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.


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.


Corporate MOOCs – What’s my incentive?

A fantastic post by Craig Weiss on the value and problems associated with Corporate MOOC’s. This is well worth spending the time reading and thinking about.

By Craig Weiss

In the past two months, a trend is showing up at am amazing rate – MOOC platforms within a LMS.  For the most part, those that have been adding them, have done so on the education side of the house.  In fact, one vendor offered me an opportunity to create a MOOC and they would stick on their platform – an honor, but not something of interest.

If you think MOOC platforms are just for education – you are in for quite a surprise – they are making an appearance in the corporate platforms too.  A couple of vendors are already in the process of adding them – and if you know this industry – and hopefully you are gaining more knowledge – you would know that the industry screams lemmings – so expect more to come in 2014.  But, I digress.

The question or questions must be why?  Why…

View original post 1,574 more words

Has L&D become its own worst enemy?

I was reading Ryan’s blog post on Face time in online learning, this morning and it got me thinking about how sometimes I feel that as L&D professionals we have shot ourselves in foot so to speak in terms of our relevance to organisations.

I was responding to a comment from Con, about the fact that often organisation and management balk at the costs associated with face to face delivery or having an informal meetup of participants and i started to think that perhaps in our rush to embrace and to ‘sell’ online learning to the business, a lot of time on the grounds that it is more cost-effective than face-to-face delivery, that we may have made a rod for our own backs when we wanted or needed to include face-to=face components.

It goes a little deeper than that however, and I think back to LearnX and some of the conversations I had there and a particular presentation by Saul Carliner when he said 70:20:10 is not an investment strategy. (as most of you know I am not a 70:20:10 believer, there is no rigorous evidence to back up the numbers.  Yes a lot of learning is informal but putting numbers around it when there is nothing by anecdotal evidence to substantiate it casts us all in a bad light.)  Even though it isn’t an investment strategy it is often ‘sold’ that way, even if the selling of it is unintentional.  If you talk to the business about 70% of all workplace learning being informal and that we need to invest in technology to ensure our staff access to this avenue of learning. promote it, link it to our talent management and retention and development strategies then it starts to sound like it is an investment strategy.  The problem is that I am not sure I know too many organisations who are going to increase their learning budgets by 70% to incorporate informal learning, in fact i think it is probably going to come from the L&D budgets that are already there, which will have an impact of course on our ability to delivery the formal training that the organisation needs.

Hmm, perhaps if we move all of that formal training online and not worry about face-to-face then we can free up budgets to increase our staffs access to informal learning, and there we have it we have shot ourselves in the foot again.

I see it everywhere the more I think about it, formal qualifications through the VET sector are devalued because we chase funding for their delivery to make them free or heavily subsidised for staff and the organisation and then when the organisation wants to have staff do a qualification that is not funded they choke when they see the price tag.  Other training reduced to online only because of the cost savings associated with delivery, (and don’t get me wrong online delivery can certainly be a huge cost saving) where having even a half day of face-to-face time would greatly improve the outcomes for staff and the organisation.

Now I am not suggestion that everything go back to face-to-face and L&D should get massive increases in budgets (although that would be nice wouldn’t it) what I am saying is that if we spend all of our time talking about the next big thing, the new way of learning.  If all we talk about is how cost-effective online delivery is and how informal learning is the way of the future, can we really than be surprised when the business turns back to us and replaces the L&D unit with free mooc’s from the cheapest provider.

Herding Cats – Capturing informal and social learning

Social and Informal Learning in taking off in leaps and bounds,

with significant number of courses and programs available for free via various MOOC’s or through providers of free online education the profile of this kind of learning has increased dramatically.  Add into this workplace learning, communities of practice, on demand e-learning, and corporate social media, just to name a few and you soon realise that Learning is happening all over the place.  And I have to say I think that is a fantastic thing, anything which encourages people to learn or makes it easier for them to learn is good for everyone.

However, with all of this learning going on, how do we as organisations know what it is our staff know and how can we be comfortable that they are actually capable of doing the things they have been learning and is it important that we know.

Let me answer the second half of that question first, Yes, it is important that organisations know what their staff are learning, what their skills and capabilities are, what they are competent and not competent to do.  Why? because without that knowledge organisations cannot best plan for the future.  Without this information decisions about workforce needs and capability cannot be accurately made, nor can we properly succession plan for the organisations future.  It is hard to know who are going to be the next senior leaders with your organisation without knowing the knowledge, skills and capabilities.

The first half of the question if harder to answer however, how do organisations capture what it is that their staff know, what it is they have learnt over a year or six months, how does an organisation verify that learning and how can it be integrated into the work of the organisation and where the organisation is ‘providing’ the opportunities to learn, say through communities of practice etc, how do they determine the return on investment they are getting.

Even the simple act of capturing the information about staff learning can be challenging, do you try and capture everything, do you have a system where staff upload what they think is relevant information about their learning activities, does the organisation try and vet the information that is uploaded or captured to ensure that the learning activity was undertaken, or that if possible the person was deemed competent, or do you only accept formal qualifications as evidence of knowledge.  I guess for me it depends on the purposes for which you are looking to capture the information.  If it is being captured primarily so that staff have a record of their learning activities, both formal, non-formal and informal, which they can utilise to show industry currency or professional development, then I think casting a wide net, without too much checking of competence etc is fine.  If however the organisation is using the information as one string to its workforce planning or succession planning bow, or as looking to recognise formally the skills people have gained from informal sources, then I think the capture needs to be much stricter, perhaps even with competency based assessment backing up the learning from these informal avenues.

If you are in organisational learning I would love to hear what you think or what you do in terms of capturing what your staff learn informally.

%d bloggers like this: