E-learning: the reality

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You only have to think back to TV and cinema classics such as Space 1999 and 2001: A Space Odyssey to recognise that making predictions about the future can be a hazardous business. E-learning is no exception. At the height of the dotcom boom, many wild and, in retrospect, fanciful predictions were made about the spread of e-learning to the workplace.

The reality, as delegates to a conference on blended learning will hear this week, is somewhat different, but potentially just as exciting. Strategy & Practice in Blended Learning, which is being held at London’s Berner’s Hotel on September 10 and 11, is bringing together some of the leading proponents of e-learning in the private, public and education sectors to look at the best ways of introducing new learning technologies into the workplace.

In the early days, many organisations embraced e-learning simply because it was an exciting technological frontier. They threw money at it, buying in expensive systems and, often, inappropriate, off-the-shelf content. Nowadays businesses are, rightly, more circumspect and demanding about how their workplace learning should be delivered.

The trend is very much towards a mixed - “blended” - approach that is both closely tailored to and intimately responds to business needs. Organisations are also much more aware of the need to look at how they motivate their employees to learn, how they give them the time and space to learn, how they get “buy-in” at all levels and the importance of seeing e-learning as just one element of the educational mix. At its heart blended learning, therefore, is designed to be far more sensitive to the needs of the learner and the circumstances in which they undertake learning.

Quite apart from the spread of the internet and innovations such as CD-Roms, the past few years have seen the rise of an array of new technologies, for instance instant messaging, 3G telephony and digital radio and television. These all mean that the number of ways we can learn has proliferated. Deciding how best to invest in blended learning and what approach is right for you can therefore be a daunting process.

The Strategy & Practice in Blended Learning conference will examine blended learning models as diverse as those used by BP, Bayer, the Scottish Executive, NHS Leadership Centre, IBM and Cisco Systems. Delegates will learn how to choose from the myriad choices available to them, and what lessons they should be learning from those who have struggled with the same issues.

Keynote speakers include Dr Michelle Selinger, education consultant at Cisco Systems, Charles Jennings, head of global learning and internal training at Reuters, Conor Shaw of the Oracle University, Mark Frank, managing consultant, learning and development at IBM and Reinhard Hinterbuchner, manager, digital learning at BP.

The Government will be represented in the shape of the Learning and Skills Council. Others include the Open University Business School, the Scottish Executive, the NHS Leadership Centre, Marsh, Royal and Sun Alliance, Bayer and the Training Foundation.

“Of course classroom training works, it’s worked for 2,000 years, but it is very expensive,” explains Rosalind Wade, conference director at organiser WCBF. “So, is that best option or can you blend your materials and delivery methods, and how can you decide what are the best tools, what are the best delivery methods for getting the best outcomes? The conference is about understanding what are the best tools out there and how to incorporate them into your delivery methods.”

The conference, she adds, is primarily aimed at heads of training, e-learning specialists and people overseeing the development and design of learning and development strategy. But it will also be of interest to those with a general interest in training issues and how the workplace is moving on from the classroom-based training of the past.

“People are wanting to understand what mediums for training are better for different situations. They want to look at the tools for designing training and what is the best way of doing it,” she says.

Other key questions that will be addressed by the conference include, can soft skills - things like leadership, communication and appraisal - be taught in an environment that is not classroom based?

Delegates will also look at how to prepare for the launch of a blended learning package, how to support a blended learning programme, how to build the business case for e-learning and the budgetary and technology constraints, as well as the cost benefits, of blended learning.

Some organisations now use e-learning to run coaching and tutorial sessions, with a live trainer connected to students through a video link. The conference will therefore include sessions looking at what sort of skills are needed by the new generation of classroom-based and online tutors, coaches and mentors. There will, too, be opportunities to participate in focus groups and interactive sessions to put theory into practice.

There are still places available at the conference, and those interested in attending should call 0800 1958601 or 020 7872 5891, or go to www.wcbf.com/HR/7000

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