1: An introduction to workplace learning (part 1)

This is the first Chapter of the Social Learning Handbook 2011, a new version is now available Social Learning Handbook 2014 

Workplace Learning is changing.  To understand what and why this is happening today requires us first to take a look back at the past, so here is a potted history of workplace learning to the present day.

A brief history of workplace learning

There have been a number of identifiable stages in the history of workplace learning, shown diagrammatically in Fig 1 below.


Fig 1: Stages 1-3 of workplace learning

Stage 1: Classroom Training

The traditional approach to workplace learning was to take people away from their day job and train them in a separate training room – just like the school classroom.

In fact it is this model of training that is normally held up as the benchmark for all other types learning.  One of the distinct advantages of classroom training is that it is a social experience, where participants can learn together with colleagues and in the presence of a trainer or instructor.

However, there are a number of inherent disadvantages with this type of learning. This includes the fact that everyone has to be in the classroom at the same time and has to proceed at the same pace,   and for many people, all too often, a training event of this kind is often considered to be a “holiday” from the day job.  Working and learning in many cases are considered to be quite separate activities.

Although classroom training still continues in many organizations, others have moved into the next stage of workplace learning, where technology-based training, aka e-learning, has automated this process.

Stage 2: E-Learning

The roots of e-learning in fact go back to the early uses of technology to support learning, in particular the use of training films, TV and videotapes.  In the 1980s, with the advent of personal computers, we saw the introduction of interactive, multimedia computer-based training (CBT) delivered on CDs or laser disks.

But it was in the early 1990s, with the birth of the World Wide Web, that online learning began and the Web was first used to deliver learning globally.

Most of the early online learning activity occurred in universities where access to the Internet was more prevalent. However, by the late 1990s companies had begun to see the value of online learning as a means of delivering training at low cost.

At the peak of the dot com boom around 2000, there was enormous interest in everything “e-”. We saw the lift-off of “e-commerce” and “e-business”, and the term “e-learning” was also coined around this time.  In 2001, John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems predicted:

E-Learning is the next killer app: it will make email look like a rounding error.

The great benefits of e-learning, promoted at that time, were that you no longer needed to spend long periods travelling to a location to attend a training workshop or course; you could now have access to learning when you wanted it, at the time you wanted it – day or night, at home or work.

It also meant that you could take the learning at your own pace; there was nobody to tell you when you had to do it and how much you had to do.

During the 2000s corporate e-learning became big business and we saw:

  • the large-scale production of off-the-shelf libraries of generic courseware
  • companies offering bespoke development of multimedia online courses, and
  • the emergence of Learning Management Systems (LMS) to “manage” learners and their learning.

Although Cisco’s definition of e-learning back in 2001 had been very wide, encompassing

“education, training, communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing

most organizations focused on the packaging of instructional content, such that the term e-learning became (and still is the case for many people) synonymous with online courses.

Despite the early fanfare around e-learning, people began to become disillusioned with e-learning.

For managers:

  • it didn’t seem to be delivering on its promises, people where dropping out of online courses and not “completing”
  • large scale investments in LMS weren’t paying off
  • content development was taking too long and was too costly

For employees:

  • e-learning was often considered inferior to traditional classroom-based learning. For many there needed to be a teacher, as well as other students, present to add value to the whole process; just working through an online course wasn’t enough – however well designed or developed.
  • employees felt they were getting a raw deal:  they weren’t enthusiastic about sitting at their computers ploughing their way through hours of online courses – they soon got bored.

Consequently a number of new training approaches emerged to address these issues, in particular the need for social interaction.

Stage 3: Blended Learning

Blended learning was originally defined as creating a learning solution that mixed face-to-face (f2f) learning (workshops etc) with online elements to create a blend of the two. Much has been written about how to create blended solutions, but there is no magic formula. The “right” blend depends on a number of factors that include the learning problem being addressed, the learners’ profile, the budget and so on.

Another term for “blended learning” is “hybrid learning” and this term is commonly found in formal education. But in each case, the term is now defined more broadly as to mean delivering learning using a variety of different media, formats and approaches.

In situations where face-to-face learning was not possible, that is where students were distributed in various parts of the country or world, systems and tools began to be used to allow remote learners to come together online, at the same time, with a tutor who led a learning session. This is often referred to as “live e-learning” or “synchronous learning” or even “real time learning”, to differentiate it from asynchronous or self-paced learning.

For many organizations, then workplace learning today involves:

  • creating content-rich e-learning or blended solutions with a mix of face-to-face and other online elements
  • managing  the learners and their learning in learning management systems and reporting on their activity, test results and course completions
  • the use of web-conferencing systems that support the delivery of live e-learning sessions.

However one major influence on our understanding of workplace learning is the increasing realization that informal learning is a key component that has long been overlooked.

>> An introduction to workplace learning (part 2)

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