How do we inspire?
Since the advent of eLearning over 20 years ago we have become accustomed to weaving traditional face-to-face classroom courses with components of online learning. Indeed, some of the most exciting things in training are happening online and we have seen huge leaps forward in learning technologies from the staging of massive online learning (so-called ‘MOOCs’) to the construction of complete virtual classrooms.
The result has become Blended Learning
, the ‘blending’ being a combination of training techniques involving e-learning, personal online coaching and face-to-face events including traditional taught courses.
This has been accompanied by changing learning behaviours as new generations, used to having information at their fingertips, expect to sample knowledge on demand, are fluent with online browsing and live in a world of social networking. Ways of learning have changed. Life seems to run faster and learning is more ‘punchy’, often delivered in short bursts or segments, quite different from the pre-Millennial world of multi-week training events. There is greater accommodation of individual needs, with learning and development tailored to allow different learning speeds.
The blend has become richer in digital content with the addition of new software and a progressively faster internet. As a result, some companies are now moving to a world of predominantly digital training.
There have been positive drivers behind this:
- a wish to refresh and update learning and development (modernising)
- taking advantage of new technologies such as visual immersive training (the virtual classroom or virtual site trip)
- a desire to reduce the carbon footprint of delegates travelling to training venues for traditional classroom events.
There are some less progressive motives associated with the loss of travel budgets and sometimes a desire for simplistic packaging of knowledge transfer - investing in ultimately cheaper ways of fulfilling a training commitment. Packaged digital delivery also removes the need to maintain a pool of qualified tutors, which is difficult if the aim is to assemble a cadre of truly inspirational communicators.
Whatever the motive, blended learning with a significant digital content is here to stay, and we should welcome it.
The question is whether we are losing something along the way.
Digital learning is not the best solution in all circumstances. Although a well designed digital package can be a powerful experience - a good MOOC is the prime example – a young engineer looking for guidance will not always get what they need if their supervisor simply tells them to “... go look on the web”. In the worst case, this can simply be a post-millennial way of letting staff know that you don’t really care that much about their development.
Not all experiences can be captured digitally – we still need teachers. Everyone has a question, and in pursuit of an answer there’s a big difference between talking to a skilled communicator and teacher and simply looking down a list of Frequently Asked Questions.
What’s missing is personal contact. Not just with the tutor but among a community of peers, where shared experiences and shared learning are formative moments, especially early in a career. This is being attempted digitally in oil and gas training by using digital networks to build relationships within a working community, effectively a workplace version of the ‘social network’, but these are hard to build efficiently. This approach works in the world of Facebook, which helps maintain contacts that have been made face-to-face, building on existing personal relationships, but if those relationships are not in place through shared experience first then remote digital associations tend to remain second best.
The experiences of the TRACS Training network over recent years with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter reinforce this. Facebook gets used for sharing event photos, LinkedIn for more formal opinion sharing, Research Gate for announcing and swapping articles and Twitter for advertising. All of this is useful in some way; none is necessarily inspirational and much of the communication is not ‘teaching’ as such – it is information sharing.
We believe …
We believe training is better done in teams, learning together. Not for all learning activities as there are areas in which digital learning excels, but certainly topics which rely on discipline integration, and especially moments early in peoples’ careers when we form our early networks and are first expanding our horizons in our chosen careers.
In practice this means we aim for face-to-face contact in a learning environment which is structured to support interaction and team-based learning. We believe it is time for the pendulum to swing back from the strong bias towards digital delivery, not in rejection of blended learning, but simply enriching the personal aspects of the blending. Rebalancing the need for more face-to-face learning experiences.
Inspirational face-to-face events require effort, another reason companies sometimes fall back on pre-packaged digital products. The ingredients for success can be daunting:
- find tutors who have the technical oil and gas knowledge and experience (this is usually not too difficult)
- find tutors who have an enthusiasm to teach and share (this is a little harder)
- generate course material which is tailored to the needs of the group; this potentially means each course is a re-design (this requires significant effort and many training companies simply will not do it on the grounds that it is non-commercial), and finally …
- find tutors to run the events who have the capability of inspiring the group – this is the rare commodity
The TRACS Training tutor teams at AGR attempt this, as do many others, and we can reflect on success cases as well as failures. Examples of failure are those when the tutors fail to connect personally with the group and fall back on showing sets of PowerPoint slides, become ‘casual’ about the delivery if the course has been repeated too many times without update, or simply lose enthusiasm to communicate. An example of success would be tutors with strong personal messages to deliver, who find a way of tailoring their delivery so it lands personally with every member of the delegate group, and care enough to make sure everyone in the group is being reached, often with post-course follow-up where useful.
The success described above relies on adaptation – tailoring – and is distinct from traditional face-to-face training involving lectures interspersed with exercises. The world of tailored training leans more towards the style of a personal tutorial, as espoused at some universities. The tutoring can be personal or run in small discussion groups, and one model for this is the style of tutorial run in Oxbridge colleges (and elsewhere). These institutions have a strong foundation of personal coaching, with tutorials carrying more status and value than traditional lectures.
Whether in a face-to-face classroom setting or in a tutorial, we need tutors who can be inspirational.
Where does inspiration come from: the digital world or personal interaction? At times it can be both. If traditional classroom teachers lack good teaching skills, have limited care for their colleagues and lack inspiration themselves then it is probably not worth the carbon footprint associated with flying people to spend a few days in their company. But if a tutor does have inspiration to offer, and if that inspiration can be amplified by sharing the experience with colleagues, then this creates an experience which is hard to replicate by self-study on the web.
Much of this has to do with care. Ultimately, a thoughtful word usually beats a digital handout. It is in the inspirational face-to-face moments that we have the chance to light fires; with good follow-up and a culture of continued tutoring, including digital communication, we can keep those fires burning longer.