Technology is always billed as the great liberator – freeing us from the office and restoring our out-of-kilter work-life balance. And it has the ability to be just that: we can now work, hold meetings, interact with colleagues, set up deals and recruit staff all from the comfort of our own home, thanks to a range of technologies such as the internet, video conferencing and virtual private networks (VPNs).
It frees us from the constraints of the nine-to-five and enables us to work when it suits us. And the same goes for how we learn. The majority of case studies featured in Training Magazine’s e-learning section each month routinely report on how the online programme under discussion can not only be accessed from the office, but also from the home.
Although we have by no means achieved the Government’s vision of a ‘broadband Britain’, it is significant that 85 per cent of those surveyed in the UK Broadband Usage Survey by Broadband4Britain and Network Equipment Technologies, said they use their connection for work-related activity.
The growth in broadband usage and schemes, such as the government-backed Home Computing Initiative (HCI), which enables staff to buy PCs at up to half the retail price, gives more and more of us access to the same kind of technology in the evening and at weekends that we have during the day. Other initiatives, such as Futurmedia’s Learning for All (its HCI service), even go so far as helping employers extend learning programmes to members of the family.
But if technology is managing to blur the line between work life and home life to this degree, is there a danger that home becomes too much about work? Or is being given a choice as to where we learn more likely to benefit both staff and employers in the future?
The answer is potentially ‘yes’ to both of these questions, and it’s down to the training professionals to make sure the outcome of ‘an any time, any place learning’ strategy (referred to by some as the ‘Martini’ approach) works for both sides.
“There are important issues here,” says Martyn Sloman, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) adviser for learning, training and development. “The first is learner preferences – where do they choose to learn? What is important as employers is that we respect their preferences and do not try to impose on them.
“The other issue is work-life balance, but this is a problem that goes way beyond e-learning – asking participants to do a lot of pre-course reading raises the same issue. At the end of the day, if learning is important, people must be given the time and space to learn.”
Learning from home – is it really happening?
Without doubt, many individuals are choosing to learn from home, whether it is because they are mobile workers and their home is their office, or they simply find it easier to learn at home.
“We have implemented learning management systems (LMSs) for our clients, and they give us some interesting data on who’s doing what, and when,” says Peter Bonfield, programme director at AdVal Learning.
“Learning at a desk or in a learning centre doesn’t suit some people. But there is a moral issue: is an employer who provides this option providing opportunities, or simply exploiting their staff?” he asks.
“We know of at least one regulated industry where the view from the regulated body is that it is exploitation, and wouldn’t be allowed. Continuous professional development had to be done at work.”
As Sloman and Bonfield both point out, however, learning at home is not a new phenomenon. Those keen to move up the career ladder will always be prepared to learn in their own time and, like many people, Bonfield has completed an Open University degree in his spare time.
“I did this because it suited me and, in particular, suited the way I like to learn – some of us just don’t like classrooms.”
This more inward desire to learn ties in with the view of Kevin Young, Skillsoft’s vice-president and managing director of the EMEA region, that we are becoming more like countries such as Japan in the way that we view learning.
“In some of the boom economies in the East, there has always been a greater sense of individual responsibility for learning and development,” he says.
“In the UK, training has always been viewed more as something that an organisation gives to an employee. But this is changing, and we are seeing a cultural shift to people taking more personal responsibility for it. Learning from home allows them to do this.”
What are the technical issues?
Technically, there are fewer and fewer barriers to learning from home these days. Most e-learning providers will produce their programmes for the lowest common denominator – typically, a dial-up 56k modem internet connection (and in some cases, even a 28k one). However, with the growth in broadband connections, home users can increasingly access programmes that contain more media rich content, such as video.
Dial-up users needn’t be totally excluded from this, since the online course can be supported by a CD-Rom. The ‘thin’ content – such as text and simple graphics – can be delivered by the web, and the multimedia content then picked up from the CD-Rom.
If learning needs to be accessed via the organisation’s intranet, as opposed to the internet, staff must be given access to a virtual private network (VPN) and issued with a password. This should not pose a problem, but try to limit this to one password or pin as multiple passwords can get confusing. IT will be able to advise you.
Learning provider Fuel says that its support desk estimates only 2 per cent of home learners require technical assistance, and forgotten passwords are the most common problem.
Other potential technical hitches to look out for are software clashes – even a software extension could be enough to interfere with something in the e-learning programme. And be mindful of out-of- date browsers being used at home and, in particular, firewall software that has been set up to deny access to certain files or websites. Such problems are surmountable, but they can make for a bad learning experience, so make sure there is an IT support mechanism in place.
Learning management systems can provide employers with all sorts of data, including where the learning was accessed, how long a user spent online, whether they completed a course or not and which courses are the most popular.
Devices can also be built in to assess the effectiveness of the training, such as pre- and post-course assessments, and traditional methods, such as certification, recognition and reward schemes and linking training to competencies, provide the means to control and monitor the learning wherever it is done. What is far more difficult, however, is policing the learning programme to ensure that an employee’s work-life balance doesn’t suffer. This really comes down to putting good management practices in place by both training professionals and line managers.
Siemens has 500 field-based staff and has had to develop a mechanism for learning out of the office. It operates a hosted learning system, which, as well as enabling people to learn from home, is also designed to allow employees to access their e-learning accounts and the branded Virtual Training School from an internet caf (it provides access to more than 500 Skillsoft courses). Siemens can track where people log on to the system, and therefore where they learn.
“Our technology and people practices in this area have been evolving for some time,” says Nick Shackleton-Jones, e-learning manager for Siemens. “Yes, we’ve become more aware of issues such as work-life balance, and practices relating to this must trickle down on a day-to-day basis. You’ve got to allocate the time for people to learn, and must recognise the needs of individuals.”
Rules of engagement
A number of organisations are finding that home learning stimulates the overall concept of online learning, and sometimes vice-versa. Siemens divides its learning up into ‘business-related’ and ‘peripheral learning’.
“Business ones are those they must do for their job, and peripheral learning can be something they want to do for themselves in their own time, such as digital photography, but it still helps to engage them with learning,” says Shackleton-Jones.
Where is it all heading?
For some time, it has been said that work is shifting from a place you go, to something you do, and this sea change is massively impacting on learning. So much of the activity and initiatives surrounding learning at the moment is designed to give people the skills they need to do the job at a particular time.
Parity Learning and Kognita’s pay-as-you-go learning venture is a perfect example of this, since it allows organisations to pay for the training they need at that exact moment in time.
“Projects can’t be delayed because you don’t have a particular skill,” says Allan Pettman, sales team director at Parity Learning. “If you don’t know how to complete a risk log, your lack of knowledge will become your greatest risk. With e-learning, training can be accessed at your own convenience, plugging gaps in knowledge for the on-demand generation.”
Shackleton-Jones’ view of how training should go takes a similarly practical, on-demand line.
“We’ve got to give people more facilitative tools,” he says. “We can’t expect people to learn all the time. Learning has got to become more ‘tool-centric’.”
Any time, any place learning is here to stay and very much suits the mood of the moment as far as business and budgets go.
As long as training professionals put the right management structures in place and ensure that IT is on board, there is no reason why it shouldn’t give learners the responsibility and control over professional development that they are now seeking, and employers an equipped workforce – while keeping everyone’s work-life balance in check.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to predict the ultimate outcome of the cultural shift occurring, but Fuel’s chief executive and founder, Steve Dineen, paints an interesting picture.
“I think large organisations and corporations encouraging their staff to learn from home will have a knock-on effect in terms of the take-up of personal learning from home through e-learning,” he says.
“I am confident that within five years, many schoolchildren will have learned their school lesson prior to attending the classroom, as their parents would have given them access to a high quality e-learning course previously.”
Now, there’s a thought.
Xerox: Home access
Xerox has a large mobile community – technical support and analyst staff who are out on the road seeing customers. Home access to learning is therefore a necessity, says Phil Goodfellow, manager, learning technologies group for Xerox Europe.
Broadband access is common among the workforce, he says, and for some staff it is paid for by the company. Learners can log on via a VPN and access a range of Skillsoft courses, the Xerox induction programme, or the Ashridge Virtual Learning Resource. It monitors log-ins to all of these, along with the total number of log-ins, which reached 15,000 in July this year.
“Learning is part of employee engagement, but not to the detriment of work-life balance,” says Goodfellow. “We have had log-ins on a Saturday morning, and we are concerned when we feel people are over-extending themselves. We work within HR, and when we launched the homeworking initiative in 1998, we discussed all of these issues and gave everyone a homeworking video with advice.”
Remploy: Network of learning
Remploy, whose remit it is to expand employment opportunities for those with mental, emotional and physical disabilities, and which has established a network of learning centres with online courses, encourages non work-related learning for the same reason.
Gareth Parry, the learning resources manager, comments that making time for them to learn at work also stimulates a broader desire to learn.
“It led to a natural enthusiasm for learning to the point where people are now opting to learn outside of work, too,” he says. “Our approach is to engage the learner with the learning, and then make a link to the workplace that will benefit the business.”