First, let’s try to define a learning technology. In the broadest sense, a learning technology is any technology that facilitates individual or organizational learning. There is a vast array of learning technologies, everything from e-books that can be loaded onto a PDA to online courses that learners access over the Internet to management systems that track all the learning activities across hundreds of thousands of employees. Most executives responsible for learning in their organizations seek to combine multiple learning technologies to best support their overall learning strategy. Finding the right mix for each audience is essential to experiencing the greatest success.
While the models used for learning vary dramatically between companies, most models have the following common elements:
- Assess: How are learners’ current knowledge, skills and abilities in given fields or jobs assessed?
- Learn: What options do learners have to study information, acquire skills or build on their abilities?
- Reinforce: How will the learning be reinforced to facilitate the greatest level of retention?
- Support: Throughout the learning process, how will learners be supported?
- Validate: How will the learning be measured and validated?
One of the primary steps in creating a learning technology plan for an organization is to know what is available. With all the various options available to learning professionals, an understanding of the primary categories of learning technologies is critical. There are technologies available to support all areas of an organization’s learning strategies. The following are examples of learning technologies that support each common element in a company’s learning model.
Assess Learner Needs
There are two primary types of testing technologies available to companies. The first type contains tests that have been created around an area of specialization or an industry certification. The second type of testing technology allows proprietary tests and tracking of results. When investing in online or computer-based tests, successful executives ensure that the tests themselves map to the organization’s goals or the key job tasks in a company. When you are constructing tests yourselves, it is recommended that managers be able to view the progress of their employees and that training professionals are also able to monitor the organization’s overall learning progress.
It can also be extremely beneficial to be able to construct a development plan for employees that can be accessed and tracked online. Most learning management systems (LMSs) have this crucial component included in the overall package. Learning management systems will be more fully explored further on in this article.
Use Technology for Learning
When most learning professionals think about incorporating technology into their training initiatives, one of the first solutions that comes to mind is e-learning. With the initial launch of e-learning in the ’90s, there were some major complications and barriers to success. Much of this was a result of ineffective implementation, lack of interactivity for the user and misunderstanding of how to best utilize e-learning in the workforce. Many companies used e-learning as a quick fix to save money in their training budgets and inappropriately took a one-size-fits-all approach to the use of e-learning in training. That has drastically changed.
E-learning is now becoming increasingly prevalent as an effective technology as the technologies advance and as companies desire to lower their overall investment in learning without sacrificing quality. When purchasing e-learning, it is important to understand the types of options available and to know what will work best for a specific organization.
The term “e-learning” is a fairly broad term meaning any type of learning that can be done online with an Internet connection. There are essentially two types of e-learning products available: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous e-learning is any type of course that is unscheduled. Learners go through the course at their own pace and can stop in the middle if needed and return to the course when their schedule permits. Synchronous learning is scheduled. Participants attend the online course at a designated time and have the opportunity to interact live with one another and with the instructor. Many organizations find it beneficial to have both modalities available to their learners.
Another type of e-learning is virtual simulation. There are many examples of virtual simulations available to fit diverse industries. From airline pilots to FBI agents, simulations in a given profession help learners practice skills prior to being put into a real situation. Even computer networking may be simulated, allowing employees to learn complex networking concepts without endangering the company’s existing computer networks.
If your company wishes to build content to meet particular needs and the content must be used in multiple places, then a learning content management system (LCMS) may be an appropriate tool for you. An LCMS is essentially a construction set for many components of the learning process. They allow for building asynchronous e-learning content that is SCORM-compliant (meaning that the content is compatible with a large number of content players). Most LCMSs also have the ability to build tests and create rich graphical content to aid in the learning process.
Reinforce the Learning
As most learning professionals are acutely aware, content presented in courses can be quickly forgotten if it is not reinforced. Most companies recognize that while it can be useful to offer some type of post-class support from the instructor of the course, it can often be more effective to connect learners with others who are in a similar situation.
Collaboration tools allow for communities of practice to be set up and administered with ease. As with e-learning, there are both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools. With synchronous collaboration tools, live hosted chats can be set up for a designated time. This type of community is valuable for learners who require or learn best through direct interaction with others. Asynchronous collaboration tools allow for members to participate in online message threads at their own pace. These tools are often preferred by the more independent learner who does not seek a structured environment for reinforcement. A combination of the two is often the ideal situation to meet the needs of a broad audience.
Communities of practice are useful when your organization has a fair amount of knowledge that is not documented in operational manuals or formal procedures. When information exists in the minds of employees but has not been formally documented, it is known as tacit knowledge. Many companies rely on tacit knowledge to adapt successfully to changing market needs, so having a way of sharing this knowledge can be critical to an organization’s success. Setting up communities of practice allows for tacit information to be shared and easily categorized for future reference.
Support the Learner
Learning management systems (LMSs) provide the ability to play content and track the learning that has taken place. The first element of an LMS is the content player. If content has been created in a format that meets industry standards, you can access content in almost any non-proprietary LMS. LMSs typically contain the ability to track which portions of a course have been completed, as well as the features that allow for book-marking, highlighting and adding personalized notes to reinforce the content.
There are two critical components to selecting an LMS. First, ensure that it will track the appropriate information that the organization requires in order to validate that the learning takes place and to measure the return on investment in training. Second, the LMS needs to be compatible with any other existing systems in which the company has already invested. Many vendors will assure purchasers that a particular system is compatible with existing technologies at a given company, but true integration is often more complex than vendors initially indicate. In-depth research in this area will pay off in the long run and save you considerably on unnecessary expenses that a hasty decision can incur.
Validate the Knowledge Transfer
Perhaps the strongest area where technology can play a role is in validating that knowledge transfer has occurred. Technology can demonstrate what learning has taken place and where there are gaps in employees’ knowledge. With a learning management system, an organization may measure performance improvement and skill development, and can also provide information on various return-on-investment metrics.
Experience the Technology
The first step in determining how to utilize technology in an organization’s training initiatives is to become knowledgeable about what is available. The best way to make this happen is to experience the technologies. Investigate vendors and training providers to explore all options, and request thorough demonstrations of the products in action. Set the desired criteria to evaluate with each vendor to ensure that you are using the same methodology to measure each vendor. Be sure to explain exactly how and why the technology would be implemented to allow the vendor to provide you with in-depth consultation about specific needs.
Another valuable avenue is a pilot program. Before making the large investment, take the opportunity to experience the products firsthand and determine employees’ reaction to the products and services. How well will the technologies work when put into action in your real-world scenarios? By being able to run a pilot program on a smaller scale, with fewer users and less of a time or monetary commitment, you will be more confident in making your decisions. Many companies in the learning technology space realize the need of their customers to validate that the technology meets their needs. Setting up a comprehensive pilot program with set objectives to evaluate and measure will be your key to finding success and making a sound decision in your investment.
Do Your Homework
No one needs to feel overwhelmed by learning technologies, even if some executives do not consider themselves to be technically savvy. Conduct research, ask questions and lean on others who are strong in the technology space, and it will lead to effective decisions. Implementing technology in an organization’s training initiatives adds a valuable resource for supporting overall learning strategies. If you have not yet implemented technology in your training initiatives, find out what a difference it could make. You will not regret it.
Bonni Frazee is the vice president of Human Resource Development for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc. She has been in the training and development field for more than 10 years. Bonni runs the New Horizons corporate university, as well as the corporation’s human resources functions. Bonni may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Implementing Learning Technologies
Align With Company Goals
Review your organization’s strategic plan, key goals and objectives. If your training plan does not currently address business needs, it is doubtful it will prove beneficial to invest in technology.
Examine Your Current Learning Methods
Revisit your overall strategic learning plan and current reality. Consider how you are currently addressing your organization’s training needs and what the strengths and weaknesses of the current methods are.
Understand Your Options
Do your research to ensure that you are educated about all the potential options available to meet your needs. Companies are almost always willing to give you a chance to evaluate their products and services prior to making a purchase.
Prioritize and Compare
Rank your various options according to those that will best fit your given situation. Compare the pricing on each of the options and examine cost advantages.
Present to Your Stakeholders
Meet with teams of people who will be affected by the technology being implemented. This list of people should include people from your IT department, learners from all levels of the organization and key executives. Demonstrate how the technologies will help to achieve the company’s overall goals.
Make a Purchase
Make your investment in the technology, with integration as a key factor in your decision.
Create an Implementation Plan
As you transition learners, keep in mind that not only will they be learning new technology, but they will also be experiencing change. A plan that communicates the vision and purpose of the change will greatly lessen any negative impact of the change process.