Dealing with Reluctant E-Learners

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Professor David Birchall, Director of Learning and Teaching Services and Research at Henley Management College identifies some common problems with e-learning and how to deal with reluctant e-learners.

It could be argued that attempts to push reluctant learners into e-learning are simply a waste of time, effort and money.

Whilst this view may be valid for some, for many, reluctance is associated with initial fears such as lack of technical know-how or a poor understanding of the learning environment.

With some careful consideration and innovative strategies, there are a number of ways in which companies can overcome these barriers and develop an e-learning culture across the entire organisation.

The findings of my research into corporate e-learning show that many businesses have now moved beyond their initial concept of e-learning to a much more integrated view of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) supporting learning processes.

In looking to the next phases of development, companies will need to give urgent attention to improving staff understanding and commitment to these new technologies and systems.

Only then will organisations be able to achieve the greater levels of learner engagement and participation necessary for e-learning to deliver a real return on investment.

In looking to the root causes of reluctance to e-learning, what are the key problem areas and what strategies and solutions can companies use to transform reluctant employees into engaged e-learners?

Fear of Technology

Installing the latest learning technology and developing new and exciting content is not enough.

You must first equip people with the necessary confidence to use the tools and technologies.

From the outset it is important to ensure that the learning materials themselves don't create additional barriers by not being 'inclusive', i.e. they need to be accessible by anyone, regardless of age and ability.

So how can you win round the reluctant technophobe?

Kick-off meetings can be used to build up trust and relationships and to provide basic
skills training in using the technology.

Encouraging personal contact between learners and their trainers at an early stage stops them from feeling isolated. Help services can also work to overcome techno-fear by providing support to help employees get over those first terrifying hurdles.

Unfamiliarity with Systems

Lack of technical knowledge can be a real problem and while some basic initial training can address this, a more effective solution might be to offer employees incentives to carry out the learning course.

Overcoming challenges and learning new skills can be a real motivator for employees.

Volkswagen Coaching developed a scheme to get staff familiar with the internet by providing them with free internet access at home once they had reached a certain level of proficiency.

In just 18 months, 45,000 employees from all parts of Volkswagen, including the car production plants, had successfully completed the course which was critical to the development of an e-learning culture at the company.

The UK government is now making computer purchase for home-use an attractive proposition for companies.

In-Depth Learning

To date much e-learning has been focused on the transmission of knowledge to learners or on basic skills development.

The real challenge facing providers of e-learning is in areas where 'deep' learning is required particularly in areas of work which have a high and rapidly changing knowledge content.

Deep learning is needed where complex issues are being tackled and where real learning is normally only achieved through practice and experience of applying the new knowledge in a real work situation.

An EU funded project, PeLM, led by Henley Management College, is working with companies to help them understand the process of 'how adults/managers develop the skills in deep learning.

The project looks at how to learn using e-learning by introducing managers to a number of tools and guiding them through a process.

This process is also made more effective by a facilitator, someone who helps with the learning process to encourage 'deep' learning and also maintains motivation.

The E-Learning Community

A lack of understanding of how the e-learning environment works can result in employees appearing disinterested or disengaged.

A good way to address this issue is to provide 'on the ground' support across the entire organisation and to ensure that all employees are briefed on the benefits and opportunities associated with your e-learning programme.

Danfoss, the Danish industrial group, set up an e-learning initiative to train its sales departments, a target audience located in over 150 countries.

To ensure that staff across the whole organisation were able to use the e-learning technology effectively, Danfoss appointed a group of 'web ambassadors'.

Drawing on their knowledge of their local surroundings, culture and language, the 'web ambassadors' are able to support, market and encourage the use of e-learning at a local level.

As a result of this initiative, Danfoss is now able to transfer relevant knowledge quickly across the entire organisation and to keep one step ahead of its competitors.

Lack of time and space to learn

It is likely that busy, time poor staff will postpone learning or in some cases avoid it all together.

Similarly, if doing a course at work is perceived by colleagues as work avoidance, this can result in a lack of acceptance of your learning programme.

To overcome this, companies should provide employees with time and space to learn during work hours and create a culture that rewards e-learning.

Volkswagen found that by agreeing online learning times in advance with managers, participants were more likely to stick to them.

Concentrating learning in learning labs can be a useful way of overcoming some of the negative perceptions associated with e-learning.

This enables employees to study at their own speed and at a time of day to suit their work-load.

This has obvious cost advantages because it means that employees are not away from work for whole days on training courses.

At a more basic level, you can encourage e-learning at work by blocking telephone calls and creating time for employees to be learning, not working.

* Professor David Birchall teaches and researches aspects of work in the digital economy. His recently published report on Corporate e-learning: Delivering Business Benefits offers a practical guide to senior managers involved in implementing e-learning programmes. For a copy of the report, tel. 01727 737990.

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