Success factors of e-learning in workplace environments

This text was originally handed in as my final assignment of course PDG083 V15 Contemporary Adult Education (Samtida vuxenutbildning) at Gothenburg University on March 30st 2015. 

Introduction

E-learning has suffered from criticism, for example by Dreyfus (2002) stating that online environments do not support learning at all as they prohibit learning commitment or by Wang, Ran, Liao, & Yang (2010) denouncing the missing motivational component of e-learning. In workplace environments, however, e-learning is still implemented frequently as it fulfills specific needs such as cost-efficiency, on-demand supply of easily updatable workforce trainings, and flexible access independently of time and place (Reynolds, Becker, & Fleming, 2014). A range of scientific fields contributes to this discussion and disagreement exists on fundamental assumptions of knowledge, pedagogy and assessment (Knight, Buckingham Shum, & Littleton, 2014). Human Resource Development (HRD) tends to frame e-learning as a training method and by saying so to create a tension between both terms training and learning. There are two main resulting challenges: firstly, the conception of learning per se and secondly, the perception of learning as being mostly formal and programme success outperforming untapping the holistic learning experience of professionals (Webster-Wright, 2009). Besides these important conceptual debates, I believe that research on success factors of e-learning implementation can be highly fruitful when taking into account a well-structured and congruent continuous learning strategy in organizations. In this paper I outline selected research on success factors for e-learning in the workplace and how these factors have been empirically investigated. Taking a socio-cultural stance on learning, I am focussing on organizational support and learners’ interaction as success-factors.

E-learning in workplace environments contextualised in the field of adult education

Organizations are one important contributor to adult education and face the steady balancing of cost-efficiency and continuing learning for the greater good. They are an important actor when it comes to integrating conceptual and experimental knowledge reaching across organizations and institutions (Gonczi, 2004). Nevertheless, calls for openness of learning activities to external participants are mostly answered by insisting on business secrets and gaining advantages over competitors. In his fourth part on vocational education, Jarvis (2014) describes the trend from developing employees for the good of the organization through initiating internal training courses and regarding the employee as human capital. Yet, numerous trainings were conducted in corporation with external providers such as universities as centres of lifelong education. Jarvis describes modularisation as a trend due to the higher demand of short courses for knowledge and practise, as well as the shift from education to learning. Consequently, conclusions in this paper cover not only the investigation of organizational support and interaction as success factors for e-learning, but also how future research could contribute to an open learning approach within and across organizations and workplaces.

Theoretical perspectives on e-learning in workplace environments

Tynjälä and Häkkinen (2005) examine theoretical perspectives on e-learning in workplaces and identify three knowledge sources for successful e-learning solutions, namely theories of the learning organization (e-learning should go beyond presenting material and supporting individual learners), sociocultural theories (e-learning should create long-term cross-functional  and authentic communities of practise) and finally cognitive theories of learning and studies on the development of expertise (e-learning should enable participants to use experiential knowledge and integrate it with conceptual knowledge) (p. 323). The authors discuss problems related to workplace learning in general and learning in a virtual environment where they emphasize the importance of the overall learning culture of an organization, the challenge to maintain a sense of community in virtual environments and the importance of linking human resource development to learning activities (pp. 325). As three main reasons why e-learning in organizations fail they name “lack of personalization, lack of collaboration and interactivity, and that e-learning has not been learner oriented.” (p. 327). In their conclusion, they add the importance of including different forms of representations (reading, writing, audio, etc.) and face-to-face learning situations. Reynolds, Becker, & Fleming (2014) summarise their recent paper on contemporary challenges in e-learning by emphasizing a critical perspective on interaction, interaction and the connection to actual learning as well as the concept of social presence.

Empirical investigations on success factors of e-learning in workplace environments

In their empirical study, Sun, Tsai, Finger, Chen, & Yeh (2008) identified learner’s computer anxiety, instructor attitude towards e-learning, e-learning course flexibility, e-learning course quality, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use and diversity in assessment as critical factors influencing e-learner’s satisfaction. Based on a questionnaire guided survey, they resumed that 66.1% of the variance in user satisfaction is connected to the mentioned factors. Interestingly, the independent variable ”learner perceived interaction with others” was not showing a significant correlation to learner’s satisfaction.

Minhong, Weijia, Jian, & Yang (2010) concluded that e-learning should associate learning needs of individuals and the organisation, relate work and learning performance and foster social interaction among learners. They proposed a key performance indicator (KPI) approach that takes into account pedagogical, organizational and technological components to enhance the learning process. In their theoretical framework they mentioned Tynjälä and Häkkinen, to support their claim that “[…] current e-learning development tends to focus on technical issues of design and ignores pedagogical and organizational issues that are necessary for effective e-learning programs to address” (p. 167). It becomes clear, that this paper conceptualised learning in the workplace as combining work, organization and other learners, thus considering a broader perspective on the e-learning environment. In comparison to the study of Sun et al. the authors tested a KPI-system based on their theoretical conceptualization. Their results suggest that this system improved the facilitation of social learning but diminishes benefits for the organization (mostly due to monetary aspects). This indicates a possible conflict being present in workplace learning strategies: the interplay of social learning and cost efficient argumentations in the frame of e-learning solutions.

Even more recently Cheng et al. (2011) conducted a study on the acceptance of competency-based workplace e-learning systems. In their study they used a model which supported “competency-oriented, self-directed, and socially constructed online learning in the workplace” (p. 1331). As a theoretical foundation they also used the paper of Tynjälä and Häkkinen to support the social process involved in adult learning (p.1330). As challenges for workplace e-learning they see the link between individual and organizational development. The result of their study was that “perceived usefulness of work-integrated pedagogical design in terms of improving self-directed learning processes and promoting collaboration among colleagues has positive influences on employees’ behavioral intention to use the e-learning system […]” (p. 1331). This means that again, designing e-learning to foster collaboration (in the study as enhancing social ties and perceived support for promoting a norm of cooperation) correlates positively with the perceived usefulness of the system. However, perceived support for enhancing social ties was negatively correlated to the intention to use, one likely explanation being the critical perspective on engaging in social networks in the workplace. They also concluded that practical value and relevancy for the job are important components influencing the perception of e-learning systems.

Michalski (2014) explored a work-based e-learning tool, which in addition to other tools supports everyday work. By doing so, she is expanding the frame of context-based learning from learning about real-life work situations to actually learning in real-life work situations. She referred to Tynjälä and Häkkinen within her theoretical foundation, when framing social interaction and the need to address context and tools for work-based e-learning and training processes in their own right with respect to practice and research (p. 161). Her focus lies on tensions in e-learning design and the organizational frame, where she points out that e-learning tools should be seen from a broader perspective within a social context because the concept of formal learning and certification is limiting its potential. Her article focusses in the instrumentality of symbolic interaction (SI), with a central conclusion being “E-learning artefacts are intentionally and unintentionally imbued with symbolic meanings generated in the practice of everyday work. A more complex understanding of the learning context must therefore take this into account, so that the planning, introduction and ongoing adaptation of formal training and e-learning programmes can indeed become context-sensitive” (p. 146).

Conclusion

All in all, this paper revealed the multifaceted nature of success factors of e-learnings in organizations. Organizational support and learners’ interaction are operationalised and contextualised differently by researchers and it is important to recognize theoretical underpinnings in their research papers. Throughout the four papers investigated, it seems as if social factors of e-learning are becoming more relevant and are thus included in theoretical conceptions and practical implications. E-learning in the workplace is seen as a context-bound learning experience, which is more than the pure training of contents. Fostering social interactions and drawing on organizational support to enhance the learner’s perception of e-learning comes to the fore. Besides tightly connecting theoretical pedagogical stances, organizational needs and context as well as social interaction, recent research trends indicate a shift from training to learning not only about the work-context but in the work-context, further tearing down the artificial borders between informal and formal learning activities. Thus, this research contributes to the claim for viewing the holistic learning experience, avoiding false dichotomies and acknowledging the potential of technology within this setting. Taking this perspective could also support enhancing borderless learning, where learning does not stop with the borders of a individual organization but where learning can take place across organizations, recognizing existing social networks of learners and acknowledging learning as being a complex and important aspect of continuous professional development.

Resources

Cheng, B., Wang, M., Yang, S. J. H., Kinshuk, & Peng, J. (2011). Acceptance of competency-based workplace e-learning systems: Effects of individual and peer learning support. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1317-1333. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.01.018.

Dreyfus, H. L. (2002). Anonymity versus commitment: The dangers of education on the internet. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 34(4), 369-378. doi:10.1080/0013185022000011763.

Gonczi, A. (2004). The New Professional and Vocational Education. In Foley (Ed.) The Dimensions of Adult Education (pp. 19-34). Open University Press.

Jarvis, P. (2014). From adult education to lifelong learning and beyond. Comparative Education, 50(1), 45-57. doi:10.1080/03050068.2013.871832.

Knight, S., Buckingham Shum, S. and Littleton, K. (2014). Epistemology, assessment, pedagogy: where learning meets analytics in the middle space. Journal of Learning Analytics.

Michalski, M. P. (2014). Symbolic meanings and e-learning in the workplace: The case of an intranet-based training tool. Management Learning, 45(2), 145-166.

Minhong, W., Weijia, R., Jian, L., & Yang, S. H. (2010). A Performance-Oriented Approach to E-Learning in the Workplace. Journal Of Educational Technology & Society, 13(4), 167-179.

Reynolds, K., Becker, K. & Fleming, J. (2014), Contemporary Challenges in E-Learning, in: Harris, R. & Short, T. (Eds.) Workforce Development: Perspectives and issues. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Sun, P., Tsai, R. J., Finger, G., Chen, Y., & Yeh, D. (2008). What drives a successful e-learning? an empirical investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1183-1202. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.11.007.

Tynjälä, P., & Häkkinen, P. (2005). E-learning at work: Theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical challenges. Journal of Workplace Learning, 17(5/6), 318-336. doi:10.1108/13665620510606742.

Wang, M., Ran, W., Liao, J., & Yang, S. J. (2010). A performance-oriented approach to E-learning in the workplace. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(4), 167.

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 702-739. doi:10.3102/0034654308330970.

About the Learning Through Life Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (IFLL)

This text was originally handed in as assignment 3 of course PDG083 V15 Contemporary Adult Education (Samtida vuxenutbildning) at Gothenburg University on March 1st 2015. 

In this assignment I am comparing two articles published in Volume 29 of the International Journal of Lifelong Learning in 2010: Learning through life: A response to a special issue written by Tom Schuller in Issue 6 and ‘The planet will not survive if it’s not a learning planet’: sustainable development within learning through life written by Shirley Walters in Issue 4. In my comparison I will focus on the problems discussed by the authors, how these are developed, what the conclusions are and which concepts are used. First of all, both articles refer to the Learning Through Life Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (IFLL); a report by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE), which investigates lifelong learning in the UK and was published in 2009. Whereas Schuller is one of the authors and the director of the inquiry; Walters is professor and director of the Division for lifelong learning at the University of Western Cape, South Africa. Issue 4 of Volume 29 of the International Journal of Lifelong Learning is a special issue dedicated to commentaries on the IFLL report. In its introduction Jarvis closes by writing “[…] Schuller will write a response to the papers in this special issue” (p. 400). This emphasizes the intention to support the ‘style of interchange’ mentioned by Schuller, who calls for an active dialogue concerning the IFLL report (p. 757). Walters contributed her paper on the sustainable development theme to this special issue of the International Journal of Lifelong Learning and appeares as the third author in this volume.

Walters tackles the theme of sustainable development ‘from a ‘South’ perspective’ (p. 427) by criticizing the British lense as being rather a critique than a critical analysis, but finally commemorating her intention to constructively contributing to the discussion by looking for alternatives, “which can produce a more democratic, egalitarian learning planet, which can sustain life for centuries to come.”  Walters’ main critique regarding the sustainable development theme is that it firstly, reaches further than national borders and secondly, implies more than climate change. She points out a clear lack of defining the term sustainable development in the IFLL report. Furthermore, she argues that the report ignores the urgency of the “current global economic and environmental crises” (p. 430). Whereas she agrees on the four life stages developed by the report, she questions the transferability of demographics from countries of the North (e.g. the UK) to countries of the South. In addition, Walters points out the missing concept of ‘life deep learning’ (p. 432), within which learning embraces spiritual components as well. She additionally values the idea of the citizens’ curriculum, but identifies a need to elaborate it’s financial and applicable implications. Whereas she agrees with the importance of ‘joined-up cross-sectoral approaches’ (p. 434) being made by the report she identifies a need to discover the challenges of these approaches more thoroughly. All in all, she refers to Wallerstein in her final conclusion, where she evaluates the report (besides all its assets) as an interim-solution or intermediate result rather than pointing to a “‘[…] new successor system that we want’” (p. 435).

Analysing Schuller’s text, I will focus on these two text passages, which refer directly to Walters paper. However, for a general overview, in his paper he first makes some general comments on design and purpose of the IFLL and then focusses on some commentaries in the special issue, which he sees as most “fruitful” to enrich the dialogue on the report.

On page 760 Schuller acknowledges the underdevelopment of the theme sustainable development mentioned by Walters and the fact that this theme did not ‘get the weight, which it deserved’. In response to this critique, he points out three dimensions, which he sees as crucial for further investigations of the theme (and which the commission ‘would have liked to explore’ but was not in the position to). The first dimension is authority and how to select the powerful voices which influence policies. The second dimension is the connection between learning and action, in particular how awareness supports or depresses ‘people’s capacity for action’ (p. 760). As a third dimension, Schuller elaborates morality, asking “how do individuals and groups learn to grapple […], and to continue to live together even when there is no consensus?” (p. 760). All in all, Schuller stays close to the issues of climate change and global warming, contributing to Walters’ assumption that this is the perspective on sustainable development within the IFLL report.

Under the heading “A spiritual dimension” Schuller discusses commentaries from Walters, both referring to “the spiritual dimension of learning—‘life‐deep’ as Walters terms it” (p. 762). Schuller points out that by avoiding the term spirituality, the report aimed at avoiding a terminological debate. He accepts Walters’ challenging the transferability of the detected demographic trends from the UK to the South but reminds the reader that one “central thrusts of LTL is the need to take account of demographic trends in the UK” (p. 762). From Schuller’s point of view, demographic developments per se will shift the focus to a more central perspective on spirituality, where “intergenerational equity” comes into play (as opposed to individualization). More generally, it becomes important how older generations address spirituality and how they gain visibility is improving opportunities for other generations.

Hence, Schuller’s paper operates as a response to Walters’, focusing on two main commentaries (one of it being her main critique: the lack of defining the term sustainable development”). By doing so, Schuller himself fulfills his (and the IFLL report’s) claim for an ongoing constructive dialogue over the IFLL report. Both authors value each others work by evaluating as well as by giving recommendations for improvement. This is especially interesting when taking into account that the report has already been published when both papers are released. By saying so, Walters and Schuller contribute to an ongoing discussion on lifelong learning policies within the field of adult education independently of publication dates and deadlines. In addition, the authors abstain from criticising all possible aspects of the other’s work in detail but rather focus on specific themes that they find important and relevant. This offers the opportunity to evaluate the work through different lenses and thus allows an interpretation from different view angles.

 

References

Jarvis, P. (2010). Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning. International Journal of Lifelong learning, 29(4), 397-400.

Schuller, T. (2010). Learning through life: A response to a special issue. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 29(6), 757-766.

Walters, S. (2010). ’The planet will not survive if it’s not a learning planet’: sustainable development within learning through life. International Journal of Lifelong learning, 29(4), 427-436