Prudens Information Resources for the Internet


THE ADAPTATION OF E-LEARNING IN THE ORGANIZATION

A Prudens e-Report


Formal Training and Informal Learning

Most organizations strive to make each employee proficient in his or her assigned duties through training. Planning and implementing a successful training program for an individual requires needs assessment, skills gap analysis, goal setting, and curriculum design. The effectiveness of training programs may seem obvious in some cases, but is, in general, difficult to measure directly and objectively.

Employees also learn about their jobs in other ways: "on-the-job" experience, instruction from other employees in the work group, and from self-education by reading manuals, procedures, task definitions and safety requirements.

Given the variety of ways that an employee can learn, this report addresses how e-learning can be used to advantage within the organization.

Approaches to Learning in an Organization

In order for e-learning to be part of the learning experience, it is necessary to consider how individuals, groups and organizations utilize and acquire knowledge. On the individual level the question is how an individual learns. At the group level the need is to understand how groups learn, how individuals within the group collaborate to share learning, and how groups collaborate across the organization to share and gain knowledge. Finally, there is the subject, knowledge management, of how an organization captures and stores the knowledge of its members in order for it to be used in the future.

These types of corporate learning are discussed in the following sections:

Individual Learning Management

Individual Learning Management (ILM), the management of individual learning, emphasizes learning approaches within a community of learners. It involves the management of information and technology in an interactive, self-paced, self-instructed, or machine-tutored learning environment. Instruction is usually presented as traditional approaches transferred into a technology environment because of its familiarity to the student. However, the technology, itself, may make new approaches possible, for example in response to a particular set of skills or intelligence exhibited by the student. ILM provides a broad set of variations for learning that might most effectively reach individuals with special learning needs or challenges.

Many types of learning technologies, have allowed advances in individual wearable learning systems, such as the Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS). EPSS is on-the-job, real time training, for individuals performing a task while wearing a visual "heads-up" display that provides visual information from an online training manual or expert system. EPSS may be used in maintenance, repairs, or in unusual or dangerous situations. EPSS does not have an instructor, per se, but like all individual learning approaches, depends on a course designer, a knowledge expert, and software and communications engineers.

Continued technical developments in expert systems, knowledge-based tutors, data mining, virtual reality, autonomous systems, emergent computing, and voice recognition, plus improvements in bandwidth and wireless communications systems will bring new possibilities to individual learning. Long used for tutoring and evaluating individuals for critical skills such as flying a plane, simulations should become better, have a greater variety of subjects, and be less costly.

Collaboration Management

Collaboration management focuses on the group and attempts to duplicate the informal teaching and learning that occurs between employees within the work group. Different types of groups will adapt to group objectives, individual needs, the group's knowledge of the discipline, the virtual behavior setting, and the organizational environment with its degrees of authority, structure, communications and expectations. In addition, cultural factors will play some role both within the group and between groups as learning becomes more global.

Collaboration management can be formalized by adding to its ability to learn together through the appropriate use of communication, information capture, and collaboration tools. For example, in distributed groups, the access to virtual presence and the use of communications tools to share and teach can lead to an exclusive sharing of information within the group. This knowledge, which may be of critical importance to the future success of the group may be saved, as is currently done, in reports, as answers to frequently asked questions, or in a web log. In the future it will be captured and stored using the technologies of the semantic web to provide "smart data" that is relevant and easily found in searches.

Groups Within the Organization

Organizational divisions and subdivisions, as well as project teams make natural groups where the work is shared and the team is responsible to complete it. Due to proximity and friendly professional behavior, this is where informal learning most often occurs. Learning occurs at the coffee pot, in the "bull session", and at the computer station. Nevertheless, the Internet is introducing changes here, too, with instant messaging beginning to replace whispered thoughts, and email enhancing phone conversations.

Collaboration and Virtual Groups

Many groups within an organization can be described on functional lines, such as the accountants or the IT staff. The Internet can add to the effectiveness of these groups. Sales staffs have not been as organized as they are today, which can be attributed to web-based software that enables communications, contact information and report production. The traveling salesperson needs only to report transactions, often on a wireless device, in order to begin the automatic processes of order fulfillment and sales reporting.

In addition, there are project teams, distributed throughout the organization that consist functional expertise as well as project expertise. Thus, project team members are in two virtual groups: the project team and the functional team, both of which may be distributed. Individuals can be members of several groups, even informal groups such as those who once took a course together, even those who once worked together but are now in different organizations. Groups formed across organizations are like an on-going convention or conference where individuals share experiences and ideas. Certain competitive aspects of corporations tend to discourage this, but the ease of using the Internet will make more of it inevitable. Use of pseudonyms may lessen the friction. On the other hand, some positions, such as Emergency Preparedness Managers, may be encouraged to work closely with other companies.

Once a group is established, informal online learning begins immediately; formal e-learning may come in various guises when project or organizational demands require it. Many forms of GroupWare have anticipated the learning aspect of interaction and provide all of the necessary tools for e-learning. These are offered as "surrounds" or supporting tools. Collaboration between groups is facilitated with the same tools and allows a wider scale of learning.

Informal Community Learning: The Learning Guild

Web-based virtual communities, built on common interests, personal goals, or needs are natural places for learning. These loose-knit, informal organizations may be thought of as learning guilds, especially in the early days of guilds when they were comprised of a loose association of craftsmen with similar interests. As such, they are as likely to be spawned within an organization as outside.

As technology advances and bandwidth becomes more available, these groups, using virtual meeting technology, may become more formal and may even evolve into web-based institutions just as their predecessors evolved into corporations.


Virtual Meetings and Seminars in 2020

Can you imagine yourself sitting around a table with several holograms of other participants originating from remote locations (sometimes from the Space Station, or Mars) and, oh yes, a few real people, too. Of course, you appear as a hologram at the remote sites.

Formal Community Learning: The Learning Center

A learning center is a place where resources are shared and interactions between individuals, groups and organizations occur. Center-based programs meet in person several times a week or several times a year, sometimes for three or four days. The students may meet:

Individually with their instructor (the tutor model of learning) With the instructor and all of the other students (the classroom model) As a group with other students (the coffee house model) In an informal physical setting (the off-campus model).

In each of these models there is a physical meeting, which when combined with e-Learning, forms a hybrid approach to learning.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge Management, as discussed here, refers to process through which organizations learn. It entails capturing, organizing, analyzing information within an organization, as well as accessing relevant information from outside the organization. This brings the best available knowledge to the organization's individuals and groups in a timely fashion. The technical side of this endeavor includes the development of data warehouses where data mining and contextual translation occurs. It also involves the use of information retrieval, processing and communication systems to move relevant knowledge across the organization.

Data Warehouse and Data Mining

The data warehouse is a very large database that attempts to hold all the available data about an organization. In addition to being organized to provide information for required reports, etc., it will contain a large amount of other available data, such as e-mail messages, records of trouble calls, or phone conversations with dissatisfied customers. The data warehouse can be searched by a variety of data mining tools to discover previously unknown relationships in the data. It is also the basis for Customer Relationship Management (CRM) which analyzes disparate data in an attempt to provide insight to customer preferences.

A range of valuable information may be also available from the data warehouse such as "how to" records that show how various tasks were attempted in the past, and which may form the basis for best practices. However, encouraging individuals and groups to provide critical knowledge to the organization may meet with resistance, especially if it is perceived to lessen their value to the organization and threaten their jobs.

The Use of Semantic Knowledge Systems in e-Learning

Among the huge amount of data generated by an organization are a large number of reports and documents. These reports may be stored in a digital archive or repository that can be accessed according to a metadata system, which describes in the information according to a taxonomy of predefined categories. The problem is that there a dozen or more metadata systems, some such as the Dublin Core Metadata System providing a minimal amount of information, and others that are much more comprehensive.

When the metadata system is augmented by a range of other sources to provide a context to the data, it forms what is called an ontology, as defined in artificial intelligence, rather than in philosophy. The existence of an ontology, a taxonomy and associated descriptive information, forms the basis for the semantic web and allows data to be easily identified in searches, giving it the name of smart data. In effect it provides the context of the data concisely and allows for quick and accurate searches. Because the data is formatted in an extensible format. It is machine readable, that is it is able to be read under program control, and communicated directly to and analyzed by other computers.

The ability to manage the learning of individuals and groups is greatly enhanced by the use of semantic knowledge systems. As they build a knowledge profile, then their needs can be accurately matched with the information available in the organizational data warehouse, as well as with outside sources of information. This will make learning relevant and efficient.

Organizational knowledge management will also be greatly enhanced. Data will be gleaned from a number of sources and will be stored in a contextual format that will ease its identification and retrieval within the organization. Establishing this approach to e-Learning could result in a significant competitive advantage for an organization, and could lead to new opportunities.


Dr. James E. Burke is a Principal in Burke Technology Services (BTS). BTS provides business assistance to startup technology companies, or organizations planning or integrating new technologies; develops and manages technology projects; performs technology evaluation and commercialization, and assists in technology-based economic development.

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