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TrainingZone interviews: Professor Barbara Allan

26th Jun 2013
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Ahead of her new book 'The No-nonsense Guide to Training in Libraries', we interviewed Professor Barbara Allan about her specialist subjects of e- and blended learning, as well as the theme of the month.

The common perspective about elearning is that it saves time and can easily fit into individuals' working lives, but your research suggests this isn't always the case. Is the truth somewhere in the middle?

There are many different kinds of elearning; web-based training packages, online courses that work through the development of a virtual learning group or community, and also blended learning. Part of the answer to this question lies in the type of elearning or blended learning programme and its design. Clearly, elearning or blended learning programmes which involve mobile learning e.g. using apps, can be carried out travelling to work on public transport.

Other types of learning involve individuals concentrating as they develop their understanding of a new subject, completing online assessments, or engaging with online learning conversations with tutors or peers. These activities all take time and require 'thoughtful time' outside of everyday work activities. My research into elearning and e-mentoring indicates that many people find it difficult to fit elearning or e-mentoring into their daily lives and so it becomes an additional burden rather than something that is put in the diary as happens with face-to-face training events. What I've learnt from my research is that in the context of the workplace and corporate training and development is that individuals need 'protected time' to ensure that they have space to learn and reflect. Otherwise, elearning and e-mentoring become rushed activities or are squeezed out by other, more pressing activities.

What's the message for HR and L&D directors/professionals? How can they get it right?

My basic message is that anyone who is leading the development and implementation of elearning needs to consider the people side. How do you ensure that your staff have appropriate time for elearning? How do you give them space for this type of activity? Do you need to introduce 'protected time' for this activity? When you are evaluating elearning programmes, do you consider the impact of the activity on workplace pressures?

The scope of elearning has changed somewhat as new technologies have become more popular. What role do you see for smartphones and other new technologies?

This is very exciting and is a rapidly changing area. Basically, new technologies are introducing a greater variety of approaches to learning and connecting learners together than was previously possible. I know that I am constantly learning as I travel and at airports and on trains I see many others engaged in different activities, ranging from reading eBooks to listening to online lectures. I have seen coaching taking place through text messages and colleagues taking part in MOOCS across the world. I certainly use my smartphone in lots of different ways: to capture brief interviews with professional practitioners and these are then shared with students; to interview experienced students who share their experiences and expertise with new students at induction; as a means of capturing notes and thoughts as I travel; and for texting friends and colleagues with ideas. The use of social media and new technologies is changing the ways in which we live and learn, and we are still exploring their impact on us.

What are the barriers to implementing these in your company's L&D strategy?

It is an exciting time for organisations who are enthusiastic about learning and development. At the University of Westminster, we have an exciting change project called Learning Futures and I am championing the blended learning stream. This involves developing a blended learning and teaching strategy, identifying standards and expectations about the use of blended learning across all of our programmes; and also developing our staff so that they are all up-to-date and know when and how it is appropriate to use blended learning in their modules. Our strategy includes the development of an internal Professional Recognition Framework (accredited by the Higher Education Academy) which will ensure that our academic staff have the professional learning and teaching qualifications (which are in addition to their academic and professional qualifications linked to their discipline e.g. CIPD qualifications) needed to work in this rapidly changing environment.

Many colleagues are already using innovative blended learning practices and it is now time for this to be expanded across the whole institution. As with any change process, challenges include attitudes and work pressures. However, they also include the challenges of making changes in a rapidly changing technological environment. Consequently, the change process needs to be nimble and embedded in an understanding of pedagogy rather than be technically-led. It is a very exciting time and we have engaged our students into this process as we seek to understand their perceptions of learning and teaching in a digital age.

Your latest book, 'The No-nonsense Guide to Training in Libraries', looks at the issues for the library sector particularly. What lessons or principles can be applied to other sectors?

I think the whole of the book is applicable to any sector. The basic message is that training needs to be focused and engaging and also relevant to the needs of individuals and the organisation. Technology can be used to help this process and there is so much 'free stuff' available on the Internet that all trainers can be innovative and learn from the many different training practices that are currently popular. The book stresses the importance of knowing our customers, the people who come to our training events and this involves knowing about them and their previous experiences and expertise, their expectations and perceptions about training, as well as their learning styles. All this information can be used to design excellent training events.

Professor Barbara Allan is Dean of Westminster Business School and has done extensive research into e- and blended learning and e-mentoring. Her latest book is The No-nonsense Guide to Training in Libraries. Click here for a video Q&A with Barbara about her book.

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