Understanding Learners at Work

by | Aug 26, 2010 | Articles

Do we really understand the learners in our organisation and how to reach them or do we just think we do?  Insights from 3000 learners!

Over the years Towards Maturity have conducted research with 1200 companies and have found that organisations mature in their use  of learning technologies enjoy more business and staff benefits from their  investment.

The research identified 6 characteristics of mature organisations that influence their success.  We found that they focus less on the technology and more on the business alignment.  They also are more likely to be proactive in their understanding of their  learners (and their line managers), considering them to be the most significant stakeholders in influencing success as they engage in learning and apply new skills.

Understanding learner motivation and the work and social context in which they are operating is critical. It will have an impact on content design, the way we make learning available (time, technology and location), the way we supporting the learner at work, the way that we evaluate learning  and the way that we communicate.
Who are our learners?
Our studies have found that e-learning is now used to support most roles in an organisation. Over 70% of companies surveyed are offering technology assisted learning services to administration, customer service, professional grades, middle management and supervisor staff. More mature organisations are more likely to offer learning to those who are traditionally hard to engage: directors, managers and to more junior roles that do not have regular access to PCs roles.

Directors as learners

Interestingly,  when directors use learning technologies in their own development, and model required behaviour, it has a positive influence on a range of success criteria and behaviours.When directors learn, organisations are more likely to perceive a greater overall business impact (including cost savings and productivity gains) from their investment. They are also more likely to perceive an overall increase in staff impact including staff motivation and satisfaction.  They are more likely to report that  senior managers are committed to their e-learning strategy and that overall availability and take up of learning technologies is better.

Learning technologies can be used to support directors in many different ways both through their formal and informal learning. Leadership programmes may include online programmes ( often with a significant business school partner) or they may be involved in using tools such as blogs to share their own experiences. Either way, their proactive engagement as a learner pays dividends across the whole company so it is worth considering how technology can be used in their programmes. (More on the use of learning technologies for leadership skills here).

What do we know about learner behaviour

Howard Hills, one of the Towards maturity research team, has had a long standing interest in the role of personality in learning. In his book , he outlines the implications of individual preference on the design, implementation and participation with e-learning and presents powerful arguments for those involved in learning design. This is particularly relevant when we consider the roll out of company wide programmes . The one  size fits all approach is not always popular!

Our survey of 3000+ learners over the years provides a number of insights into learner motivations  that may influence the messages that we use and how we communicate. Learner confidence and the ability to find (and access) learning at a time convenient to them both increased with age. However the overall perception of job relevance of e-learning decreased with age – a healthy cynicism perhaps but one that is useful to factor into our communication strategies.

There were also differences linked to educational level. Learners at both the lower end and higher end of the  qualification spectrum are more likely to feel empowered and have a feeling of control in their learning than those in the middle. They are also more likely to perceive that e-learning is relevant to their job. (These patterns may reflect general motivational issue across education levels not just attitudes to e-learning.)

The ability to manage their own time in their job, also made a positive difference to their attitudes to e-learning provision.  Equally those who have responsibility for managing their own time, or are responsible for others are more likely to engage.

The most popular subjects used by learners in a work context were technical skills, health and safety, company specific learning, communication skills, general IT user and management skills. Just over 10% of our participants also sourced e-learning for their own use outside of work – for similar subjects to this list except that the company specific and health & safety content were replaced by foreign language and professional IT user skills. A number of organisations offered e-learning resources for friends and family – given a potential thirst for knowledge outside of work, this might be worth considering to help engagement. (see also the research by Cegos that looks at how staff are driving skills development across Europe)

What learners want

Overall our research has shown that learners are in agreement that the technology has improved convenience both in terms of where and when they take part in learning.  We found that 80%+ learners when given the option, choose to learn at their desks but we found that they were keen to ask for more choice as well. Their comments reflected that once they had a taste of convenience, they wanted more– to work at home, to download, to work offline, to work in their own time, to work at in the company’s time.

  • More interaction

They want more interaction – page turning and bland content is not cutting it! However not all interaction needs to be face to face – 4 out of 5 learners said that they would be willing to use technology to share knowledge with other learners. Despite protestations of traditional L&D staff, social media really has an opportunity to engage staff.

  • More support

We found that learners definitely want more support as this quote shows

I find that there is no support when carrying out an e-learning course and if you misunderstand it you have no way of knowing it.

We asked learners what support they received and what they found useful. Not all of the support functions were available to all learners, online reference materials and electronic job aids were the most prevalent. However learners found some support offerings more useful than others. It is interesting that this list is headed by job related assignments ( followed by online and printed job aids and related reference) Tutor support was useful but was towards the end of the list!

What do learners find most useful? (ideas for blended learning!)

1. Job-related assignments
2. Electronic help and job aids
3. Reference books
4. Printed job aids
5. With on-line web reference materials
6. In person before e-learning starts
7. In person after a course is completed to review and evaluate
8. With a tutor in email contact
9. Through a learning resource centre
10. With a virtual learning classroom system
11. With a tutor in telephone contact

  • More recognition

We also found that learners also wanted more  visibility of their achievements and recognition that their  e-learning contributed to recognized qualifications as these comments show:
there is no real recognition for completing the e-learning course though it takes just as much time and effort as a classroom session, whereas the latter can be used to enhance one’s CV.

However the desire for recognition decreased with age and differing education levels had different needs for recognition, the highest demand for recognition from e-learning was with those having post 16 education qualification and the lowest need for recognition came from those with graduate level.

 

The following articles look at TM research findings

  • How to reach learners
  • How to help staff get online for the first time

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