Learning technologies in the IT sector

by | Aug 20, 2008 | Articles

At the end of January , e-skills UK released their latest research reports looking at the key trends, opportunities and challenges facing IT & Telecoms in the UK. It highlights that fully exploiting technology is the single most important step the UK can take to improve productivity across the economy. The results could generate an additional £35 bn  for the UK economy over the coming 5 -7 years – interesting evidence for those wanting to demonstrate that skills add value!

The e-skills UK research highlighted that the sector still has significant skills gaps , with employers reporting  70% of staff with skills gaps are lacking technical skills, 30% business skills, and 31% interpersonal skills. Perhaps more significantly,  81% of companies reporting skills gaps amongst their IT & Telecoms professionals report an adverse effect on their business.

The IT sector – originally ahead of the e-learning curve

The technology sector has always been challenged with the ongoing need to keep skills up to date, given the pace of change of technology and the impact of globalisation. As such the IT sector was one of the earliest adopters of technology supported learning. Their need drove investment into developing innovative learning content and learning support, particular to deliver industry certification programmes.  Just before the dot com bubble burst, they sector was ahead of the game. In the late 90’s they had potential access to certification programmes delivered through blended learning, simulations, online mentoring, virtual classroom – in fact some of the best online content and support around at the time.

In 2008 , learning technologies have spread out of the IT domain and have even more potential to engage learners. As early adopters of learning technologies, what are the IT and telecoms sectors doing now? Are they still ahead of the curve? Given the profession’s relatively early access to quite sophisticated content and online support– what worked for them and what didn’t?

How is the IT Sector  currently using learning technologies ?

In last year’s Towards Maturity research, we found that learning technologies are still frequently used for IT professional skills ( the sector spends about 30% of its learning budget in this area, with an expectation to spend 50% by 2010) . The IT and Telecommunication sector does more induction training and sales and marketing training using e-learning than other sectors. It is also more likely to offer an e-learning component within the supply chain than other sectors.
However we found that only half of the organisations in the It and telecommunications sector include an e-learning component within industry recognised qualifications. In general, the  industry uses e-learning for individuals to acquire specific job-related skills rather than a coherent qualification programme.

e-skills’s Technology Counts report perhaps highlights the drivers behind these findings. Traditional IT ‘entry level’ jobs increasingly located off shore, those based in the UK are instead focused on the application of technology to improve business performance. IT & Telecoms professionals are increasingly expected to be multi-skilled, with business technical and interpersonal skills.  The need for broader skills base, and responsive skills delivery may account for some of the shifts in the way this sector uses learning technologies.

Virignmedia’s e-learning journey

David Perring, (previously Head of Learning Solutions at Virginmedia)described their organisation’s e-learning journey over the past few years. In 2000 they offered their field and back end engineers a generic range of certifications and used generic technical content ( supported by online mentors) to deliver skills. Over the years, budgets and circumstances have ensured that a new approach to learning in this field has evolved. Learning delivery is now  more project oriented and targeted at specific needs, flexing to both people and circumstances.

Whilst generic  IT professional e-learning content  is still used at Virgin media, it is part of an mix of learning technologies used to support overall requirements. New tools such as rapid learning materials, virtual meeting places, electronic performance support and video are now part of the portfolio.  They are also seeing an increase in the use of learning technologies into traditional learning methods such as the classroom where learners can use simulations and multipath decision trees. Technology has meant that learning does not have to be delivered by a trainer all the time – line managers and coaches can also get involved.  This shift in delivery reflects the shift in skills needed within the organisation enabling the technology skills to be delivered in a context that represents the broader organisational business needs.

Changing learning offerings

Skillsoft is certainly one of the biggest providers of e-learning for IT technical skills, Kevin Young – MD SkillSoft – observes that in the earliers days , it is certainly true that the IT profession was the primary user of e-learning. Although there is a much broader base of users across all business functions, they still see that the IT function still represents the largest single segment of users overall. The offering of that Skillsoft has changed over time and they see use of all of the learning assets , ie content, Books 24x7 etc but it’s equally fair to say that the shift of focus to informal learning does mean that their Books 24x7 solution tends to be the most heavily used resource from an it perspective.

And this type of informal learning resource not only is popular but it is also effective. The resource is in use in a range of businesses reliant on technology for competitive success. One widely publicised study from Reuters highlighted that it  provided a return on investment of over 3x the initial investment in 12 months. Over  90% of learners agreed that the service helped them find speedy answers to job related questions, and over 60% believed it saved them time and 40% believed it reduced the need for classroom training.

Skillsoft were also one of the earliest companies to offer online mentoring to support industry and Kevin Young  sees an going demand for this type of learner support aimed at supporting the IT learner through a range of activities of a push and pull nature.

A provider perspective

The classroom suppliers of technical skills still retain their market share in the UK but over the past few years, more classroom suppliers are being asked to offer multiple channels for skills delivery and there are very few that do not have an ‘online offering’.

Brian Sutton – Director Learning and Development of QA-IQ, a leading UK learning provider confirms that the larger companies they work with are all very interested in anything that can change the current paradigm of work related learning and are keen to see innovation.  They need to train diverse populations and they need to spread key knowledge quickly.  They also cannot afford to have their people away from work for extended periods.

At QA-IQ, they have worked with a range of learning technologies to enhance their offering – some have worked and some have not. In their experience, scheduled virtual classroom is not popular in the blend as IT professionals have little control over time. They have also found that generic technical skills content frustrates many. The new ‘learning technology’ kids on the block include simulations or virtual labs (like Toolwire) that allow hands on practice in a live environment.

QA-IQ have also found that good quality test preparation environments ( once the domain of e-learning specialists) are  also popular now with learners and companies.  They are advocates of Microsoft’s MODL ( which combines virtual classroom with e-Labs and discussions) and see it as a great idea and a genuine attempt to adopt a new pedagogy, it.  Those who have tried it like it and have got on well.  However the adoption has been slow and very patchy.  Brian comments that , there appears to be a disparity between what employers ask for and what they are prepared to invest in.  He comments ‘At L&D meetings up and down the country I hear impassioned pleas for more innovative self paced learning – but when these solutions are offered organizations tend to back track immediately.’

In QA-IQ’s experience,  once you get to more senior levels these same companies appreciate that perhaps the most important element of a learning event is not the content but the opportunity to network with peers from other parts of the globe or business.  Here technology has a significant opportunity to support peer to peer networks but it seems that the IT professionals are slow to adopt some web 2.0 technologies.

e-learning for IT at Lloyds TSB

At Lloyds TSB, they have been using e-learning to deliver technical skills for over 10 years. They initially offered a curriculum on CD which has since moved to the web. Whilst the organisation still underpins most of  most of their learning in the same way, they haven’t moved to using anything ‘new’ such as blogs, wikis. Gary Bellamy , Learning Technologies Senior Manager in their Talent and Learning Directorate, believes that in fairness this is mostly due to the fact that the business infrastructure couldn’t cope with anything else. However he believes that this is now change through the introduction of  Sharepoint with it’s collaborative tools. They are also looking at  IE7 as an updated interface and are now getting heavily in to using the full functionality of Flash and Adobe. Whilst IT divisions were the earliest adopters of learning technologies, the ‘e’ Central team within the Talent and Learning Directorate are using more advanced technologies for learner support than the IT function.

So Is the IT sector still ahead of the game ?

So Is the IT sector still ahead of the game when it comes to using learning Technologies? The historic use of technology for learning in this sector has driven some of the changes that we take for granted today. Today, there is certainly more opportunity to access a wide range of learning technologies to support the development of skills both formally and informally. There is also the economic drive, outlined by the e-skills UK research for ongoing skills development. The profession cannot afford to stand still. The nature of their skills needs is changing  with a shift to problem solving and business management. However, the creative application of technology to these types of issues appears to be taking place outside of the sector, giving the IT sector the opportunity to learn from others experience.

For more information on the work of e-skills Uk on behalf of the IT sector please visit www.e-skills.com.

this article originally appeared in e-learning age magasine in april 08.

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