Work-Based Distributed Learning
Work-based distributed learning is the use of information and communication technologies for providing networked training and educational opportunities to employees anytime, anywhere. It is being used to enhance employee performance and personal growth, help product or service development, promote stronger linkages with suppliers or clients and provide access to educational opportunities for life-long learning.
The major players in the field include corporations which have been using distributed learning to train staff, universities that are providing access to higher education programs such as undergraduate degrees and MBAs, companies which are opening their online training facilities to clients and suppliers, labour unions which are training their members in subjects such as collective bargaining, companies providing training certificates, courseware-writing companies and other software producers.
The technologies enabling work-based distributed learning include personal computers, educational computer conferencing systems, CD-ROMs, video conferencing, satellite transmission, television, video-tapes, radio and films, plus software such as course authoring tools and Learning Management Systems (LMS). A basic dividing line between the technologies is how they adapt to time - whether they are “synchronous” or “asynchronous”. A synchronous technology, such as video conferencing or television broadcasting, demands that people communicate, or be available for communications, at the same time. An asynchronous technology, such as
email or computer conferencing, allows people to communicate at times they choose. Another consideration is whether the technologies are designed for personal use (such as a training CD-ROM) or group interactivity (such as a computer conferencing system or “virtual” classroom.)
The use of technology to provide occupational distance education has a long history including the use of Computer Based Training (CBT) which began in the 1960s. A dramatic increase in activity related to distributed occupational learning came with the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s and the World Wide Web in the 1990s. These new technologies opened a vast range of possibilities which enabled employees to participate in educational activities either on the job or in their own time. People began to study via distributed learning technologies in order to upgrade their skills for improving their productivity, securing promotions, changing employment or finding work. For others distributed learning allowed them to pursue educational credentials such as certificates from IT companies or degrees from public or private universities.
A crucial difference between traditional distance education programs organized prior to the 1990s and distributed education programs today is online (via computer communications) networking. Distributed training and education programs may utilize personal-use technologies such as CD-ROMs, but what makes them different from the rote-learning methods of early CBT programs or the self-study mode of correspondence courses is the capability of people to engage in activities such as group discussion and work via computer communications.
The software being used to enable distributed learning includes course authoring tools, computer conferencing facilities, and Learning Management Systems (LMS).
Course authoring tools are computer programs aimed at helping instructional designers create distributed learning or computer-based self-study courses. In the jargon of the industry they help Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with Instructional Systems Design (ISD). Some authoring tools consist of “plug-ins” (accessory
programs) for word processing or web page creation software. Others are self-contained programs for creating complete courses. Most authoring tools allow for the creation of text and graphic tutorials, training simulations with audio, video and animation shows, multiple choice questionnaires, remedial responses and quizzes. The more full-featured tools contain text outliners, script-writing functions and story-boarding capabilities. The second generation of authoring tools developed in the late 1990s began using an “object-oriented” approach to course development.
“Learning objects” are re-usable units (such as a company description) which can be assembled into multiple configurations in order to develop new courses.
A computer conferencing system organizes the asynchronous messages of learners into shared message groupings. These groupings, commonly called “conferences” or “virtual classrooms”, promote group cohesiveness and collaborative learning because the participants can easily see all the messages related to a specific topic or produced by a particular group. Email could be used for distributing the messages, but it is less effective than computer conferencing because the messages are interspersed with the person’s other emails thereby reducing the sense of group
cohesiveness which is essential for successful educational activities. Most computer conferencing systems aimed at the educational market also include calendar tools, student tracking capabilities, and other course-management functions.
Learning Management Systems (LMS) are computer programs which deal
with the logistics of managing a community of learners: the registration of participants, educational activity tracking, the employment history and specialities of instructors, classroom allocation and other related matters. Most allow managers to track the learning achievements of individuals in order to record acquired competencies and skills. Employees can also use the systems to help plan their long-term training and educational needs. Many Human Resource Management programs are building LMS capabilities into their systems.
Like any other application of technology, distributed learning has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include: providing access to training when and where employees need it (for example, while developing a new service or product); shortening time spent in expensive classroom-based training; training staff scattered over vast geographical areas or in remote locations while retaining local flexibility; increasing access to training or education; saving on travel and classroom costs; amortizing training development expenses and instructor costs over larger audiences; and making specialized instructors accessible to more people. Perhaps the most important advantage is that distributed learning provides the opportunities to build a more technologically-adept workforce which not only knows how to find training when it needs it, but can apply its learning to the creation of new knowledge, products or services. The disadvantages include a potential lessening in face-to-face
educational activity (still the ultimate educational experience); money wasted on poorly-designed or executed courses; alienation of employees who are less technologically comfortable than others; and courses which do not respond to the needs of the learners.
A successful implementation of distributed learning is most probably a “blended” solution which brings into play many different training elements. For example, an employee could work with a CD-ROM, attend a face-to-face class, access just-in-time training modules via the web, participate in an online course and work via email or computer conferencing with an online mentor. The key to success may be to use these different elements to reinforce each other. Employees could be asked to use a training CD-ROM or attend an online course before a face-to-face classroom activity. As well, they could be asked to participate in an online course after a classroom-based session so they can keep in touch with the facilitator and other participants as they apply the general concepts they learned in the class to their specific situations.
Of course, simply ensuring that employees have access to technologies such as CD-ROMs or learning opportunities such as online courses is no guarantee of success. Equal attention must be paid to the pedagogies – the learning theories and
practices which are applied. CBT, which was introduced in the 1960s to great enthusiasm, failed largely because its rote-learning strategy was found to be boring. Traditional correspondence courses in which learners work on their own with printed or electronic material and have access to a tutor over the phone or even email have large dropout rates. But distributed learning programs which blend personal-use
technologies with group interactivity can keep learners interested and engaged on a long term basis if effective online learning strategies are applied.
This has raised interest in applying the lessons of online collaborative learning (OCL), first studied in school and university contexts, to the world of work. Collaborative learning techniques emphasize learner participation in a networked environment. They include group work assignments, role-playing, conference moderating by learners and other exercises which promote peer-to-peer teaching and learning. Participants - including the instructor or facilitator – become equal partners
in the process.
The effectiveness of OCL techniques in training and education has encouraged their application in product or service development. Teams trying to create, produce and market new products or services in a rapid development cycle can maximize their creative potential and productivity by working within a collaborative learning environment. The use of OCL technologies for developing new services and products either locally or globally may even eclipse the use of distributed learning in the more formal educational or training arenas.
The ability of teams to work and learn globally could prove to be the most significant effect of the introduction of computer communications. Production teams can work on a project 24 hours a day by passing work on to partners based in other time zones. Programmers can be based far away from design or production centres without any loss in time or productivity and still participate in global team learning. All of which can be advantageous. At the same time however, multinational
corporations can take advantage of the technologies to distance themselves (literally) from the working conditions imposed by their contractors thousands of miles away.
The advent of global learning/working networks could also prove to momentous for developing countries. Their workforces could gain access to training opportunities formerly denied them because of cost or distance. Brain drain caused by learners staying in the countries were they have studied would be lessened. And new avenues for increased global commercial activity could be made available. However, in order to take advantage of the opportunities being produced by computer communications, developing countries need help to improve their technological, legislative and commercial infrastructures. This can be done by encouraging more investment in developing countries, debt-relief linked to technological advancement and the designing of technologies which take into account Third World conditions.
However, despite the potentials, and the vast sums being spent on it, distributed learning was far from being widely adopted as the new millennium began. Predicting its future based on relatively few projects conducted by early adopters is problematic – especially given the history of the introduction of technologies. Many technologies – records, film, radio, TV, CBT – were heralded by predictions of
“revolutions” in education. But, despite some isolated successes such as Sesame
Street, their predicted potentials were not realized. Partly this is because the introduction of a new technology always emphasises its positives as a way of getting the technology accepted - and greater educational opportunity is always seen as a positive. The negative effects of a new technology are not usually known until the technology is more widely used. Unknown negative effects caused by distributed
learning may yet hinder its wide-spread acceptance. For example, when it was being introduced some critics pointed to the proliferation of unaccredited and even accredited organizations providing online learning certificates based on unsubstantial programs of study – so-called “diploma mills”. This could not only dilute the
attraction of online credentials but also debase the quality of education in society. Also, Learning Management Systems could build employee resistance to distributed learning if they are badly managed but still used to track learning achievements for promotions or even disciplinary action. A combination of these and other potentially negative effects could seriously retard or block the acceptance of distributed learning in the workplace.
Still, there are indications that the effects of distributed learning may be more substantial that previous educational “revolutions”which were based more on hope, ethusiasm and an unconcious bowing to technological determinism than reality. Employees are adopting computer communications at home and at work. Increased speed-levels of technological change are demanding constant re-skilling. New generations of users, who have been taught computer skills from an early age, are coming into the work-world. Life-long learning is being accepted as being as necessary as high-school or university education.. And technology is making access to training or educational opportunities anytime, anywhere, convenient. Given all this, distributed learning education may in fact produce a revolution comparable to the
th century. In the end, it may introduction of compulsory primary education in the 19
be that no distinction is made between employees and learners, that everybody goes through life, as Marshall McLuhan put it, “learning a living”.
Bélanger, M. (2001). Technology Organizing and Unions. In e-commerce vs e-
commons: Communications in the Public Interest. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for
Feenberg, A., (2002). The Factory or the City: Which Model for Online Education?
In A. Feenberg, Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Re-visited. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L., and Turoff, M. (1995). Learning Networks: A Field
Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Hiltz, S. R., and Turoff, M. (1978, 1993). The Network Nation: Human
Communication via Computer. Reading , MA: Addison-Wesley. Rev. ed., 1993: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McLuhan, M., (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York:
Noble, D. F., (1997). Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Rosenberg, M.J. (2001). E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age. New York: McGraw-Hill
Rossett, A. ed. (2002). The ASTD E-Learning Handbook: Best Practices, Strategies and Case Studies for an Emerging Field. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Marc Bélanger teaches technology at the training centre of the International Labour Organization in Turin, Italy.