitations of a limited screen size and also of the lack of attraction of writing long scripts for many vocational learners. This can be an advantage. Mobile devices support all kinds of gesturing (think Tinder) and are naturally used for multimedia including video and photographs.

So what killed the mobile learning dream. Lack of understanding of its true potential, lack of vision and a concentration of funding and pilot activities with the wrong user groups. That is not to say that mobile learning cannot be used in higher education. But it needs a rethinking of curriculum and of the interface between curriculum, pedagogy and the uses of technology. So the dream is not dead. It just needs more working on!

If you would like to know more about Learning Toolbox or are interesting in demonstration or a pilot please contact me graham10 [at] mac [dot] com

Recommenders or e-Portfolios

September 24th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

I was interested by a comment by Stephen Downes in yesterdays OLDaily. Stephen says:

(People rating) will replace grades and evaluations. Because, when you have an entire network evaluating people, why on earth would you fall back on something as imprecise as a test? (p.s. smart network-based evaluations are what finally break up ‘old boy networks’ that mutually support each other with positive recommendations).

He was commenting on an article on the CBCNews website about the development of a new App being developed in Calgary. The CEO and co-founder of the people App Julia Cordray said: “You’re going to rate people in the three categories that you can possibly know somebody — professionally, personally or romantically.”

As Stephen commented there is really nothing new about this App. And we have experimented with this sort of thing in the MatureIP project. But instead of asking people to rate other people we rather asked them to list other peoples skills and competences. Despite my misgivings it worked well in a six month trial in a careers company in north England. What we found, I think, was that official records of what people can do and what their skills are are scanty and often not accessible and that people are often too shy to promote their own abilities.

But coming back to Stephens comments, I tend to think that smart network based recommendations may only strengthen old boys networks, rather than break them up. In research into Small and Medium Enterprises we found that owner . managers rarely worried too much bout qualifications, preferring to hire based on recommendations form existing employees or from their own social (off line at that time) networks.Yes of course tests are imprecise. But tests are open(ish) to all and were once seen as a democratising factor in job selection. Indeed some organisations are moving away from degrees as a recruitment benchmark – given their poor performance as a predictor of future success. But it doesn’t seem to em that recommendation services such as LinkedIn already deploy are going to help greatly even with smart network based evaluations. I still see more future in e-Portfolios and Personal Learning Networks, which allow users to show and explain their experience. I am a bit surprised about how quiet the ePortfolio scene has been of late but then again the Technology Enhanced Learning community are notorious for dropping ideas to jump on the latest trendy bandwagon.

Does technology destroy jobs

May 18th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

Infoposter_V1The argument over whether technology creates or destroys jobs has been going on for as long as I can remember.

Only yesterday John Naughton, in an article entitled “We are ignoring the new machine age at our peril“, worried about the impact of self driving cars and other technology on the future of employment. Naughton argued that there are “radical discontinuities that nobody could have anticipated”, driven by “combinatorial” effects of different technology trends coming together. These, he siad, include: “the near-infinite computing power provided by Moore’s law; precise digital mapping; GPS; developments in laser and infrared sensor technology; and machine-learning algorithms plus the availability of massive data-sets on which to train them.”

He warned the outcome could be “that vast swaths of human activity – and employment – which were hitherto regarded as beyond the reach of “intelligent” machines may now be susceptible to automation.” he went on to quote a studyby  Dr Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, two researchers at the Martin School in Oxford,T heir report, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?,  estimates the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, based on US government classifications of those occupations.  About 47% of total US employment, they conclude, is at risk from technologies now operational in laboratories and in the field.

However a study entitled ‘Are ICT Displacing Workers? Evidence from Seven European Countries‘ by Smaranda Pantea, Federico Biagi and Anna Sabadash from the Institute of Prospective Technologies in Seville comes up with a different answer. Looking at micro data ins even European countries for companies in the manufacturing, ICT producing and service sector the study found “a non-significant relationship between employment growth and ICT intensity among ICT-using firms.: The authors say: “Since our estimates mainly capture the “substitution” effects of ICT on employment (i.e. those due to ICT substituting for some type of labour and to ICT increasing productivity and hence reducing demand for inputs, for constant values of output), our results indicate that these effects are statistically insignificant.”

Of course this study and the American study are not directly comparable. They looked at different things and used different methodologies. One conclusion might be that whilst technology is not being directly substituted for overall employment, it is changing the nature of jobs available. Some labour market studies (for instance based on the US O*Net surveys) have suggested that what is happening is a bifurcation of labour, with an increasing number of high qualified jobs and of low skilled (and consequently low paid) service sector jobs. And of course another impact may be on the ;content’ and different skills required in different jobs. For instance our work in the construction industry through the Learning layers project suggests increasing adoption of technology is leading to the need for new (and higher) skills levels within what was traditionally seen as a lower skills sector. This has considerable implications for vocational education and training. ather than training for presents skills demands VET systems need to be looking at future skills. And by providing those future orein3eteds kills this could provide a workforce and society with the abilities and motivation to shape our use of technology in society, rather than as John Naughton fears that “we’re bound to lose this race against the machine” and in the course “enrich the corporations that own it.”

Designing Applications To Support Mobile Work Based Learning In The Construction Industry

April 28th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

Along with Joanna Burchert, Gilbert Peffer and Raymond Elferink, I am presenting a paper at the EDEN conference on Expanding Learning Scenarios in Barcelona in June. the paper is based on work undertaken as part of the Learning Layers project. Below is the abstract. And if you would like to read the full paper you can download it from the link at the bottom of this page.

This paper focuses on the use of technology for (mainly informal) learning in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the construction sector. It is based on work being undertaken by the EU funded Learning Layers project. The project is aiming to develop large scale take up of technology for informal learning in two sectors, health and construction.

The project includes both research and development strands, aiming to facilitate and support the development, testing and deployment of systems and tools for learning. The wider goals of the project are to develop sustainable models and tools for supporting learning in other countries and sectors. The paper describes the outcomes of empirical research undertaken in the construction sector as well as the co-design process contributing to the development of the Learning Toolbox, a mobile application for apprentices. The empirical research has been undertaken with a wide range of stakeholders in the construction industry, including surveys of apprentices whilst the co-design process has focused on trainers and apprentices.

Any use of mobile technology in and for work depends on the very specific situation and general conditions within a business sector. Hence research and development for mobile digital media includes both peoples’ needs and practices as workers and learners as well as specific business challenges, directions of development and needs concerning knowledge, skills and competencies. Testing and guiding the introduction of such solutions in enterprises and organisations could be understood as one kind of action research. Thus in researching and developing mobile learning applications and digital media for use in SMEs it is important to examine the possible impacts on employees and work processes as well as just the impact or potential for learning. The research in enterprises differentiated four lines of argumentation around the use of digital media: a) anxious-avoiding, b) critical, c) optimistic and d) pragmatically oriented,

Our interviews confirmed that technology is fast changing the world of construction, with increased work pressure and the demand to document work. It was noted that mobile devices are increasingly being used to produce a photographic record of construction work, as part of quality assurance processes. However, there was pronounced scepticism towards what was termed as “VET researcher fantasies” for instance in developing knowledge exchange networks. Companies were not prepared to share knowledge which was seen as giving them a competitive advantage over others.

The initial interviews were followed up with a survey of over 700 first, second and third year apprentices. The survey confirmed the desire for more use of mobile learning and a frustration with the limitations of existing commercial applications. Whilst only a limited number of companies permitted the use of mobile devices in the workplace, 53% of apprentices said they used them for learning or for obtaining work related information, explaining this was in their own time in breaks or after work.

The project is developing a ‘Learning Toolbox’, designed as a comprehensive architecture and framework for apprentice training and continuing training as well as for other services for the building and construction sector. Rather than training the main interest craft trade companies in web tools and mobile technologies is related to real-time, knowledge sharing, communication and problem-solving. Experience with earlier web tools has shown that they do not necessarily contribute to optimisation of work and business processes. However, flexible framework solutions like Learning Toolbox can be customised to their needs. Supplier companies (e.g. vendors of machinery, equipment and materials) want to customise user guidelines, maintenance manuals and instructional media for different users. They also need to develop real-time feedback mechanisms to improve error control mechanisms.

The implementation of Technology Enhanced Learning in SMEs will require capacity building in organisations, networks and sectors. This includes the capacity of trainers to support pedagogically the implementation of technology for learning, the development of technical infrastructure and the capacity of organisations and managements to support the use of technologies.

Finally is the importance of context in work based learning. Mobile learning applications need to be able to adapt to different contexts. These include, but are not limited to, the context of what kind of work is being undertaken, different forms of work organisation and different locations and forms of learning. The Learning Toolbox application is particularly designed to bridge formal and informal learning and to take account of the different contexts of learning in the vocational schools, learning in the industry training centre and learning on the construction site.

Download full paper (Word format) – mobileLearningEDENFIN

Developing trust in our work

December 15th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

In the Learning Layers project we are aiming to produce tools to help Small and Medium Enterprises support informal learning. For most of the first two years of the project we have been focused on a co-deign process – working with small groups of users to iteratively develop the tools and applications. Our user groups are, at the moment at least, drawn from the construction sector in north Germany and the health sector in north east England.

In years three and four of the project, we are aiming to roll out these tools to significant numbers of users. In preparing for this we have had discussions with literally hundreds of stakeholders  including managers of SMEs. Three big concerns have emerged. the first is whether our work is sustainable. Many are interested in what we are doing but want to know how as a research project we can guarantee our applications will still be around and supported after the project ends. To deal with this not unreasonable concern we have had to seriously explore business models and are in the process of using the Business Model Canvas approach to identify and develop business models for each of our applications.This is new to me – but I can see the value. I have worked on too many projects where systems and tools are developed and tested with small user groups and then abandoned as project funding ends. Of course such processes are legitimate as a research aim. But all too often promising developments are wasted just because no-one has though out how to make their work sustainable At the end of two, three or four years, researchers and developers move on to the next project – and so it goes on.

Secondly people are concerned that our tools and applications will integrate with systems they already use. they do not want yet another stand alone system – and certainly do not want another log in to circumnavigate. We are implementing Open ID Connect for our own services and this offers the possibility for integration with the LDAP systems more commonly used by companies.

The third big concern is data security and server hosting. Our original idea was to use a cloud system developed by the University of Aachen. however we have encountered a surprising degree of distrust of cloud systems. This is not necessarily based on any particular technical reason. The aftermath of the Snowden affair seems to be that in Germany at least company owners and Systems Administrators want to be able to control their own data. This means they want it inside their systems – and cloud is not trusted. Data being held in the USA is not on. As Ben Werdmuller says:

There are all kinds of reasons why you should care about where your data is stored. If you’re a business or institution, there may be legislative and auditing requirements relating to your servers. Many educational institutions in Europe, for example, can’t store data in the US without jumping through numerous hoops – and requiring service providers to jump through more.

My feeling is that managers in small businesses know they should care and that it is important where their data is held. However they do not have the expertise and time to research legislative and auditing requirements. The answer for them is to hold data on their own servers – preferably where they can touch it. And I suspect this situation is not going to change in the near future. For the Learning layers project, as well as a hosted cloud solution, we are now developing the Layers Box, a box containing the Learning Layers software which can simply be plugged in to existing server systems. We will see if this helps allay people’s fears.

Developing the capacity to mdoernise workplace learning

June 21st, 2014 by Graham Attwell

I like Jane Hart’s work on learning in organisations. And I like this presentation on 20 small changes to modernise the workplace learning experience. However, I am not so sure that the changes she advocates are so small. True each one on its own may represent just a small step forwards. But to be effective the changes need to be taken together. And that requires a big change on organisational practice. Many, if not most, organisations, especially Small and Medium Enterprises do not have the capacity to take these steps. That is why in the Learning Layers project we see capacity building as central to developing technology supported informal learning in SMEs. Capacity involves the confidence and competence of trainers and others who support learning, the understanding and support of managers, the physical infrastructure and perhaps most critically the culture of organisations.
We are working to produce an ‘e-learning readiness tool’ to help organisations assess where they are in termsn of capacity and plan the steps they need to take in order to develop tehir capacity. I will publish a draft of the tool in the next few weeks if anyone is interested.

Learning Toolbox

June 11th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

Tomorrow I am speaking at the 4th Annual Future Learning Lab conference in Kristiansand in Norway. The conference aims to target the interplay of learning, pedagogy issues, digital media and globalizing forces representing both opportunities, threats and new conditions. The conference web site says new ways and means of learning are paving their way into both formal education, work-life and leisure. Education technologies continue to evolve. Digital communication technology changed the music industry, the film industry and the news media as well as book publishing industry: Do we really think education and the learning field is any different? The media ecology that enables disruption, is global. The new networks being employed, are global. But the consequences and challenges are, for all practical purposes, local. And learning is still an aspect of social interaction as well as personal endeavor.

My presentation (see slide deck above) is based on the work we are doing in the EU funded Learning Layers project, developing the Learning toolbox, a mobile application designed for apprentices in the construction industry. In particular, we are trying to deal with the issue of context. The Learning Toolbox is based on tiles, each a separate application, which can be differently configured for use in different contexts.

Using technology to support informal learning in SMEs

June 11th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

Last week was the deadline for submissions to the Online Educa Berlin 2014 conference. I like Online Educa. If nothing else, it is a great end of year opportunity to catch up with colleagues and friends from around the world. And it is also a great opportunity to engage in wider dialogues around the work we are doing. Online Educa has for some years been experimenting with the format of sessions and attempting to introduce more interaction, rather than just slides and talk. This year they are limiting presenters to just five slides. And they have asked everyone submitting a proposal to send  short video describing their proposed session.

So here is my video. It is based on the work we are doing in the EU funded Learning Layers project, developing and implementing technologies for informal learning in Small and Medium Enterprises.

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