Can soft skills be taught through elearning?

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Ian Luxford
Head Of Learning Services
THE GRASS ROOTS GROUP PLC
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Elearning is a method not often applied to soft skills training, but Ian Luxford thinks that with a bit of planning and analysis, it might be possible.
 
For many professionals in the field of training and development, the first ten years of the 21st Century will be seen, for some time into the future, as the decade of elearning.
Most will be well aware that elearning existed long before this period. My business, for example, was developing fully functioning, online interactive training packages for clients in 1990 and we were not the first to do so in the field. But, the significance of this decade is that it was when elearning became firmly established on the agenda.
The CIPD's annual survey of learning and talent development now shows that a clear majority of organisations are using it as part of their approach to training and development. When looked at alongside many other applications of information and communications technology which are now ubiquitous, this shouldn't seem surprising. But, in 2000 it wasn't hard to find dissenters who were adamant that it would never take off.
 
"My contention is that it is dangerous to claim that a subject cannot be taught through elearning"
They may have been proven wrong, but there is still no shortage of people who seem to be clear about where the final frontier lies for elearning – in other words what can be taught online and what can't.
Some years ago, after attending one of my weekly language classes at the City Lit, (a central London adult education institute with a great heritage), I shared dinner with a language tutor who had very clear views about the application of elearning in his own field.
"You will never," he said ('never' is rarely a safe word to use) "be able to teach a foreign language via elearning. To learn a language, you have to be able to produce the language. Elearning cannot have a conversation with you. It cannot guide you on whether you have produced it correctly..." He had spoken.
This article is not looking at teaching languages, but it considers some very similar disciplines. My contention is that it is dangerous to claim that a subject cannot be taught through elearning, not because elearning can be used to teach everything (and I don't know that it can) but because:
  • To claim this is to take a limited view of what elearning is and how it works – to get the most out of elearning we need to take a broader view.
  • Mastering most subjects requires us to learn different elements of them in different ways – elearning is, like any other tool, only part of the solution.
  • Among the dissenters on any technological advance there will always be people who failed to predict what it might be able to do in the future. Computers are continually proving to be cleverer than we had thought.
To consider the viability of teaching soft skills through any medium, it is worth having a clear view of what soft skills are and what challenges are presented by the teaching of them.
 
"...emotional intelligence is about being able to manage our feelings and therefore being more self-aware, and soft skills are those displayed or deployed by someone with a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence."
My understanding of soft skills is that they are the ones that make us good at communicating and working with each other. The Oxford Dictionaries website defines them as 'personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people'. Examples would therefore be: listening, showing empathy, negotiating, informing.
In the context of emotional intelligence, the term soft skills is used in quite a specific way; emotional intelligence is about being able to manage our feelings and therefore being more self-aware, and soft skills are those displayed or deployed by someone with a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence.
If there is a difference in interpretation it is not significant – the result of having these skills should always be that our dealings with others are more productive and positive. This highlights one of the challenges with teaching soft skills because when you are working with something which is highly personal, what makes a productive relationship between two people will depend on the circumstances in which they are interacting and the people themselves.

Part two of this article will be published later this week.

Ian Luxford is learning services director at Grass Roots
 

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