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Alternative perspectives on developments in learning

There are many different perspectives on developments in learning, especially as different organisations adopt diverse approaches. In this study the perspectives critically appraised are two very up to date approaches in organisations today; e-learning and communities of practice.

E-Learning

Technological development has led to the rise of e-learning which is a means to learn in an alternative way to the traditional classroom and workbook approach. E-learning has opened up avenues that were just not possible before, such as distance learning for students, online discussion boards, and presentations as well as online delivery of teaching by lecturers.

“Technology is becoming an increasingly important part of teaching in higher education…and technology enabled some lecturers to develop their pedagogies and change their perspectives on social learning online.”

Maor & Zarinski (2003)

This view above from Maor and Zarinski is very true of the current learning methods used at Blackburn College University centre, although face to face lectures are still used to deliver courses, ICT is very much incorporated in the delivery using PowerPoint presentations and Moodle. Moodle is a good online platform for students to communicate with their lecturers, as well as for use as an information store for lecture and assignment notes. Other features of Moodle include online submission of assignments in conjunction with a built in plagiarism system and access to the online library journals via sites such as Ebsco and Emerald. The advantage of this is that the need to be physically at the University Centre is reduced for students allowing for better use of time for learning. The impact of this method of learning has revolutionised the way University courses are delivered.

According to Maor (2002) recent studies have supported the view that e-learning follows a social constructivist approach, by this he means that the teacher facilitates and the students engage through interactive and collaborative learning. However e-learning can be approached by staff in different ways and this can also have a negative impact. Maor identifies different groups of lecturers; the first group are those that adopt online learning to match their social constructivist approach. The second group use technology but do not embrace it wholly. A third group that also follows a constructivist approach in face to face teaching but don’t have enough technical expertise to incorporate it into the pedagogy. Finally a fourth group that won’t acknowledge the potential benefits of online learning and deliberately do not use technology. The fourth group are a major problem for e-learning as they can easily stifle the development of learning with the lack of interest.

A further advantage of online learning is that it can allow users to learn at their own pace. The case study Operation Numerika on the British Army is a good example of e-learning having a colossal impact on potential recruits in comparison to the traditional trainer-led approach. A skills gap was identified in potential recruits level 2 numeracy skills that was depriving talented individuals from being recruited. Through focus groups research it was identified that the dislike of maths along with the pen and paper approach were key reasons to the failure. Recruits identified that they liked computer and mobile gaming platforms.

A mobile learning solution using the Nintendo DS was specially developed for this group of people as it offered learning at their own pace and on the move. Like games programmes it could be repeatedly attempted until the next level reached. Feedback was immediate as a result is provided onscreen and users were faced with real mathematical problems. This e-solution exceeded the Army’s expectations and helped raise the level of numeracy to entry level 3. The quotation below from an Army user of this programme epitomises the impact this method has had:

“Using the Nintendo to learn maths is great – it makes it less hard work and more like a game – ‘specially as you can try to beat your last score and you’re playing against the clock. It makes maths almost exciting! I’d love to learn more like this in the future.”

Online learning also has advantages for organisations trying to deliver training and learning to its employees. Old methods mean that employees would have to leave the workplace and go to another organisation or place of study to learn or be trained. With the rise of e-learning as long as the Internet is available, training/learning can be delivered at the employee’s pc or within the building. This has major benefits for organisation’s as it can save cost in sending employee’s to a different location and learning can take place at the pace of the learner rather than be forced to learn within a certain timeframe at a location.

Reynolds (2002) also identified learning at BP being driven by ICT through informal processes, collaborative study and virtual contact. E-learning was introduced to provide a ‘rich set of options’ for individuals to learn or choose to learn and took place through web-based training, supported online training and informal e-learning. Reynolds described this transformation in learning as a ‘move beyond the replacement of conventional courses into richer and more fertile learning domains’.

However e-learning also has some constraints that must be examined. A key limitation is the isolation that learners may feel, as they will be secluded from a social environment such as the classroom. Group learning will not be achieved as they will independently study to reach their goals. Individual study also provides the risk that students or employees do not organise their time appropriately or cannot motivate themselves to study alone and fall behind on completing their objective.

Conversely, taking the teaching away from the teacher and replacing it with an e-learning platform can also have a negative effect on students, as Maor (2002) states:

“...advanced technology will not necessarily lead to quality learning if it is not matched with appropriate pedagogies.”

Teachers must still be there to facilitate the students at every opportunity. Another reason for the physical learning environment to be available is the risk of failure associated with IT systems. The risk of power failure, viruses, problems with submitting work and lack of technical skills in students are issues that cannot be easily resolved. A concern voiced by a student in the study by Stacey et al (2004) ‘WebCT, has its challenges as well...I found that there had not been any initiation...there’s a lot assumed about the prior knowledge a participant has’ referring to an online learning community.

Although e-learning adapts to the learning style of visual learners through use of appropriate colour schemes and animations, it cannot always provide the same level of learning for VAK (Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic) learners as the physical aspect is completely overlooked, hence the need for the physical environment may be more appropriate for these learners.

Communities of practice

Communities of practice is a phenomenon that has been around for a very long time, however it has only been recognised as a contributor in the development of learning over the last few decades. This is mainly down to the work of Etienne Wenger & Jean Lave (1999) who coined the term whilst studying the apprenticeship as a learning model. A definition provided by Wenger (2006) is:

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Communities of practice can exist everywhere and most people are involved in them at some point for example at school, work, and home or even in leisure activities. According to Wenger (2007) some key characteristics of communities of practice must be present to distinguish this kind of group. The domain must have a commitment; hence the identity is defined by a shared domain of interest. The community must build relationships that enable them to learn from each other, without interaction a community of practice cannot be formed. The practice is based on practitioners that help develop a shared repertoire of resources that include experiences, stories, tools and recurring issues. McDermott cited in Murphy (1999) adds weight to the notion that learning is in the relationships between people and not the traditional format in the head.

According to Wenger (2006) shared practice may be formed consciously or subconsciously and it can be formal or informal that contributes to development in learning. The example provided by Wenger compares a group of engineers maintaining a knowledge base of known ‘tricks and lessons’ by regularly meeting and creating a formal community of practice. Whilst nurses regularly meeting for lunch in the hospital cafe are also seen to be having an informal community of practice where discussions they have lead to a shared knowledge on patient care.

Retna & Ng (2011) in their study of a multinational knowledge management company in Singapore agree with Wenger and found that many formal and informal communities of practice are formed naturally to help develop learning. The example they provide involves a group of technicians working together with accounting staff without the need to formally create a group. Retna & Ng (2011) describe this community of practice as one formed out of ‘natural-ness’.

Communities of practice have had a huge impact of the way the multinational company work as many practices have been changed in order to develop their learning. Another example provided by Retna & Ng (2011) is where in the past solutions were provided to customers by ‘product specialists’, but since the formation of communities of practice at the firm a new product and solution team deal with the problem with shared resources. A solution is provided to the customer’s satisfaction in a timely manner and at the same time the solution learnt in the process is captured in a repository for company wide use.

The above examples are taken from learning in work organisations, however communities of practice is a concept that can be applied to a number of settings such as the government, education and even the web. Stacey et al (2004) conducted a study on an education programme at a multi campus university with a history of using online distance education. The focus of the study was based on the participants online community of practice formed for learning as well as the community of practice associated with their workplaces.

The results of the study wielded some interesting results on the role of communities of practice in development of learning. It identified that some students were involved in more than one community of practice and the participation of communities of practice in the workplace interfered with the participation in the online community of practice due to the intensive involvement. The impact of this finding was that some participants were uncertain of entering new communities and developing a sense of belonging.

Wenger (1999) agrees with this finding as he previously stated that ‘entering a community is not always easy.’ Anxiety and detachment from a community of practice is a limitation that can hold back its use as an alternative learning programme. Stacey et al (2004) identified that some students felt on the edge of the community as they did not feel a sense of belonging, this was further confirmed in the study by Retna & Ng (2011) where the sales manager described his first few weeks in a community of practice as uncomfortable.

However, Stacey et al (2004) found that to counter this limitation of the community of practice the lecturer in the study proactively facilitated a culture of participation. This is a very important contribution that needs to take place for development of learning to be successful. The lecturer created guidelines to assist the participants by setting expectations such as how often they should be participating in the community and reasons for non participation. After a few weeks the lecturer took a step back and put students into smaller student centred groups to allow the community of practice to prosper.

Retna & Ng (2011) also found further basis to counter belonging and anxiety issues through support provided by management. All participants advised the support of the CEO helped develop learning in their organisation via the communities of practice. Borzillo (2009) endorsed this view further as investigations determined that top management’s sponsorship is one of the most critical success factors for steering communities of practice. However some technicians still raised the issue that remote workers were not co-ordinated well enough as information and meetings were not available to them in a timely manner. To improve delivery of the community of practice they suggested a sub leader within the community of practice.

Further problems identified with this form of learning are the lack of time and commitment employees could offer to the community of practice. This can create guilt with non-attendance and tension between those involved. Whilst Stacey et al (2004) found that some participants in the study either found more value in practical communities of practice than online ones and others found no value in participating in the online community of practice at all as no common shared ground was found.

Conclusion

From the research it can be concluded that both e-learning and communities of practice are perspectives that overlap in the development of learning. An e-learning mechanism such as Moodle can easily form a community of practice for students and teachers. However the limitations of both must also be considered so that the benefits of the methods are not overstated.

Synthesise and critique methods of learning used in learning organisations

Introduction

This paper will explore the definition of learning organisations and then synthesise and critique the learning methods used such as Senge’s five disciplines approach, Knowles informal adult education for continuous development and e-learning in learning organisations including Apple Computers, The Fire Service and Motorola.

Body

One definition from Karash (2011) of a learning organisation is:

“... One in which people at all levels, individuals and collectively, are continually increasing their capacity to produce results they really care about.”

A further description of a learning organisation that leads to development is:

“ The {truly successful} organisation is a learning institution, and one of its principal purposes is the expansion of knowledge....that comes to reside at the core of what it means to be productive. Learning is the heart of the productive activity. To put simply, learning is the new form of labor.”

Zuboff 1998:395 cited by Harrison (2009:117)

From the above we can gather that a learning organisation is one that provides continuous learning opportunity for its participants so that they can reach their goals. It is a place that allows open dialogue so that new opportunities can be identified and embraces creative tension as means to generate new energy and openings rather than seeing it as a negative factor in development.

“The organisations that will truly excel in the future will be the organisations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in the organisation.” (Senge, 1990)

Karash (2011) provides a good example of learning methods being used effectively in the case study of the Japanese arm of Apple computers, to turn a problem arm of the business to into a positive branch. The problem with this organisation was that it only held 1% of the countries personal computer market in the late eighties, to turn this around the company appointed Arthur D Little (ADL) a management consultancy that dealt with faltering businesses. One of the key changes outlines by ADL was to focus on bringing the concept of the learning organisation into Apple computers.

Senge (1990) identified five disciplines that are personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking. These essential disciplines were adopted by ADL to conceptualise Apple as an organisation that values learning, creates continuous learning opportunities and culture of sharing information.

“Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of his approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice” (Senge 1990 cited in Smith 2001)

The above quotation from Senge is the concept that is the most important of the five principles as it focuses on the organisations problem as a whole, not in individual portions that can easily be fixed but can cause the real issues to be masked. In the short term Apple could have addressed the issues of low market share by cutting budget from various departments and investing that in product development, however this goes against the systemic thinking approach as short term gain could have had a damaging long term impact.

Instead Apple focused on bringing all the disciplines together which allowed the employees to take a fresh approach to making decisions. Decisions took into account the entire organisation and were not confined to the individual portion as before.

The component discipline of ‘personal mastery’ is described by Senge (1990) as:

“Organisations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organisational learning. But without it no organisational learning occurs”

A good example of the above is Nonaka’s (1991) unified concept of tacit and explicit knowledge being combined as a learning spiral to form new knowledge. Nonaka (1991) named organisations such as Honda, Canon and Sharp of producing innovative new technologies by tapping into the employee’s intuitions and hunches to develop further. In the case of Apple the motivation for employees to learn and better themselves needed to be addressed, this was implemented by encouraging management to set employees goals for development and designing training programmes to improve learning.

Mental models are described by Senge (1990) as ‘deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. This tied in with ideas from Donald Schon (1983) that focused on practitioners building ideas, images and examples and using these to engage in situations. Apple ensured that employee’s mental models were aligned to the rest of the organisation by sharing views and accepting each other’s views. This led to the learning process being more efficient and coherent.

Building a shared vision ties in with the ‘fifth discipline’ as it focuses on a long term approach to learning. Senge (1990) states:

“When there is a genuine vision, people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to”

The above quotation outlines the position of an organisation as it must sell the vision to its employee’s in order for them to buy into the idea of the perceived benefits that it will bring to the individual and as a whole to the organisation. Apple tried to incorporate this by allowing everyone to work towards a shared goal of increasing market share regardless of position within the company.

Team learning was naturally introduced by Apple as a means to develop the shared vision. Senge (1990) described this as:

‘The process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire’

In order to achieve this discipline employees must share ‘dialogue’ and act together. Apple achieved this by enhancing their regular group meetings so that more time was allowed for dialogue and knowledge sharing. A community of practice was created within the company that increased the input from all levels of employees.

The reorganisation of Apple Computers in Japan lead to a remarkable growth in market share. By 1995 they had a share of 15%, although all this cannot be credited to Senge’s five discipline learning approach it certainly played a major part in the development.

However critics such as Brown (2000) of Senge’s approach may argue that learning can only take place if the learner wants it to happen. Not all workers are motivated by learning as some only want to earn a living and are not interested in a shared vision. He also argues that are Senge’s methods really any better than traditional methods that focus on command and control, whilst Senge’s learning approach controls the thinking of its participants.

The Fire Service has a culture of continual development that drives learning in the organisation. Knowle’s (1990) describes this as an outcome where adults need to acquire skills to achieve their potential and self-conceptualise. The Fire Service runs its own University that has over 300 courses available; this provides great motivation and potential for learning. However they have completely overlooked the need for e-learning to counter problems of geographic location and time & commitment issues for its employees.

Karash (2011) identifies Motorola as an organisation that addressed this issue for its employees with a solution. Oberlin the director of Motorola’s University explained:

"We can't keep using traditional classroom methods of instruction to spread the message for Motorola. Our reach isn't far enough to get to everybody. We must find creative ways to help new associates…”

Motorola introduced multimedia training to find ways of reaching people worldwide, as well as reducing training costs and time constraints. Ultimately this improved learning within the firm and expanded its University across the world. Today, many of its employees take part in diversity training that helps them develop and achieve their potential.

Conclusion

In conclusion this paper has provided synthesis and critique to the learning methods used in some established and global organisations. Various problems have been identified that have been countered with theoretical methods and solutions that have developed over time. However it is evident from the research that other factors also need to be considered when learning methods are adopted as every personality is not the same and will not necessarily conform to an organisation’s needs.

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