Learners as learning designers at the workplace

Prof. Betty Collis, a noted consultant in technology for strategy, learning and change in corporate learning and higher education at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, gave a great keynote address at last week’s JISC programme meeting. She ended with the following ‘provocative  thought’:

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the orientation that ‘Design for learning refers to the complex processes by which practitioners devise, structure and realise learning for others’. That does not sound to me like the way that learning is going on in organisations.

This ‘provocative thought’ was borne out by many examples  in Betty’s presentation of the way in which employees at Shell used technology – especially wikis – for knowledge sharing and informal learning. She commented on a trend from formal, structured training towards more informal, networked learning within the corporation: over time, employees preferred learning from information shared by their colleagues in a giant, company-wide wiki, than from formal, instructor-led training courses.

During the period that Betty was Leader of Shell-University of Twente Collaborative Project (2001-2005), a strong culture of knowledge sharing was generated in the organisation, with every employee understanding that they had something to teach others. Learning (and teaching) at the workplace became inseparable from getting things done (i.e. working).

This resonates well with the comment made by Jay Cross, Jane Hart et al in a recent article in eLearn magazine:

The accelerating rate of change in business forces everyone in every organization to make a choice: learn while you work or become obsolete. Nonetheless, we never use the word “learning” with a senior executive…

Companies don’t want learning—they want things done….

That’s why we talk about “working smarter.” More than knowing how to get things done, working smarter involves actually doing them.

It strikes me that the way assessment is carried out can have a powerful impact on the nature of learning, especially for work-based learners. One of Betty’s very practical recommendations for enhancing higher education courses was to gear  assessment tasks towards getting students to produce something that could be used as a learning resource by other students. One could take this idea one step further, by focusing assessment tasks on getting learners to generate something that is useful for their colleagues – this could involve sharing information, proposing a solution to a problem at the workplace, or carrying out an experiment to try to enhance workplace processes or outputs.

Those programmes that provide learners with the skills to apply their learning in innovative ways that add value to their own workplace contexts are likely to be the ones that survive the lean times ahead.

Gabi Witthaus, 20 Oct 2010

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