I’ve worked in learning design and management in both business and higher education settings and the differences in how e-learning technology is used in these two worlds is striking.   Business e-learning has focused on short self-paced, independent, interactive learning module typically delivered via an LMS designed to store, deliver and track progress (think Plateau/SumTotal etc) .

In contrast, higher education e-learning has been build on their tradition of distance learning and courses delivered over longer periods of time (usually a semester), using LMS systems built on collaborative environments that support communication between students, instructors and peers (think Blackboard/Web CT).   The “interaction” in higher education courses relies less on designed interactive learner-computer interaction than on person to instructor, student to student interaction in the process of completing assignments and solving problems.

Building collaboration and social learning into business training

The differences are due to underlying models of education and economic factors, but there are many things the two worlds could learn from each other.  In business training we have long suggested training should  be more a process than an event, yet we rarely design programs that encourage a learning process any longer than a few days/hours/minutes.  In our search for effective informal learning approaches in business there is much we could learn from the collaborative, low tech approaches of higher education, especially in management and professional training.   Business oriented LMS systems have collaborative and discussion features but they have typically been used as an add-on’s or support for self-paced learning modules.  In contrast, higher education e-learning and distance education is grounded in the use of collaborative and communication features with fewer self paced interactive features.  Web 2.0 applications like wiki’s, blogs and social networking have made significant headway in higher education.

There is a huge opportunity to build more meaningful collaborative learning programs in business training.   Action learning environments, team case studies, and  problem based learning assignments have never fully been exploited in business e-learning.  The trend has been to reduce the duration of the training event (a good thing) without extending the informal elements of a learning program through collaborative learning environments.  This is not new–the methods to develop these environments exist.  I hope the renewed interest in informal learning brings them into the spotlight again.  Collaborative environments within formal learning programs of the type I’m suggesting is not purely informal learning but I have seen them extend beyond the duration of the learning program and take on a life of their own.  Use of social media tools should encourage this even more.

A Management Development example

When I was at IBM I was involved with a successful management development e-learning program with significant collaborative learning elements. It was one of the first business programs I’d experienced  that didn’t just use collaboration as an “add on” to a self-paced e-learning program. The program ran over 6 months or so and managers worked on case studies in teams in an on-line environment (Lotus Learning Space at the time).  A “four tier” program framework also included a performance support tier with rapid information to guide JIT management activity, a series of “simulators” which had managers make decisions and experience consequences of their choices and a classroom component where they came together to debrief the case study and learn some advanced topics.  I haven’t really seen a management program like it since.  It’s a little dated now but you can learn a bit more about the program from a conference presentation I did here.

There are many areas in which Higher Education could learn from business e-learning but that’s another post 🙂

Has anyone had experience (as learner or designer) of effective collaboration and social learning features in business training programs?

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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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