Is Work Based Learning Fit for the 21st Century?

I have been very fortunate to have spent more than a decade dishing out advice, supporting and occasionally nagging, learning providers about the fantastic and often simple technology available to them. But here we are beginning the fifteenth year of the 21st century when I  feel the need to make the following observations which may touch a nerve with some, bewilder others and perhaps, just perhaps, encourage a few to reconsider their organisations methods of delivering Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Post-16 education. Particularly in the FE & Skills sector.

Several years ago I was discussing effective use of technology with the CEO of a large Learning provider, saying that of all the providers across the Northwest, especially those engaged in work based learning, I estimated that fewer than 25% were using an appropriate ePortfolio to manage learners, assessors and subsequently their core business. He said “probably more like 7% Colin.”  Sadly, he was right.

mouse and learningMore recently, along with RSC, WBL colleagues across the UK, I delivered an on-line presentation on the subject of using technology and conducted a straw poll to ask how many of the 40 plus delegates were using ePortfolio.  Result: 15%. I next asked, of those, how many were using their ePortfolio across all their vocational sectors. Result: 9%. (That’s 9% of 15%)  – The rest were using paper based methods and according to my RSC colleagues, that despite a decade of proving the value of using an appropriate ePortfolio, the figure appears to be reflected nationally, so my CEO friend is probably still right and there’s a long way to go.

Disappointed, but not overly surprised as we enter the year 2015 with more challenges for the WBL sector than I remember. I can safely assume that the majority of learning providers that are engaged in delivering competency based courses, apprenticeships, traineeships, distance learning,  at any level, are using a process designed for delivery in classrooms in the 80’s and really not fit for purpose and I still wonder why. I am often asked to explain and even ‘prove’ the benefits of changing from paper to electronic Portfolios, which I have done repeatedly, with ‘bells on’. I have even ‘flattened’ every challenge offered for an organisation not changing, especially cost and staff skills, which is so very easy to do. But I don’t have a solution, or perhaps the patience, for a management that ignores every fact and still says no because ‘the staff didn’t like it!

Whilst an ‘appropriate’ ePortfolio is undeniably an important part of a Teaching, Learning and Assessment process, it is just one of several so called technological components, essential to managing such provision effectively. It is not, as some providers believe, a panacea of all WBL needs, especially as is so often the case there is no strategy to accompany the purchase. Another important component  is an effective VLE or platform for teaching and learning materials and as yet I am unaware of an eAssessment Portfolio claiming to do the same job.  Unless as one curriculum manager during a review described their VLE as:  “it’s used by most of the staff as a ‘suppository.” She corrected that of course having meant to say a ‘repository’, either way we sympathised with the faux pas.

My best estimate of how many independent WBL Providers actually have a VLE (virtual learning environment) worthy of the description, is that hardly any have found a solution to this particular need, I refer of course to those providers that believe they might have such a need in the first place.  Of those WBL providers using a VLE, most will be within an FE college, tagging onto a college system, managed by an IT department.  Otherwise I doubt that many of those would have one either. Curiously, the learning providers which do make best use of a VLE do so exceptionally well. But the total number of really good examples, still falls below an ‘acceptable’ percentage of practitioners.

Sadly there is more. Assuming that there is a VLE, how many learners, or staff are able to access from outside of a training centre, which is often when they most need to.  And does the quality of learning resources meet what they have the right to expect of 21st century education? The reports from many reviews conducted in the past twelve months proved it to be less than one might hope.

Enhanced learning resources.  Long before the FELTAG report, myself and colleagues within the RSC, were raising awareness of and demonstrating how teachers and trainers could make classroom delivery engaging and interactive with minimum of IT skills or training. Invariably the digitised learning materials could then be made available on-line and therefore accessible to the learner 24/7, to use when they were ready and able to learn, with the obvious results. This is an important element and one than can be overcome with appropriate guidance and planning.

With a few notable exceptions, Staff Development is still something that the majority of learning providers deliver a few times each year, in a classroom environment, often on subjects that have nothing to do with a ‘skills needs analysis’ and certainly not on upskilling the use of technology.  The most common reason given for this failure is lack of time and confidence in using ICT. Well in my opinion, for those still thinking that way, they need to get out more. Just as one example, we are enjoying an age of on-line training and watching live or recorded webinars.  It takes little more than the will and some planning for a learning provider to run subject specific training on-line or captured in recordings for staff to access as needed and when time allows.  Low cost, simple to create, accessible remotely at a time to suit the circumstances. So would someone remind me again what the reason is for educators lacking the skills to create or enhance learning materials to provide the best quality educational experience for their learners.

genericAt some point the 21st Century Learning Provider, particularly if engaged in work based learning, but by no means exclusively.  Has a duty to its learners, clients, community, staff and organisation, to use the best means available to deliver the best quality teaching, learning and assessment, much of which includes using technology.  Not rocket science, just technology that is in everyday use by their learners, clients, community, staff etc. etc.

Myself and many learning providers have learned that appropriate  e-Assessment Portfolios have been used effectively in work based learning for over a decade, likewise dynamic VLE’s.  I know, I was one of those that implemented them and seen others improve year on year. I am equally aware of a number of Learning Providers that have been delivering courses on-line for five years or more and others that conduct on-line assessment using remote webcams, for just as long.  To some learning providers, a learner assessment or professional discussion is more likely to occur using Skype, rather than traipsing across the country for a pre-arranged but often wasted visit. Perfectly normal for learner and assessor and the benefits are obvious.  Is this using technology for technology sake? Or is it just common sense to make use of what the learner, assessor, teacher, dare I say manager uses every day ‘outside’ of the training centre.

Bury_your_head_in_the_sandOn the subject of wasted time, if the aforementioned systems were in place, the learner portfolio and in particular progression and timeliness, would up to date in real time and accessible by key stakeholders 24/7.  Unlike a paper based system which only an assessor can interpret and report upon as and when through a chain of paper communications. That would be the portfolio that unlike an ePortfolio has to be kept in a store at inordinate costs.  The waste associated with that fact alone would pay for a decent LMS twice over. But who bothers to check what the ‘traditional’ system is already costing and what are the benefits again?

So why do the vast majority of Learning Providers not make use of the best of technology for the benefit of the learner in particular, but also in my opinion their own ‘survival’.  When millions in government funding has been spent over the last decade in raising awareness, training and signposting best practice.  After hundreds of consultations, dozens of workshops and organisational reviews, my former colleague John Dalziel had an acronym for this mystery – THWHADI – ‘That’s how we have always done it.’  Well best of luck!

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Consultant


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