Educational Technology & Society 6 (1) 2003
ISSN 1436-4522

A model for an open and flexible e-training platform to encourage companies’ learning culture and meet employees’ learning needs

Andrea Bagnasco, Marco Chirico, Giancarlo Parodi and A. Marina Scapolla
DIBE, University of Genoa
Via All’OperaPia 11/a, 16145 Genova, Italy
bagnasco@dibe.unige.it
chirico@dibe.unige.it
gian@dibe.unige.it
ams@dibe.unige.it

 

ABSTRACT

Nowadays, companies carry out their activities through a distributed structure that often separates management from manufacturing all over the world and faces the global market. These new scenarios require the adoption of continuous and ubiquitous learning models for both company staff and customers. From a company’s standpoint, the challenge is to manage against the fast obsolescence of technical skills and to let workers acquire expertise in new topics “in time”. From customers’ point of view, the adoption of innovation is strategic in order to exploit new technologies and to guarantee support and assistance at an ever-increasing quality level. We are in the presence of a wide range of topics that should be available to a large learning community with different skills and learning targets. Distance education is an effective answer to this demand for flexibility in training. The target is to build up a virtual learning community on the basis of a knowledge model that adequately meets different learning needs. Classification and reusability aspects of multimedia contents play a fundamental role in improving the environment. In this paper, we analyze possible innovations in corporate training, and propose the use of a framework that integrates all information sources and offers practice skills necessary to meet new needs.

Keywords: E-training platform, Learning community, Learning object, Classification and reuse, Practice skill


Introduction

Until recent years, training was considered non-productive, but at present the level of knowledge inside companies can hardly keep up with the rapid changes in management and technology. Training and learning are more and more considered as competitive advantages in the business world (Figgis et al., 2001). The traditional training policy cannot face all emerging needs, and the alignment of the strategy for knowledge transfer with corporate goals is essential to satisfy market constraints. The challenge is to manage against the fast obsolescence of technical skills and to let workers acquire expertise in new topics, just in time to face changes in working practice. New models of learning and training are needed in order to let companies cope with a continuous competence upgrading, the standardization of skills and the detection of skill gaps in the organizations. Companies must be able to plan training actions for groups of persons or project teams, and must offer workers new opportunities of self-growth. Training can be organized by individuals whenever they identify a gap between their own expertise and work requirements; this can be accomplished by simply using a updating strategy.

Innovating the knowledge-transfer strategy plays a basic role also in offering customers support and assistance. These services require an ever-increasing level of quality and can benefit from information and communication technologies as well as from training. A wide community can cooperate in creating a knowledge base that will provide customized information and relevant contents at lower costs; getting the human element to adopt e-learning is the current most challenging goal.

In this paper, we analyze the emerging needs of industries in terms of training and customer support, and evaluate how electronic learning environments can really help to reach the ambitious target of joining study and work.

 

ICT innovation vs companies’ training needs

The primary and most pressing need of each company is to secure its competitive market position. This target can be attained by acting on many factors, most of which are strictly related to the corporate training strategy. Training and re-qualification are essential to facing the rapid obsolescence of skills and to modifying and adapting production and services to the market in a flexible way. Companies need to move towards a continuous training system so well integrated into the work reality to be part of the culture of the company. Competence and knowledge management should be closely linked to monitoring corporate needs. Even when training is recognized as a need, the costs, associated with hours of work for re-qualification and the search for teachers sufficiently involved in industrial topics, can pose serious problems. In the following, we shall analyze how a strong integration between work and learning can help to overcome such problems.

An effective training-process control by companies requires drawing up plans for both a complete offer of courses and an increase in individual competence, based on a “learning by working” approach. Participation in courses allows re-qualification and acquisition of knowledge from scratch. It can be very helpful to insert new persons for the production process or to guarantee flexibility in the use of manpower, but it is not very effective if the acquired information is not used a short time aftera course. People tend to pay less attention if the subject of a course is not directly connected to their work, and only a small percentage of the course contents is retained. On the other hand, people need to gain a deeper insight into problems and need information and support to carry out their tasks. This process results in a large amount of knowledge (learning by working) but is very ineffective and time-consuming if not supported appropriately. Sometimes, the necessary information is already present inside a company: someone could help to carry out an operation but communication with one another is not easy and the required documentation is not available or accessible. This situation reflects the need to organize, share and reuse information: contents must be continuously updated, the feedback from each task must be capitalized, and employees must have easy access to information. Special attention must be given to how contents can be retrieved and their presentation customized. At the same time, new and more effective ways of cooperation and communication are necessary to improve the process of continuous learning by working.

Recently, ICTs have considerably changed also the methods of communication between companies and customers. The Internet is the favourite mean to present companies’ goods and services, and offers new opportunities of remote support. Companies need to organize support environments that enable operators to take actions promptly whenever a problem occurs, for instance, solving configuration and management issues on site. This approach to support and maintenance requires access to online information and effective communication facilities. It is strictly connected to companies’ training policies, as it allows establishing a two-way communication channel between customers and staff that is profitable to both.

 

ICTs for training

ICTs play a relevant role in the business management of almost all companies; from SME to large corporations, new information and communication methods and tools are in use to pursue:

  • electronic management and integration of data regarding internal product documentation, business organization, manufacturing and distribution;
  • distributed information system;
  • easy ways to access information;
  • data sharing and reusing;
  • competence retrieval.

The same technologies and, partially, the same business information can be functional to organize training services able to meet the needs previously analyzed.

 

E-learning and knowledge management

E-learning and knowledge management systems are recognized as being an effective answer to the demand for flexibility in training. They allow people to regularly and efficiently acquire new knowledge and expertise, through a continuous participation in the training process. This kind of learning satisfies time and space constraints, and leads to an effective strengthening of the permanent development and certification of human knowledge and expertise.

Nowadays, the attention of the e-learning community is focused on “how to learn”, rather than “what to learn”. The approach to learning by doing and by exchanging experiences and carrying out projects in a cooperative way is a current research topic. Companies are even more interested than educational institutions in this approach as it allows them to take the most of everyday work, to use information technologies for socialization, and to find information where it is and when it is required.

Providers of learning technologies are more and more numerous on the market and suggest innovative ways of applying e-learning (Barron, 2000). They offer systems to deliver courses or nuggets of information together with other functionalities such as the management, tracking, reporting, and administration of the learning process. Different ways of delivering are available (through the Intranet, the Internet, or other media like CD-ROMs and DVDs). The choice of optimal media and the required network performance are strictly conditioned by the quality of the contents (data, audio, video) that must be distributed and by the model adopted for training (synchronous or asynchronous). When learners and tutors are online at the same time, a real time interaction is required; otherwise, activities are carried out over time. The asynchronous model allows more flexible and more private learning than the synchronous one, and fits better work demands, for employees who can take their own pace while working. To prevent the lack of live support, virtual classrooms can be set up by means of bulletin boards, on-line communities, cooperative work facilities and software tools that help to acquire detailed expertise when it serves, to solve problems and to create an interactive knowledge-sharing community (Abuzz, 2002;Tacit, 2002). Obviously, synchronous and asynchronous training can be performed together to create hybrid models.  The choice of media, the conversion from printed material to online documents together with the proactive role of tutors are key factors that affect results.

E-learning moves in parallel with strategies for knowledge management (PROMETEUS, 2001). Knowledge management systems provide a way to store, classify and retrieve an enterprise’s information assets. They are the instruments for creating a knowledge repository of training contents in modular, object-based formats. The right granularity of contents allows one to find just what is needed at a certain time, to aggregate objects in order to create curricula, sharing and reusing didactical contents, and to capitalize the corporate knowledge.Employees can build by themselves personal courses by using these small blocks of discrete training. Automatic processes that identify needs and provide proper learning resources must support them. Moreover, it should be stressed that corporate knowledge is based, on a large scale, on people’s know-how, process data, individual behaviours and company strategy. Therefoe, the challenge is to develop systems that learn on the fly and to stimulate employees to turn their knowledge into learning contents (Ruhe, 2000). Advanced knowledge structuring methods must be applied inside a company in order to capitalize its knowledge (i.e., technical documents, didactical material, the experiences of employees, annotations, discussion threads, etc.).

 

Benefits

Benefits resulting from a proper approach to e-learning and knowledge management include increased employee productivity and efficiency, lower travel costs and less waiting time, on line access to information, and experts’ integration into usual work activity. Employees, who can access training from their work places, are directly involved in their growth path, become more responsible and consider this experience an investment for the future. They can promptly meet customers’ demands and be more effective for their organization.

When contexts are dangerous or too expensive to be available for training, computers allow one to learn in a safe way by simulating real systems, and virtual reality helps to build up views that prevent damages. Remote maintenance support environments via computer networks and the use of mobile terminals enable technicians to grasp situations quickly without necessarily visiting the workplaces.From the same location it is possible to diagnose faults and access technical documentation and expertise required to solve them, thus minimizing the intervention time. According to this approach, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation experimented a system (Imai et al., 2001) that supports maintenance work in a suitable and effective way, greatly improves the working efficiency of a maintenance section and promotes cooperation, including the formation of data-sharing schemes among manufacturers, equipment makers, and material suppliers.

In the current economic slowdown, e-learning industry appears not to be affected to the same degree as other IT areas (Barron, 2001), thanks to the growing consciousness of the benefits of online learning. Providers of learning technologies have been able to demonstrate these benefits and to prove their potential.

Cooperation between higher education institutions and companies can produce innovative projects in the educational field. An example is the research project funded by a TCS UK Government Programme (Parkin, 2002) and pursued jointly by the Mechatronics Research Centre at LoghboroughUniversity and Feedback Instruments Ltd. It analyzes all the conditions to guarantee a high quality level of training and a strong match between companies’ needs and educational institutions’ goals. Another example is the European research project CORONET (Corporate Software Engineering Knowledge Networks for Improved Training of the Work Force) that focuses on collaborative and on-demand learning within the framework of software engineering corporate learning networks (CORONET, 2002).

 

Dimension of Companies vs Training

Training is at the same time an opportunity and a need but, whereas big companies invest heavily in it, SMEs still consider it a costly and time-consuming process. They have difficulties in conciliating training with production times and resources. For these small industries, external service providers can support the systematic use of ICT-based solutions. For example, we can cite the HP educational services (HP, 2002). HP offers a number of E-Learning services that allow companies to attend lessons or seminars directly from their workplaces and to create an HP Virtual Classroom, where users can share problems and find support and solutions thanks to a discussion forum and the cooperation of a virtual community. A Learning Management System is available to carry out training activities. Companies can take advantage of the wide-ranging offer of distance learning courses, or can build up customized environments. Services are available via the Internet in “a pay for use” way, and can be rented for a single training session, a set of events or a certain amount of time. A large number of participants can be present in the virtual classroom at the same time: they can ask questions and share a workspace to transfer data and documentation.

Another successful example is the LearNet platform (Getronics, 2002). Large enterprises can use it to develop their e-training services, however, the same platform is used by Data Centers of Getronics to deliver training services according to an application outsourcing approach and to save companies’ investments.

Sometimes, companies belonging to the same area of activity adopt the solution of passing through their trade association. As a result, they benefit from distributing the cost of a common service among many and from creating a virtual community of people that share needs and problems (Johnston et al., 2002).

 

The training framework

In recent years, we have experienced distance learning in academic education (Chirico et al., 2001; Chirico et al., 2002), and have carried out research on distributed systems for remote control of plants, addressing the execution of experiments through the virtual access to instrumentation labs (Bagnasco et al., 2001). Starting from these works, we analyze the requirements and the design of the environment that we propose to enforce ICT innovation and e-training in companies. We aim to promote both the use of ICT in production, support and maintenance activities and the culture of training.

We address companies that carry on their business through a distributed structure, often separating management from manufacturing areas all over the world and also facing a global market. These are the main reasons for their need of distance training processes to provide continuous and ubiquitous learning models for both company staff and customers.

The key issues of the proposed training framework (see Fig. 1) are thecontent standardization and the flexibility to meet the learner’s needs.

 Users of the training framework are:

  • trainees (i.e., internal employees, other companies’ employees and technicians, customers);
  • trainers and tutors (inside and outside a company);
  • experts and consultants (from educational institutions and inside/outside a company);
  • system administrators of the training platform.

All these categories of users should be able to access the platform from their own workplaces as well as through heterogeneous mobile clients.

The training framework faces the following pedagogical targets:

  • education for beginners;
  • continuous education for competence updating and integration;
  • customer assistance.

Different learning strategies and methodologies are supported: self-paced learning, virtual classrooms, teamwork, and just-in-time learning.

Learners can individually search and retrieve contents and organize their own training. Learner activity is supported by on-line material and is carried out in an unsupported way for the most time. A forum, e-mail and other communication tools are always available for help and suggestions.

Virtual classrooms are designed to support cooperation by allowing a live classroom experience to be conducted over the Web. Students attend lectures from a distance in a synchronous or asynchronous way, interacting with peers and instructors through communication tools.

Teamwork has to be supported and encouraged in order to build up knowledge on the basis of interactions and cooperation. Network based project learning (NetPro, 2002) and “learning histories” (LearningHistory, 2002), are effective applications of this approach.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a well-known approach to collaborative pedagogy in education. It can be defined as a teaching/learning model that involves learners in problem-solving tasks and is based on the assumption that learning occurs during these unstructured, complex activities. PBL can take advantage of networks leading to frameworks that provide process models with specific project-learning phases, actors and roles, methods for collaborative learning, resources to support project implementation, and tools for building a Web-based learning environment.

Learning histories can help an organization to learn from experience and to understand implications of its own learning. The analysis of past events, together with contributions and reactions of people, help to capitalize experience and avoid future mistakes. A learning history can be used as the basis for group discussions for those involved in an event, as well as those who might learn from it.

Just-in-time learning corresponds to a highly individualistic model of learning. The framework must dynamically reply to demands coming from trainees by structuring and delivering contents in the form of a personal training path exactly when an individual needs them. It is characterized by a high control by learners, access independent of time and place, and a use of information functional to the specific needs.

 


Figure 1. The e-training framework

 

The learning framework is deeply integrated into the real company’s workflow; it interacts with management and production areas, facilitating the interlocking of work and learning. As a result, learning contents originate in real work situations, and learners take part in real tasks related to a running project. We can state that learning is triggered by real work problems, which become the main source of knowledge. Documentation of projects, plants and products can be classified and archived into the Knowledge Management System (KMS)of the company.

The basic building block of such a flexible and portable framework is the web, or rather, a cluster of cooperating portals customized according to specific learners’ needs and profiles.

Several web servers cooperate in distributing services that share data with the company’s supply chain systems (Manufacturing Execution System, Enterprise Resource Planning, Customer Relationship Management) and join outside services.

We propose a three-layer architecture (see Fig. 2), consisting of a presentation layer, a middleware layer for knowledge management and knowledge-transfer processes, and a content publishing layer.

 


Figure 2. The e-training platform architecture

 

The presentation layer takes care of the customization and the localization of the learning interfaces (personal skins), which should maintain as much as possible the look&feel of the learner’s working environment.

The middleware layer provides educational services: contents, learners, courses and communication management.

The KMS allows one to classify and collect learning contents (learning objects) in repositories. Classification of contents aims to reuse and share knowledge. The use of metadata to describe objects’ characteristics and objectives is crucial to retrieve, manage and use them effectively.  Many international projects are working on the development of standard and specifications of instructional components and architectures, such as IMS (IMS, 2002), IACC (IACC, 2002), IEEE-LTSC (LTSC, 2002), CEN/ISSS/LT (ISSS, 2002), Prometeus (PROMETEUS, 2002) and the ARIADNE Foundation (Forte et al., 1997). According to the learning object paradigm, Web-based training courses down to one particular training unit are easily built.

Through the middleware services, the learner can navigate the KMS and configure his/her environment in such a way that the most important training material is automatically delivered/linked to his/her personal web.

Trainers can assemble, update, and reuse pedagogical units to build up learning units and courses.

Other services give learners the opportunity to interact with highly qualified instructors who have extensive experience and knowledge in their subject areas (Instructor Led Training) and communicate with others.

The learner management service addresses accounts and scalable user groups administration and learners’ registration and enrolment into classes. Usage statistics and learners’ monitoring provide a valuable background for certification of acquired knowledge.

The content publishing layer provides tools for creating contents from scratch and/or for converting existing ones. A wide range of authoring tools is available to produce multimedia documents. Integration of work experiences and results with training contents requires implementing specific tools and interfaces to the company’s application servers.

Contents derive from a large spectrum of sources such as traditional collections of documents, reference manuals, and also on-the-fly material (i.e., annotations on documents, contributions to discussions, question-answer dialogues). We can state that any kind of information can be used to create and exploit shareable and reusable assets of knowledge. Cooperation is at the same time a way of learning and producing knowledge. Learning histories should become an additional content source.

Practice through real or simulated activities is a further remarkable component of the training process. Simulation can be used whenever reproducing real events for training purposes is impractical. Virtual presence can be effectively used in all those cases where critical and dangerous operational conditions require separating training activities from the final working asset. The implementation of virtual interfaces (reproducing as close as possible the operational conditions) together with remote access to real systems form a complete training environment.

The same framework leads to face the increased complexity of production, which needs new maintenance environments and strategies. Maintenance operators need to cope with troubles as soon as they occur and to speed their work by facilitating remote maintenance and the use of mobile intelligent terminals. Improved on-line maintenance is based on the availability of the electronic documentation (task description, process instructions, component list, manuals) necessary for a specific task as close as possible to the place where the task must be carried out. A two-way communication is required to provide the specific documentation for each task in order to guide the operator; the operator’s feedback must be collected, thus so enriching the global knowledge. Remote maintenance enables engineers to accurately plan and implement the required actions without necessarily visiting the workplace. This greatly reduces the number of service visits that the maintenance engineers have to make to the workplace and, when visits are necessary, it minimizes the time taken to complete the job.The exchange of operating sequences and instructions with maintenance databases and the communication with company experts facilitate fast and efficient operations. The same techniques can be used to remotely test and try out the final configurations of systems before they are installed, thus saving resources and satisfying time and space constraints.

The full integration of the production area into the training system provides a real learning-by-doing environment for trainees and enforces the tuning between the goal of the training process and the workplace evolutions.

 

Conclusion

New learning scenarios are modifying the traditional points of view of companies in terms of training investments. Rapid changes in management and technologies, together with a growing interest in staff retention, require that training and learning be regarded as competitive advantages in the business world.

An integrated learning approach is the most effective answer to this demand for flexible and customizable knowledge characterized by fast obsolescence and rapid and continuous evolution. Companies need to offer their employees and technicians an effective way to refresh competencies and to play an active role in overcoming their skill gaps. Companies have to consider how to specify what they want, decide who will develop the materials, where and how learners will be educated (at their workplaces, at their homes).

New e-training platforms are needed to provide knowledge management and communications.

On-line learners should not only access their studies from remote locations by using multimedia, but they could also build online communities, swapping questions and answers with their tutors and fellow students via e-mail and forum. Classroom training will continue, but there will be mixed solutions using the strength of each medium. Instructors also need to be involved, and if they are to become online tutors, they need to be trained for this new role.

This new Integrated Learning Approach exploits its potentiality if the learning framework is fully integrated into a real company’s workflow and strictly interlocks work and learning: learning originates in real work and learners face real tasks. Learning is triggered by real work problems, and training contributes to building up a real-time company.

 

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