Archive for the ‘ICT and SMEs’ Category

Digital Disruption or Digital Transformations

October 20th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

I have spent a good deal of time in the last few weeks thinking and reviewing the progress we have made in the European Research Programme funded Learning Layers project

. The project aims to research, develop, implement and promote technologies for learning in Small and Medium Enterprisse (SMEs). As with all projects funded under the Research Programme, we are subject to an annual review and have to submit reports on the work undertaken for the review.  This in itself is an interesting exercise, involving at least four or five authors from different countries and often different disciplines working together.

I have written the introduction to the report, focusing on the impact of what I describe as digital transformations on SMEs and on learning. Although our work focuses on the construction and health sectors, I think the development processes and the research findings are relevant to far wider sectors. Over the next week I will blog sections of the report. I see this as opening up our internal review procedure to a wider audience and welcome any feedback, critical or otherwise. The first section is on digital transformations, as opposed to digital disruptions.

There has been a great deal of focus, especially in the popular press, on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies on society through the term ‘digital disruption’. Digital disruption posits the inability of existing organisations and companies to respond to emerging new technologies and thus leaving them open to disruptive entrants who are more innovative and flexible in organisational approaches and technology adoption.

We see little evidence of such digital disruption in either the healthcare or construction sectors. However there is no doubt of the fast growing impact of digital technologies in both sectors, for example 3D printing and Building Information Modelling in construction and self diagnosis applications, big data, health apps and telemedicine / telehealth in healthcare (see the following sections below for more details of these changes). But rather than seeing these as disrupting existing organisations, there is more evidence that these organisations themselves are being transformed in order to adapt to and exploit new technologies. This we would see as digital transformations.

Digital transformation refers to the changes associated with the application of digital technology in all aspects of human society (Stolterman and Croon Fors, 2004). It is seen as involving the application of digital competence and digital literacies to enable new types of innovation and creativity in a particular domain, rather than simply enhance and support the traditional methods (Lankshear, 2008), In November 2011, a three-year study conducted by the MIT Center for Digital Business and Capgemini Consulting concluded that only one-third of companies globally have an effective digital transformation program in place (Capgemini Consulting. 2011).

The study defined an “effective digital transformation program” as one that addressed

  • “The What”: the intensity of digital initiatives within a corporation
  • “The How”: the ability of a company to master transformational change to deliver business results. (ibid)

Our research in health and construction paints a rather more complicated picture, although we would generally concur with the MIT study outcomes. In this it is notable that we are working primarily with SMEs rather than with corporations and that SMEs rarely have the resources to develop complex programmes of transformation. Our research suggest a very uneven pattern, with enterprises and especially training organisations increasingly aware of the challenges digital technologies play, but with differentiated drivers for change in different trades in construction and different organisational impulses in health care, along with continuing barriers to transformations that also impact on the adoption of new forms of learning. It should also be noted that our own project research and development processes have led to a greater awareness of the impact of digital technologies and the capacity building activities that the project has undertaken are designed precisely to develop the ability of SMEs to master transformational change.

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 a Work Based, Mobile Personal Learning Environment

July 6th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

As regular readers will know, for a long time I have been fascinated by the potential of mobile technologies for developing work based learning and work based Personal Learning environments. Mobile technologies can allow learning to take place directly in the workplace. Learning can be recorded and for that matter reflection on learning take place as a direct part of the work process. In such a way the workplace becomes part of the Personal Learning Environment and conversely the PLE becomes part of the work process. At the same time, such an approach can bring together both formal and informal learning. Through sharing learning processes and outcomes, learners themselves can contribute to a growing ‘store; of learning materials.

It hasn’t happened yet and it is worth thinking about why. One reason maybe that only recently has seen the spread of sufficiently powerful mobile devices and applications. Another is the suspicion of employers about the uses of such devices in the workplace. Most importantly may be the failure to develop pedagogic approaches for mobile learning. Most developments to date have essentially been about consumption of learning materials, albeit sometimes in innovative ways. And much of the publicity or mobile learning has emphasised consumption of short episodes of learning away from the workplace – or for that matter the classroom (for some reason we will all be learning on the bus or the train on our way home from work in the future or so the vendors say).

That is not to say there have not been attempts to develop more radical thinking. Members of the London Mobile Learning Group have, like others developed new ideas for work based mobile learning pedagogy. Yet still, as far as I can see, there have been few attempts to implement such ideas at any scale.

It is for these reasons that I am so interested in the development of the Learning Toolbox, initially targeted at apprentices in the construction industry, as part of the EU funded Learning layers project. Perhaps the biggest thing I have leaned from this work (apart from how difficult it is) is the need for co-development processes with end users and stakeholders in the industry. The new paper we have written for the PLE2014 conference documents the research we have undertaken and the co-development process, as well as our understanding of the issues around context and how to address such issues.

You can download the paper here. As always any and all feedback is very welcome.

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.

Barriers to learning with technologies in enterprises

May 22nd, 2014 by Graham Attwell

Most of my work at the moment involves the use of technology for learning in work, including in the construction sector, the health sector and in public employment services. It is s subject I have been working on – on and off – for the past 15 years. Although I cannot prove it, my feeling is that there is a greater awareness of the potential of technology for learning now, particularly in those organisations with training departments. And there is growing interest in the potential of mobile devices for embedding learning within work processes.

However practice in patchy at best. Of course there are differences between individual sectors and between different companies within sectors. But the use of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises, increasingly seen as the loci of future employment growth, is very limited. Which once more raises the question of why and of what the barriers are.

The biggest barrier for me is the capacity of organisations to adopt TEL. This includes a number of different things including the attitude and support of managers for TE, the availability of learning materials, the confidence and competence of trainers and learners in using technology and the technical infrastructure. As I said above, I see increasing support from managers. The movement to open educational resources and the wider use of web 2.0 tools for content creation is overcoming previous problems with the lack of learning materials for occupational learning. Confidence and competence of trainers and learners is harder to assess. If anything, in workshops we are finding greater differentiation – from very confident and keen users to those barely able to operate a computer. This means we need to foster processes of peer learning – with more advanced users and trainers supporting those with less confidence.

The biggest problem we are finding is infrastructure. Whilst I read with enjoyment all these papers about social learning and the web and how it can be transformational in organisations, the reality is most computers and networks in organisations are locked down.  How locked down varies – in some it requires the sys admin to install any new software, in others individual websites have to be white listed on the server before they can be accessed. Of course we all love to hate system administrators. But there are real reasons behind this. Most systems contain confidential data and critical systems. They have not been built for learning. And with the increasing risk of hacking – administrators are looking how to tighten up their systems, not open them up. The only answer I can see is to provide completely separate networks for learning. Of course this is not going to be cheap. So once more we are back to persuading organisational managers of the importance of investing in infrastructures for learning. In this at least, nothing has changed

Changes in Learning and Development

May 21st, 2014 by Graham Attwell

This is an interesting video. Donald H Taylor explains how Learning and Development Departments need to change their attitude to risk in order to keep pace with the rest of the business in today’s modern world. He describes 4 quadrants in which L&D departments fit: Learning Leadership, Unacknowledged Prophet, Comfortable Extinction and The Training Ghetto and explains how and why all L&D departments should join the quadrant of Learning Leadership. However I am not convinced that the major problem is that Learning and Development departments are failing to keep up with changing organisations. In my experience all too often it is the organisations themselves who are holding back change. And don’t forget that most Small and Medium Enterprises, who it could be argued are the prime drivers of change do not have a Learning and Development Department (interesting in that regard that Donald cites Pinterest with 12 employees as an example of a fast changing organisation).

How do apprentices use mobile devices for learning?

April 9th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

Last autumn, we undertook a survey of how apprentices in the German construction industry use mobile devices. This was undertaken as part of the Learning Layers project. We produced a report on this work in December, when some 581  apprentices had completed the survey. Now we have more than 700 replies. We plan to update our analysis to include those who responded after that date. However a number of people have asked me for access to the report as it is and so I am publishing it on this blog.

In summary we found

  • 86,7 per cent of apprentices survey have a smartphone, 19,4 per cent a tablet
  • 94 per cent  pay for internet connectivity themselves
  • 55.6 per cent use their smartphone or tablet more than 10 times a day
  • 42.8 per cent say they use their mobile or tablet often or very often for seeking work-related information. However this relates to use outside work time, in the workplace the numbers are much lower.
  • 58% use mobile devices for work-related conversations and 53.2 for work-related information
  • 11.2 per cent say they often or very often use web tools in the workplace
  • 95.9 per cent had heard of WhatsApp, only 16.7 per cent of the BoschApp designed for the construction industry
  • The most frequently used app in the workplace was the camera, with 19.6 per cent using it often or very often
  • 79.3 per cent sought information in text format and 59.2 per cent video.

Around half would like more information about using web tools for learning in the work process and 115 have left their email addresses for us to send further information

The survey indicates that the vast majority of German apprentices in the building trades possess devices and the skills to use them. These devices could be used as part of the Learning Layers project. As the cost of tablets and smartphones becomes cheaper, the digital divide does not seem to be a major issue for this group. Smartphones are used for acquiring work-related knowledge, through personal communication or from the internet. These activities are to a large extent carried out in the apprentices’ own time.

However, the work-related use of digital devices is still uncommon. 20% of the apprentices use their smartphones to make work related photos and such existing practices, could be used by the Learning Layers project for enabling the collective development and sharing of learning materials. The majority of apprentices think that the support offered by mobile devices at the workplace would be useful. The Learning Layers project has the chance to scale up the use of mobile devices by offering apps that are helpful and/or showing the possibilities of making innovative use of existing apps.

Knowledge about work-related apps is gained to a large extent from personal contacts with other apprentices, colleagues, and trainers.

You can download the full report here. If you would like access to the full data please email or skype me.

Aumented Reality, practice and performace

March 12th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

Last week I went to the Bristol Mobile Ideas in Mobile Learning Symposium (programme and links here). I thoroughly enjoyed the event. Just a general point before I get to the specifics. I am increasingly bored with large conferences where you sit passively listening to string of paper inputs – good bad or indifferent – and then perhaps get to ask one or two questions. Smaller events such as the Bristol symposium, allow a real discussion and best of all, continued debate in breaks and in the evening. This is the kind of event which promotes learning!

I made a presentation on the Learning Toolbox mobile application we are developing for the Learning Layers project in the penultimate session of the symposium. I followed an intriguing presentation by Daniel Spikol on Using Augmented Reality, Artistic Research and Mobile Phones to Explore Practice-based Learning (see video above). Daniel has been working with Dance groups in Sweden, using the Aurasma Augmented Reality app for recording and augmenting dance performances. At first sight that would seem a long way from my work on developing an app for apprentices in the construction industry. But there were many links. Amongst other things Daniel made two key points which I could relate to. One was the need for continuing and iterative development in the use of apps (and here it was interesting that they had used an existing application, rather than trying to develop their own code). Second was the use of technology in capturing and representing physical performance. And in terms of work based learning, that is exactly what we are trying to do (and struggling with) in using mobile devices. In this regard I am interested in the ideas about practice.  Practice is related to competence and qualification and includes cognitive, affective, personal and social factors (trying to find citation for this). In terms of learning (and using technology for learning) practice based activities – whether based on formal or informal learning – are:

  • Purposeful
  • Heavily influenced by context
  • Often result in changes in behaviour
  • Sequenced in terms of developing a personal knowledge base
  • Social – involving shared community knowledge

Returning to Daniel’s questions, the challenge is how we can design and shape technology to augment practice.




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