Elearning: A personal tutor on the computer?

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Silver liningIndividual tutoring is shown to achieve far better results than group teaching. Dick Moore argues that elearning is the perfect medium for delivering tailored, individual tuition in a cost-effective way.

The debate surrounding the role of technology in improving workplace skills has intensified in recent months. In the 2008 Skills Evolution Report produced by Ufi, I asserted my strong belief that technology is the key to delivering cost effective and flexible training.

My intention was not to suggest that the medium is more important than the method - far from it. Technology allows mass delivery of individualised learning, something that has long been the dream of educationalists and teachers.

Photo of Dick Moore"80% of learners achieve subject mastery when tutored rather than taught using traditional group teaching."

Indeed, the basis of my argument goes all the way back to the findings of American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom and his seminal paper on group learning versus one-to-one tutoring, and what he termed 'the 2 sigma problem'.

Bloom's research showed that students given tailored individual tuition responded at a level that was two standard deviations above where they might perform as part of a regular classroom group environment. This is not guesswork, but is based on Bloom's research, which remains robust, and has been widely supported and built upon by educationalists and psychologists.

Put bluntly, Bloom's research demonstrates that 80% of learners achieve subject mastery when tutored rather than taught using traditional group teaching.

Elearning, as apposed to traditional methods

So, does this mean we can identify what good learning looks like? And if so, is this something that we can deliver via elearning rather than by the traditional forms of learning and training used by employers?

Imagine a human tutor supporting and augmenting a tailored package of interactive training, which responds to the individual needs and experiences of a particular learner. And then imagine it could be delivered by computer, or a next generation mobile phone or on a PDA. Fanciful? No, the software and hardware already exists.

Bloom outlines how a model for more effective training could be developed through his theories of mastery learning. He asserts that it is possible for anyone to learn and improve given a correctly structured approach. For example, he suggests that it is important to clearly define the objectives that the learner must achieve - communicating those outcomes clearly to the learner and then effectively evaluating those objectives. A computer is a great tool to deliver, assess and measure these learning objectives.

In Bloom's mastery, learning and dividing course content and delivering it in bite-size chunks makes learning much more flexible and responsive to the needs and capabilities of individual learners.

Like an individual tutor, elearning requires that a learner knows what their outcomes are and accurately records progress and tracks achievement. It provides ongoing evaluation (formative assessment) and immediate reinforcement so that what is learned can be applied and given relevance within the workplace, rather than simply 'washing over' the student.

"Employers and government understand that reducing training is like robbing Peter to pay Paul and therefore companies, especially SMEs, are crying out for a cost-effective solution."

Elearning also keeps pace with its pupil. Unlike a training session where a learner might be reluctant to admit they 'don't get it', elearning means a learner can go back over what is being taught, seek alternative explanations and move on only when they are satisfied they understand what has been tutored.

Using traditional training models, if an organisation needs to put four employees through management training, another two through sales and a further six through time management courses, then it faces the headache of providing different learning to different individuals and then hoping that all the candidates progress at the same rate.

Elearning presents a possible solution by allowing technology to record how each individual learner is performing. This can show employers where extra support and training is needed.

Different course models and varied subject matter can also be given via the same technology, reducing the need to provide different solutions to cater to different needs across the whole of an organisation. Furthermore, the company can be assured that what is being delivered is consistent and of a 'known' quality.

Learning in the workplace

From our experience with learndirect business, we have seen employers use training programmes that put the emphasis on learning in the workplace, while providing the sort of individual learner programme Bloom had envisioned. An online tutorial support system, such as our learning through work (LtW) programme which offers a range of higher education qualifications, means you can fit learner feedback and tutorials around the working day. More than 3,000 learners have already benefited from LtW since it was established.

The Skills Evolution Report, though future gazing, was not intended to be wishful thinking on the part of its authors, but a serious attempt to outline changes employers and employees will need to adapt to if they are to have a workforce fit for the knowledge economy. We are already witnessing the external factors at work which will speed up this change. As we enter an economic downturn, existing Ufi research shows that employers will be more reluctant to put their employees on courses as a part of their business training programmes. Firstly, the cost of these courses can often be prohibitive but secondly, and more importantly, the time taken to train out of the office means that business productivity is adversely affected.

In a post-Leitch world, both employers and government understand that reducing training is like robbing Peter to pay Paul and therefore companies, especially SMEs, are crying out for a cost-effective solution.

Gadgets, for want of a better term, continue to open new horizons of possibility for businesses and individuals. In the not too distant future we can expect many people to have access to an internet connection all of the time, a capability that will act as a significant market disrupter. Education organisations will need to be able to ride this change to deliver training and education services in new and interesting ways or be replaced by organisations that can.

References:

  • 'The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring', by Benjamin S. Bloom, educational researcher, Vol. 13, No. 6 (Jun- Jul, 1984), pp. 4-16
  • The Ufi Skills Evolution Report is available to download from: www.ufi.com/skillsevolution/index.asp

Dick Moore is director of technology at Ufi, the organisation behind learndirect. For more information, visit www.ufi.com.

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