Can we improve online completion rates in VET

So as most of you are probably aware we are seeing evidence of very low completion rates for online learning programs in the VET sector in this country.  Indications early in 2015 were that those students studying in online only mode had completion rates of around 7%, as opposed to around 40% for those students which undertook classroom or workplace based training where there was shall we say face to face components of the training.  It is now being suggested that in reality online completion rates may be as low as 2% for a significantly worrying number of providers, with even strong providers having great difficulty reaching a completion rate of even 20% which is half that of general completion rates.

This situation raises a couple of questions for me;

  • Is online learning suitable for VET programs,
  • How do VET completion rates stack up against other online completion rates,
  • Why are rates so low, and
  • What can we do, if anything, to raise completion rates to a more acceptable level.

Before I go on I am going to put my heart on my sleeve and say that I am not a great believer in, in particular, online only programs in the VET sector.  Does this mean that I think that online learning has no place in VET, no.  What it means is that this is a competency based system, we all know that, and I have concerns that both for students and for assessors in online only courses proving that competency in a way that meets the required standards, while possible is I think far more difficult than in other environments.  I think that online learning in the context of VET qualifications may be useful when it comes to developing and assessing the knowledge components of a unit of competency, but where I have issues with it is in the development and assessment of the actual performance components, where more and more even in areas like community services we are seeing assessment criteria which say thing like ‘has provided information to 3 different clients accessing the service.’ How does one evidence and assess that through an online learning environment in any way which might simulate a real work environment.

Additionally (and it is important to note that this is anecdotal) it seems that at least a significant proportion of VET students who enter into online only training do not actually have a good idea of what they are signing up to do, the amount of work they will be required to undertake and the difficulty associated with working independently of other students and the other advantages of classroom based learning environments.  I have seen first hand a large number of students start as online students only to come back in a very short time frame and indicated that while they are happy to do the assessments online, they want to come to class, as they are having difficulties engaging with the materials and the assessments without that environment.

The next question is then how do the completion rates for VET courses compare with other online only programs.  If we look at MOOC’s in a higher education setting for example we see that completion rates seem to sit at around 7% which is it comparable, however we need to be careful with this figure because there is something interesting going on here.  The completion rate of 7% relates to MOOC’s where there course is provided at no charge to the participant and the participant receives only a statement of attendance.  There appears to be mounting evidence that when even a small fee is charged by the provider, ostensibly to provide the participant with a certified certificate of successful completion, that there is a significant increase in completion rates for those who choose to pay the fee.  Now given that VET students are paying quite a large fee for the privilege of completing their Nationally Accredited Training online one would think that therefore, if we look at the MOOC experience that there would be a fairly solid completion rate, but this seems not to be the case.

This then leads on to the next question, why are completion rates so low in the VET sector.  Firstly I think that if we relate this to the payment issue, unlike those paying to undertake MOOC’s, what would seem to be a significant number of VET participants have been sold the course on the ‘Study now, Pay later’ premise so that they do not feel like they have any financial commitment in the programs so if they don’t finish it, it doesn’t matter.  This is of course not the case with VET FEE HELP debts incurring on census date rather than on completion, so even if they do not complete the course  they still incur the debt.  While I think the issue of financial commitment to undertaking the course certainly has an impact on students mindsets in relation to completion, it is certainly not the only issue.  In addition there are certainly a range of other factors including;

  1. Lack of real learning support,
  2. Badly designed content (Often the content is very similar to in class content just provided in an online environment),
  3. Low digital literacy levels in students,
  4. Inappropriate courses for students (Students being enrolled in a Diploma when they would be better served by a Certificate level program),
  5. Complexity of both the learning material and the assessment tasks, and
  6. The need for significant time to be spent engaged with the online environment.

There are probably more, but these are I think some of the significant issues.

So what, if anything, can be done to improve the completion rates for online learning. One thing that may have an impact is better designed, shorter content.  It is well documented that the best results from online learning come when students engage for short periods of time with material that is interesting and engaging.  Reading pages and pages of text, watching a series of videos or listening to long audio files, in order to be able to complete assessment activities is never, (and this has been shown to be the case) going to be successful.  The best E-learning around is short, targeted and subject specific.  The problem that exists then would seem to be how to we create best practice e-learning in the VET sector, where there is often a significant amount of information a students needs to engage with and understand in order to be able to complete assessment tasks.

Low digital literacy and inappropriate course choice go somewhat hand in hand and relate to large extent to the way in which students are recruited and inducted into their course of study.  to complete a course of study completely online requires a set of skills that are lacking in a lot of students.  I am not just talking about computer skills here either, there are a range of study skills which people who have studied previously pick up and are able to utilise when faced with undertaking independent online learning.  These are skills that are often lacking in a lot of potential students and in particular those who have either never studied or not studied for a substantial period of time.

This is of course where good support comes in.  Things like synchronous facilitator led online workshops, where online work is treated as a group activity in a similar way to normal face to face learning have a clear effect on student engagement, as do things like regular contact between students and trainers, which should be more than just a weekly phone call asking them how they are going, a simple easy way for students to chat with each other, exchange ideas and begin to feel like a cohort rather than individuals studying alone.  There are lots and lots of great things that can be easily done to improve the support around online learning, but it seems that at least some providers just are not doing this, they are just signing people up, giving them their log in details and ringing them every now and again to ask them how they are going, which is in my opinion not real support anyway.

As I said earlier, while I see place for online learning in the VET sector, online only programs are at least in my opinion not the way to go for the vast majority of students, at least not unless providers are willing to put in a lot more time and effort than they currently are.

 

anyway that’s just my opinion.

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My favourite L&D Books

I thought as a start to the year I would begin building a list of my favourite Learning and Development books, these are all books that I have read and would recommend highly.  If you have any other suggestions then feel free to let me know.

The business of learning – David Vance

The success case method – Robert O Brinkerhoff

High Impact Learning – Robert O Brinkerhoff

Ten Steps to a Learning Organisation – Kline and Saunders

Building the Learning Organisation – Marguardt

The Fifth Discipline – Senge

The Training Measurement Book – Bersin

The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning – Wick, Pollock and Jefferson

How to measure training results – Phillips and Stone

 

So as I said if you have any other books that you like let me know.  I intend to build this list over the year.

 

Why I work here.

It is that time of year where everyone thinks about the year ahead and what they want to do and achieve, but sometimes amongst all of these thoughts and plans it is easy to forget the why behind the things that we do.  I was reminded of that today by a post by a friend on LinkedIn.  We talk about compliance and standards, about how to improve the things that we do, about best practice, trends and new technologies.  We talk about training needs and delivery processes, how to fund and manage learning.  We talk about policy and theory and academic positions and theories, informal and formal learning, elearning, mlearning and all of the things we would like to do or try it we had the time and the resources.   While this is all fine it is very easy to lose sight of the simple facts about the sector that we all work in, it is about the participants and more importantly every single day this sector changes people’s lives. Not just the lives of individuals but of their families, those around them and their communities.

We need to remember the person who failed at school but who has learnt new skills through a well structured adult learning program

We need to remember the staff who through the things that we provide are able to life their careers and their lives to heights they never thought possible

We need to remember the clients and stakeholders who get better quality of service and outcomes and walk away happy rather than disgruntled and take that happiness into other parts of their lives

And most importantly we need to remember that working in this sector more than many others gives us such an opportunity to have a real and lasting effect on the lives of others.

And I for one and grateful to have such a wonderful opportunity.

2014 ATD (ASTD) State of the Industry Report

Well for those of us fascinated by L&D statistics and the meaning and implications behind them, ATD (Formerly ASTD) have just released their annual state of the industry report for 2014.  So what does it have to say and what implications can we draw from it.

So what did it cost?

Firstly we see that spending on training for organisations has gone up, not by much, around 1%, but still it has gone up to an average of $1208 per employee.  The interesting thing about this number is that it is much higher for smaller organisations (less than 500 staff) at $1,888 and much lower for large organisation (over 10,000 staff) at $838 per employee.  Much of this can be put down to larger organisation being able to take advantage of economies of scale when it comes to development, maintenance and delivery costs of training and have the same dollar spend spread over a large group of employees.

We see also that learning hours used is about 31.5 hours per employee across the board which is relatively the same as last few years.  An interesting wrinkle to this average is that medium size companies (500-9,999 employees)  only come in at about 27 learning hours used per employee and while this might be interesting to attempt to investigate further, it may simply have to do more with the relative size of the data samples then any other actual trend.  Again we also saw that direct expenditure on learning as a percentage of revenue again remained relatively stable at around 1.2%.  The vast majority of this spend is, as it has been for many years, made up by the internal costs to organisations for the delivery of training, remaining again in the mid 60% range.  With external services (27%) and tuition reimbursement (10%) making up the balance.

 

So what did we deliver and how?

The three content areas that made up more than 34% of all the training delivered were;

  1. Mandatory and Compliance Training
  2. Managerial and Supervisory
  3. Profession or Industry specific

with the bottom 3 areas being;

  1. Executive Development
  2. Interpersonal Skills and
  3. Basis Skills

As far as delivery methods for training goes the winner and continuing champion by a long margin is of course – Instructor Led Classroom Based.  Yes folks yet again, face to face classroom bases training got the gong for being the most frequently used delivery method at 54.6%.  Not a bad effort for the old-timer in my opinion.  To be fair to the up and coming, much-lauded new world of learning deliver self paced online learning came in second with 17.9% and the most important game changing learning and development technology mobile or m-learning came in with a massive 1.7%.  All right I apologies for being a little facetious there, but I think what these numbers show is something quite simply for all of the rhetoric about mobile learning being the most important development in L&D ever are simply well not stacking up at the moment at least. Even when we throw all of the technology based delivery methods together they still only account for about 38% with the balance being taken up by options like self based print based learning (which by itself and I find this incredibly interesting  accounts for 4.75% of delivery, three times higher than mobile learning).

So what is this all mean.  Well I think for the most part we as an industry should be happy with the results.  We are seeing consistency in spend and the kinds of training being delivered.  There seems to be no great surprises (well except for those who tout M-learning as the next big thing, ok I will stop now) and seems to be to be much what you would expect from a stable, mature industry that know what its goals are.

 

 

 

 

 

Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire; The essence of Interfaced Learning

“The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”- Alvin Toffler

 

I was reminded recently of Toffler’s quote by a reader of one of my previous posts  and it, as it had done previously struck a chord with me, both at an individual and organisational level, particularly given the subject matter that I have been toying with over the last few posts I have made, that of Interfaced Learning.  While I think Toffler is to a large extent right, what I think we are beginning to see, with more and more how to videos, learning snippets, user-created content, or as Ryan Tracey suggested to me, technologically enabled distributed learning is that his quote maybe does not go even far enough.

I say this because when we look at a definition of learning say  the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.  I would suggest as I have elsewhere that this is, at least in a significant number of cases not what is going on with a lot of Interfaced Learning.  What is in fact happening is we are acquiring a new skill or knowledge, utilising that skill or knowledge and then either actively or passively disacquiring it.  For me whether we are actually learning something, in a traditional sense of learning is really up for debate.  Of course Toffler may in fact have quite a loose definition of learning in mind when he says this which works quite nicely if that is the case, however I think, while probably inherent in the thinking behind the quote, it is the ability to utilise the skills and knowledge acquired that is particularly interesting, particularly for organisations.

This is because, as I have spoken about previously, there are a number of areas where organisations are even now actively encouraging staff not to retain certain types of information and to simply access them when necessary.  An example of this is policy and procedure documents, where, rather than have staff print out these documents or attempt to commit the information contained in them to memory, the organisation’s preference is for the staff member to check the document (held in some form of online repository) to ensure that they have the correct and most up to date information on had.  Inherent in this concept then is of course the idea that the staff member will disacquire the information (I hesitate to use the word unlearn here because I don’t think there is any intentional learning going on here simply the acquisition of information), so that when they have to undertake that task again they will again check the information repository.

In the same vein a significant number of employers are now providing their staff with just in time style learning snippets; small, task specific e-learning modules, delivered through a range of devices to the staff who can access them prior to undertaking a task to refresh their memory on how the task is supposed to be completed.  This process even in this form again encourages and reinforces the Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire mindset of Interfaced Learning.  It is true that at least in most cases the staff in question have already received more formal or traditional training in the task, however due to the infrequency of the task or other factors a quick refresher is useful in assisting them to complete the task successfully.  Let us think about it for a moment though.  How far away are we from not providing specific training in the task in question and simply providing generic skills training over which and interfaced Learning program can be layered to provide the specific skills need to achieve the task at hand at the time they are needed.

On of the complaints often raised against traditional training is that of retention of learning.  As we are all aware if a staff member attends a course or does an online program and then does not have cause to utilise the skills and knowledge they learnt then they will quickly forget them.  This of course then creates a range of situations when however many months down the track from their initial learning of the skill the staff member is called upon to use it.  Perhaps it may be more efficient and cost-effective to ensure that staff members have the underlying skills and knowledge to allow them to rapidly Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire skills through some form of Interfaced Learning, than to try to ensure that they retain the skills and knowledge over and extended period of time.

 

Interfaced Learning – The acquisition and disacquisition of skills and knowledge in the digital world

As some of you may have guessed from my recent posts the #lrn2024 concept has stuck a cord with the philosopher and futurist in me (for those of you who don’t know I am shall we say a Philosopher by trade) and got me thinking about a number of things.  In particular in the changes the way we learn (and I am becoming a little more careful about using this term now) and acquire skills and knowledge.  This is in part driven by the concept that it seems that there may be or may be developing what could a significant difference between what we would traditionally consider to be learning and shall we say the acquisition of a skill or piece of knowledge.  I would argue, and I may at some point, that more so than ever in the past (and I believe this will increase in the coming years) it is becoming possible for me to acquire a skill, in most cases quite rapidly, utilise that skill and then for want of a better word disaquire that skill just as rapidly.

An example of this is my recent renovations of our house, including things like sanding and polishing floors, tiling and cutting and installing trim for the ceiling.  If we take a look at cutting the ceiling trim it provides a great example.  We had done everything else in the bathroom and the last thing to do was the trim between the ceiling and wall, so I went, ‘how hard can it be’ and went and looked at the trim in the rest of the house and the old trim that had been removed and then made an attempt (with a couple of test pieces to make the appropriate cuts.  I failed.  Given this result it was off to the wonderful world of YouTube, where I learnt about mitre boxes and the like, then armed with the knowledge and a rapidly purchased mitre box, proceeded to with relative ease cut and install the trim.  With that task achieved and the likelihood of me needing to do it again in the near future, and the availability of YouTube, promptly disacquired that skill.  Now why do I say disacquire that skill rather than forget, well I haven’t totally forgotten it, could I do it again now without the help of YouTube, probably not, but my reacquisition time would be much less time.  This is also the reason I used the term acquire the skill rather than learn, because I would argue that at no point did I learn the skill cut trim using a mitre box.

Now lets juxtapose this against the more traditional way of learning, or acquiring skills, where one is shown or taught a skill by someone who already possesses that skill and then practices that skill, usually under the guidance again of someone who already possesses that skill, until they are recognised as being able to perform the skill independently.  It is important to note that I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with this traditional method,  that its time has passed, or that it doesn’t and will not have a place in the learning environment.  I am suggesting however that this Interfaced Learning (where I acquire skills and knowledge rapidly through some kind of interface device and in most cases disaquire them almost as quickly) is not only upon us, but is something that will increase in usage and application and new technologies and out understanding of the brain and how we learn increases.

It is clear I think that if we look at the rise and usage of not only e-learning and mobile learning, but instructional videos on youtube and a range a n variety of apps from which we can pull information and knowledge when we require it that this concept of Interfaced Learning is already upon us.  Be it a desktop computer, a tablet, a mobile phone, or (and I would love to explore this idea more, and yes this is a shameless plug this lovely piece of tech should be available in Australia) things like Google Glass, we are already surrounded by these interfaces and we use them constantly to access information and to acquire skills and knowledge, which we then utilise and promptly disacquire because we no longer need to that skill, knowledge or piece of information.

In fact it seems to me that there are some fairly mundane examples of this where we have been utilising this process for quite a long period of time, even before the rise of e-learning.  Think of the shared drive or the web portal which holds policies and procedures for an organisation.  Organisations have actively discouraged the printing of documents from these location and actively encouraged staff to check the central repository to ensure the latest knowledge.  Effectively the organisation is saying, don’t learn this, simply access it when you need it and apply it, thus ensuring (hopefully) that everyone is always working with the latest and most correct information.  They are actively promoting the rapid acquisition and disacquisition of knowledge through a readily available interface.

The more I think about this subject the more it seems that moving forward this concept of only holding skills and knowledge is one that is increasing.  We talk a lot about just in time learning, rapid upskilling, knowledge sharing and the like, and most of these concepts are wrapped around the delivery of content through some interface device and in a lot of cases we are not expecting the person to have completely learnt and integrated the skill or knowledge, at least in the traditional sense, after they have access the information once, but we seem to expect them to behave, at least for a short period of time as if they do possess that skill of knowledge.  There also seems every reason to suspect that this interfaced learning process will increase and we will see more and more skills and knowledge delivered to us in this way.

So I would really love to hear any thoughts you might have on this.

Learning in a digital ‘cyberpunk’ world #LRN2024

A lot of you have probably come across the concept of a brain/computer (wetware/hardware) interface which allows people learn new skills, obtain knowledge and interface directly with other systems through science fiction movies and novels (William Gibson’s work for example)  and recently there was a paper published which seems to show the first documented brain to brain interface.  After my recent post for #lrn2024 and  question from a friend of mine Eric, I started to think about the effects on this kind of process on learning and the acquisition on knowledge and skills.

Let me set the scene for you first and then we can begin to discuss what impacts these ideas may have.

Think about a world where the need to learn skills and obtain knowledge in a traditional manner is no longer necessary, rather when one needs a particular set of skills or knowledge one simply ‘installs’ in much like installing a new piece of software on a computer or perhaps more like running portable apps on a computer rather than installing anything, but both ideas tend to work in the same way though as we may see there may be more permanence in case than the other.  We might call this kind of learning, if we decide that it is in fact learning and not something else, Interface Learning, that is where skills or knowledge are acquired through the utilisation of some for of interface. So if we take something simple (though in true actually quite complex) like driving a car.  I have learnt to drive an automatic vehicle, however in a particular instance I need to drive a manual  vehicle, so I simply ‘chip’ the skills and knowledge into by brain through some kind of wetware/hardware interface (think a USB port just behind my ear) and I am able to drive the manual vehicle with the skill and precision of a formula one racing driver.  So what then happens when I no longer need to driver the vehicle?  Well there would seem to be two options;

  1. I could simply remove the ‘chip’ removing the skills and knowledge from my brain much like disconnecting a usb drive running portable apps, or
  2. The skills are installed in brain by the process and thus left there, much like installing software on to a computer

both of these options would, it seems, have advantages, so lets look quickly at the two options and then we can look at what I think the real problem that exists behind this sort of technology might be.  The advantages to the first option are simple and really the same as the disadvantages, I never actually need to know very much at all, I just need to have a sufficiently large cache of ‘chips’ to provide me with the skills and knowledge that I need for particular circumstances, perhaps even being able to ‘chip’ multiple sets of skills and knowledge at once to accomplish complex tasks or tasks requiring a wide range of skills and knowledge.  The advantage would be that I could spend my time occupying my brain with whatever I chose to do with it and not need to spend multiple years learning skills and obtaining knowledge.  Of course the disadvantage is that if there is a problem with ‘chip’ then there is a severe problem with my ability to do the things that I would need to do.   So maybe this is really an augmenting technology where skills that I don’t require often, or high specialised or complex are those that I would ‘chip’ in while more basic skills were learnt in a more traditional manner.

So lets look at the second option, where I install the skills and knowledge as I need them but they remain there like programs on a computer hard drive.  There seems to be less problems with this sort of option as, as with software I would simple need to ‘click’ on it and the skills would be available to be again, or once installed they would ‘run in the background’ much as skills and knowledge tend to do now.  Think about however, what happens with computers, and we could well say already happens with our brains currently, hard drives get full and we have to delete things (we forget or lose access to our memories), software and hardware are no longer compatible, files and systems get corrupted and no long work in way they originally did, if at all, and all of the programs running in the background fill up our available ram and all of our processes slow down or blue screen.

There is however to my mind another issue with all of these ideas and that is what happens to our skills and knowledge over time and where do new skills and knowledge come from.  If I no longer have to practice a skill or utilise my knowledge then it is liable I think to stagnate.  Take again the example of driving a car I have been driving a car for nearly 30 years, and my driving has changed substantially over that time, I am a far more competent driver now in a wider range of vehicles than I was when I was 18, and I have learnt things about driving in particular areas or circumstances which are particular to that area or circumstance.  If however, all I had ever done when I needed to drive a car was to chip the skills and knowledge, drive the car and then turn the knowledge off when I was finished, my knowledge of driving a car may be the same for the most part every time I drove, year after year, particularly if I only drive on limited occasions.  I am also faced with the issue of skills upgrades what if I want to drive better, drive a truck as well as a car, or a wide range of cars, with changing configurations, will the chip that I have be able to cope with all of these permutations, or will I need and upgrade as the years pass by to cope with the changing world.  There in also lies the other issue, if this ‘chipped’ learning becomes the predominant means of obtaining the skills to achieve tasks, then where will these skill upgrade come from, will there be artisans who specialise in developing skill sets in more traditional ways, so that this skill and knowledge can be copied and transferred to others.

I would be really interested in hearing your thoughts on this as it has started some deeper thinking for me on this idea of interface learning and skill acquisition.

 

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