Open for business

Is open learning more influential than the Internet? This is one view that will be debated at this year’s World Open Learning Conference and Exhibition.

We take a sneak preview of this fast-growing event

Now in its seventh year, the World Open Learning Conference and Exhibition 2000 (WOLCE), organised by Venture Marketing Group, aims to be at the epicentre of contemporary practice and debate in open learning products and services.

The conference, sponsored by Saba and supported by the British Association for Open Learning (BAOL), the Forum for Technology in Training and Personnel Today, has earned a great reputation over its relatively short lifespan, and this year has attracted speakers and companies at the forefront of the training revolution.

Last year’s conference was attended by 3,000 visitors and delegates, 19 per cent of whom were company chairmen or directors, 46 per cent senior managers and 27 per cent responsible for training budgets of over £500,000.

It is easy to understand why the event has this kind of pulling power. “Open learning is becoming the most important issue in the world,” says Dr Ronnie Singer. “It could even be more influential than the Internet itself.”

Singer is one of the speakers contributing to the Online in Action session on the second day of the conference. As a learning and multimedia specialist from BusinessLab in Aberdeen, he has a unique view on the future of open learning and in particular how corporate learning will develop.

“Today’s organisations face the same problem,” he says. “They want to retrain their employees but they need to do that without the cost of sending them to university.

“Also, many universities do not supply the skills organisations need, so the only logical step to take is to set up a corporate university with in-house training.”

Singer feels such learning provision is now challenging the status quo of traditional education centres. While the public sector continues to face cuts, the corporate sector is able to finance cutting-edge vocational and strategic learning facilities. “Corporate learning will change the way people operate. Such universities are about inculcating certain values among employees and not only will those values exist in their jobs, they’ll live those values outside their jobs too.”

Singer’s vision may be a little way in the future but the required technologies and systems are already available. Importantly, the conference will discuss how organisations can realise the full potential of a learning culture, enabling training to impact on the bottom line.

In his opening keynote presentation to WOLCE on the first day, the Canadian corporate development expert Ian Rose will present his ideas on how corporate training can gain executive commitment and thereby generate the kind of impact Singer describes. “To get to the table where key business decisions are made, you need to ask. You will never just be invited,” says Rose.

He acknowledges this is something of a Catch 22 situation for training professionals. “You are not going to be invited unless someone thinks you can significantly affect the business, and you are not going to be able to do that unless you are summoned to the table to contribute to key business decisions about organisational performance.”

To break this vicious circle, Rose proposes a number of proactive initiatives for corporate trainers. He argues that training professionals must always use the language of business, not the language of training, addressing business issues directly rather than focusing on the importance of good leadership or communication skills.

“The senior training professional must think and act as the chief development officer and not simply as a technical expert,” says Rose. In this way, corporate training can become a positive force for future growth and development, for identifying and adapting to future trends rather than simply being a support function, ready to respond to the perceived needs of a company. “It is now the responsibility of learning professionals to analyse competitive disadvantages and to determine how training can help overcome them,” says Rose.

The keynote presentation on day two is shared by Dr Anne Wright, chief executive of the University for Industry, and Dr Paul Taylor, lecturer in the Sociology of Technology at the University of Salford.

This session could prove the most controversial of the conference.

Wright will begin by describing Learndirect, an innovative e-learning network for individuals and businesses developed by the UfI, which she hopes will make a significant contribution to staff development. “It is likely that 40 per cent of staff development will be delivered on-line by 2002,” says Wright. “Even in these early stages of the e-learning revolution, it is clear new technologies are set to transform access to learning at work.”

Dr Taylor, on the other hand, holds some very strong views on the effects technology is having on educational provision, and while he half-expects his presentation to go down as well as Tony Blair’s at the WI, his views may sound a necessary note of caution. “Education is under siege, not so much from a sea of troubles but from a flood of inappropriate technology,” he says. “Information technologies exist, so we are under pressure to use them in as many contexts as possible. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Taylor’s primary concern is that the technology appears to be dictating the way individuals learn rather than contributing and supporting an effective educational process. Deep knowledge gained by wide reading and long reflection has been all but lost to the popularity of the modular course and the quick de-contextualised nugget of information.

“The Internet liberates information from the constraint of dusty book covers, but simultaneously drags the browser into a quagmire of unverified data,” he says. “It is an inherently fragmented source of information and, as Clifford Stoll points out, data isn’t information, any more than 50 tonnes of cement is a skyscraper.”

Seminars on both days of the conference split into three areas: Online Learning, Effective Implementation and Challenges for Training and Development. Under these general headings, topics include learning resource centre management and employability skills for training and development managers.

Judith Christine-Carter, director of Effective Learning Solutions, is contributing to the Online Learning session on day one – a beginners’ guide to e-learning and related technology – and to the Challenges session the following day, this time focusing on the need for developing the skills of instructional designers.

The beginners’ guide to e-learning offers a chance for everyone to catch up on what precisely is what in the field of on-line learning.

“We need to sort out the current mess with regard to definitions, because people are using terms such as open learning, distance learning, flexible learning, TBT, CBT and e-learning either to mean the same thing or something completely different,” says Christine-Carter. “It’s no small wonder that the average customer or potential customer is confused.”

She believes that while organisations can regard on-line learning as a good way to slash training budgets, care and attention has to be given to the quality of the learning experience. “Eventually, people will wake up to the fact that garbage in means garbage out, and unless those who supply Web-enabled learning systems ensure that what is made available in terms of content is all high quality stuff, on-line learning will fall into disrepute as the real effects on the bottom line become obvious.”

The concurrent WOLCE exhibition is the biggest yet, with some 110 exhibitors on display. Visitors will be able to view state-of-the-art technologies available to support open learning and view product demonstrations.

One such technology will be interactive distance learning technology from Crystal Media, which has been installed at the Royal Bank of Scotland. For the conference, Crystal plans to establish a live open learning link with RBS’s training centre in Edinburgh. According to Brian McLaren, head of training and on-line learning at RBS, the system enables up to 200 participants to link to a single presenter in order to receive training in an interactive environment, regardless of their geographical situation.

“We have been able to use the system for product training, as well as for senior briefings and discussions,” explains McLaren.

RBS has developed a multi-channel approach to delivering training which McLaren will be outlining in the Building Successful Training Organisations seminar. RBS has invested heavily in technology and now has an electronic communications channel operating throughout the organisation. While this has had benefits for other departments – notably the corporate communications team – McLaren confirms that the justification for the investment came solely from the training department.

“The business case has been based on the savings we can make through using the technology,” he says. “At the same time there have been benefits in creating a quicker induction programme and improving staff retention.”

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