Evolution/revolution

20 August 2018

This article was featured in the September 2018 issue of the magazine.

Jerome Smail, freelance journalist, explores the evolving e-learning and e-assessment revolution with insight from industry luminaries

A well-trained workforce is an essential component for success in all areas of business but nowhere is it more important than in payroll, where workers are dealing with black-and-white right and wrong answers, with no grey areas or margin for error. However, both the training and assessment of employees bring various challenges – particularly when it comes to logistics and cost. Face-to-face workplace learning requires a significant amount of time and effort to schedule and organise; what’s more, it can be an unknown quantity in terms of return on investment.

But as with every area of work – and, indeed, life – the digital revolution has spawned a new way of doing things: e-learning and e-assessment.

“Utilising technology to deliver and assess training and development can play a key part in helping companies deliver on their people strategies and can deliver much wider benefits than traditional training methods alone,” explains Sue Andrews, business and human resources (HR) consultant for KIS Finance.

While the use of technology has been around for some years now, we are now seeing ‘smart organisations’ increasing the use of integrated learning platforms, which “open up a whole new experience to their staff”, says Andrews. This, she adds, offers much more than just an alternative form of training delivery.

At its most effective, interactive e-learning can better engage staff in their training experience in a way that’s in sync with today’s digital society.

Similarly, used to its full potential and with imagination, e-assessment can provide evidence of both skills and cognitive-based learning. It can also help identify gaps in knowledge and provide tools and links to the worker to support their ongoing development.

 

...new way of doing things: e-learning and e-assessment

 

The standout advantage of e-learning that will appeal to many organisations, however, is that of cost. A high-profile example is the reported £5m McDonald’s saved over two years with its business controls e-learning programme. The fast-food giant also claims it saw a 10% growth in sales as a result of the training (https://bit.ly/29PzGET).

Mark Reilly, head of global learning content design at McDonald’s, comments: “The e-learning approach to development has genuinely improved the learning outcome for our participants. Our internal staff satisfaction survey has shown increases in all the training categories, improving employee engagement and increasing the ability of participants to transfer learning back into the workplace. 

“The programme has brought about significant cost saving in the delivery of training and has improved learning outcomes. It has also led to an improvement in the key financial metrics of the restaurants.”

The cost savings can be made in various ways. Sam Warnes, managing director of e-learning solutions provider EDLounge, explains: “E-learning has the advantage of saving time and money for employers. It eliminates the need to bring in a trainer, providing for their travel expenses, refreshments, materials and venue rentals.

“Additionally,” he notes, “e-learning is available 24/7. This not only means that not all staff will be away from their desks at once to engage in face-to-face training, but also that they can do it at their leisure, whether that be first thing in the morning when they arrive at the office, or in the evening at home after they’ve put their children to bed.”

 

...pitfalls to avoid in both learning and assessment programmes

 

Pete Daykin, digital learning designer at Sky Betting and Gaming, emphasises that the cost savings go beyond logistics. “It is very easy to develop a standardised learning induction to quickly and cheaply upskill new employees to a business,” he says. “It is also agile and easier to scale than traditional classroom training as a business changes or grows.”

Of course, e-learning has advantages for employees too. Ian Walters, director of learning and development for SD Worx UK, says this is especially true for the millennial generation. Ian explains: “We’ve got to recognise the world has moved to a new place. The younger workforce today is very used to working online, whether on a phone, laptop, iPad or whatever their particular choice is. They’re much more comfortable with working that way than maybe the generations before them so you’re tuning into something that’s natural to them and you’re not taking them outside their comfort zone. 

“Whenever someone’s learning in a way they’re comfortable with, it’s more relevant to them and they’re more receptive. It’s easier for them to absorb because they feel more comfortable with the style of delivery.”

Daykin believes the digital approach puts the employee in the driving seat for the training experience: “Digital learning is about providing learning for employees that support how they like to learn and to give them the opportunity to learn as and when they want, giving employees more control over their own learning.”

Warnes points out that e-learning can remove the barrier of social anxiety for some employees: “Many people who are unwilling to ask questions or put forward ideas when in a group are happy to do so when in an online forum.”

However, Walters recognises the digital environment isn’t everyone’s preference for learning. He points out: “Although the younger generation are comfortable with the e-learning style, you also have to cater for the generations before who might not be so comfortable with it. They might have a learning preference where they want face-to-face interaction.” Because of this, Walters favours “some kind of blended learning where there are other opportunities for taking in information in another way”, adding: “I’m not sure as many employers as I’d like are thinking about it in that sense. They’re probably thinking about the advantages of cost and flexibility without considering that it might not suit everybody’s preference.”

Daykin concurs that the traditional approach shouldn’t be abandoned altogether and also believes in a mixed approach. He says: “The key to good e-learning is to use it within a whole L&D [learning and development] offering to support classroom training, relieving some of those traditional costs to the business and engaging employees by providing different ways to learn and engage with content, that can be in the workplace or outside with truly mobile, multi-device learning.”

The digital assessment approach can also favour the employer, according to Walters, who explains: “You don’t need to take the assessment at the point where the information has just been learned. A lot of people like time to reflect on the learning and then maybe do an assessment a little bit later. 

“With e-assessment, there’s the ability to do it immediately for those who feel comfortable with that, but there’s also the option to reflect for a while and then do the assessment. That can help the learning to become embedded. A classroom environment can make that more difficult.”

Walters adds: “We’ve developed a type of assessment, as have others, with bite-sized learning, so you learn a small piece and then are assessed on it and the process continues in that way, with assessment as you go. That’s much easier than presenting a massive piece of learning that has to be remembered and regurgitated. The assessment can be paused at any time depending on circumstances, so it stays relevant and tangible to the individual.”

The digital platform is far from a cure-all, however, and there are pitfalls to avoid in both learning and assessment programmes.

“As with any kind of training, you get out what you put in,” says Warnes. “It is certainly possible for e-learning to become a tick-box exercise, where someone mindlessly clicks through slides to fulfil a requirement. However, many training providers have taken this into consideration when designing the programmes and have included interactive features to check understanding throughout.”

Ensuring employee engagement is essential, says Daykin, explaining that: “There can often be an overreliance and an overkill with e-learning, especially for mandatory, regulatory or compliance learning for employees.  

“A lot of mandatory learning is not engaging, either due to the subject matter itself, the amount of content or the way it has been designed. This leads to a negative view of e-learning with employees, that it is something forced upon them and isn’t enjoyable or worth their time. This does lead to a reluctance to complete e-learning assigned to employees.”

One way to help engagement is the ‘gamification’ of learning. Andrews explains: “This has been around for a while now and involves developing online learning to mirror gaming behaviours. The theory is that by making the experience fun, with an imaginative and competitive edge, people learn more effectively.”

She adds: “Rolls Royce took the innovative step of developing a games-based learning platform in order to engage sales staff on a new product and reported that this novel approach proved very successful.”

Whatever the learning approach, employers shouldn’t neglect to ensure sufficient oversight regarding assessment. Walters points out: “There can an issue with the remoteness of e-learning. It’s not always easy to validate that someone has done the learning they’re supposed to have done. It’s important to ensure the person responding is who it is meant to be and that the answers are coming from the right source.”

So, what can employers do to ensure the success of an e-learning and e-assessment programme? 

Communication is key. Daykin says: “Generating a buzz about the learning helps create interest and adoption. Letting learners know what’s in it for them, why it is important, what it means to the business and why they are doing it all helps to get learners on board. If this comes from a senior manager or leader within the business who has a stake in the content of the learning, it adds credibility to the learning.”

For large programmes, Daykin also advocates ‘learning champions’ who can enthusiastically support the training in their areas of the business. “If your champions are key influencers in the business, all the better,” he says.

Warnes agrees that clear lines of interaction are essential. “To ensure that learners are continuously engaged and stimulated throughout, employers should integrate the process as much as possible with meaningful communication. For example, ensuring that the e-learning platforms have social functions like instant messaging, and face-to-face interactions through secure browsers to enable forum discussions and so on, makes the learning experience far more personable, which in turn makes it more meaningful, and more effective.”

Making sure the programme is well-matched to the business is equally important, says Walters: “If you’re going to partner with someone to provide the solution rather than build it yourself, find an organisation that behaviourally and culturally is very aligned to your organisation. It’s important to get that understanding of who you are because it comes across in the training and the workforce needs to connect with the employer.”

With the e-learning and e-assessment developing fast, what’s next? 

Andrews thinks stories could be the next chapter regarding the methods used to deliver the learning, explaining: “Some in the sector are predicting that stories-based learning experiences are the next update on games styled products. This involves the use of temporary videos, images and media with a limited lifespan. This is something that the younger generations of employees will closely identify with.”

...payroll sector has been generally slow to react to the possibilities...

 

The technology itself is also a fertile ground for development. “Investment in designing learning systems that utilise artificial intelligence are currently underway, with the promise of faster systems that can predict the learner’s needs,” says Andrews. “This should allow for a tailor-made experience based on the user’s speed and style of learning, taking personalisation to a new level.”

Virtual reality, meanwhile, has the potential to give staff a “real-life experience but in a safe and risk-free environment”, adds Andrews, and she predicts this is an area that will continue to see growth and investment.

Walters fears, however, that the payroll sector has been generally slow to react to the possibilities of e-learning and e-assessment. This, he says, can be partly explained by demographics. “There are fewer millennials in the sector at the moment, especially at management level, and perhaps that’s why. But the younger generation are entering the profession now so it’s time the sector caught up. 

“There is reluctance in some areas but also a lack of awareness about the changes that are happening and the pace of innovation.”

Whether payroll can catch up remains to be seen. But one thing’s for certain – e-learning and e-assessment are here to stay and will continue to play an increasingly important part in the successful workplace.