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

Identifying training needs for ict skills enhancement in south - Eastern Europe: implications for designing web-based training courses

Panagiotis Zaharias
PhD student, Department of Informatics
Athens University of Economics and Business
76, Patission
Athens 104 34, Greece
Tel: +30 210-8203154
Fax: +30 210-8203154
pz@aueb.gr

Angeliki Poulymenakou
Lecturer, Department of Informatics
Athens University of Economics and Business
76, Patission
Athens 104 34, Greece
Tel: +30 210-8203154
Fax: +30 210-8203154
akp@aueb.gr

 

ABSTRACT

The development and deployment of innovative Information and Communication Technologies’ (ICT) applications and services is becoming the key factor for growth and employment in all parts of Europe. Our work has the strategic goal to set up an e-Learning service (web-based courses) that will build Information and Communication Technologies’ skills and competences needed for the implementation of the Information and knowledge-based society in the region of SE Europe. Due to the complexity of the situation (four different user organisations representing different countries, industries, markets, cultures and needs) special emphasis is given to training needs assessment. Another basic pillar for our work is the design of usable, learner-centered web-based courses.

Keywords: Training needs assessment, Web-based courses, ICT skills, Learner-centered design


Introduction

The development and deployment of innovative Information and Communication Technologies’ (ICT) applications and services is becoming the key factor for growth and employment in all parts of Europe. Especially in the area of South Eastern (SE) Europe it has been reported that there is a clear need for linking university and higher education ICT curricula to the market demand for skills and promoting e-Learning in the area. However, the need for life long learning and training in conjunction with societal and economic factors such as the lack of time, the lack of financial resources, but also accommodation of the large number of people to be trained, push for changes in what has been the traditional, class-based model in the learning and training process.

Our work (see acknowledgements) has the strategic goal to set up an e-Learning service that will provide training courses that will build Information and Communication Technologies’ skills and competences needed for the implementation of the Information and knowledge-based society in the region of SE Europe. In more details, we are going to utilise a credible VirtualUniversity operational model and platform to create and deliver training curricula that will be based upon the specific SE Europe training needs in ICT. Identification of training needs is crucial for the success of the whole effort. The different four user organizations participating in the project were considered as representatives of the respective four SE European countries, covering the services sector (IT services, telecommunications and utility services).

 

Method of work

The innovation of the project is that web-based training courses will be developed according to selected Generic Skills Profiles for ICT Industry in Europe (see http://www.career-space.com). The Generic Skills Profile is a framework that describes the skills and competencies required in the European ICT industry in the years to come. The generic skills profiles cover the main job areas for which the ICT industry is experiencing skills shortages and provide a comprehensive description of the types of jobs in the industry, the tasks and technologies associated with each job type, the skills and competencies required, the career opportunities available. Our work uses and exploits the results of the Career Space initiative and, furthermore, attempts to verify the resulted skills profiles by conducting a training needs research and analysis in the participating user organisations which will benefit from the web-based courses. 

As it has been widely accepted, training needs assessment sets the stage for effective training (Nelson et al., 1995). Needs assessment will guide our e-learning strategy that should support the design process and address the following (McGraw, 2001):

  • A common business language and vision to describe e-learning approach (in this case the web-based courses that will be delivered) for the organization and its linkages to business/organizational needs.
  • Creation of content that make learning/training compelling, engaging and relevant to target audience needs.
  • Support for individual learner profiles, including job/ role-based competencies, interests and long-term career goals.

While trying to avoid focusing only to individual needs, we adopted Ostroff and Ford’s (1989) framework for conducting needs assessment. This framework combines the dual perspectives of content (person, task, organizational) and levels (individual, subunit and organizational). This systematic approach (including organizational dimension) is essential in our case, since the e-learning intervention for training purposes is a new experience for the user organizations. Our methodology for conducting training needs assessment was basically guided by a) Content levels framework and b) Generic Skills Profiles for the ICT Industry in Europe. Firstly we used Content levels framework and tried to adjust it for the purposes of this work, taking into account the strategic goal of the project, and the basic characteristics and particularities of the user organizations. On the other hand, the basic tool for devising a common business language and the linkages to organizational needs provided by the Generic Skills Profiles for the ICT Industry in Europe. The analysis work focused on determining and verifying the skills and competencies that will be trained during the pilot training phase. The selected users, being major players in the region’s industry, operated as a starting point for the analysis. The user organisations provided input concerning their own needs, as well as feedback on the proposed skills profiles as they had been described by the Career Space initiative. Other key players in the education and training sector, namely the “TrainIT multipliers” organisations, have also been involved in the training needs assessment in order to enhance the findings providing feedback on the specified areas of training.

Regarding assessment techniques, questionnaires were used. Additionally we used interviews as assessment techniques complementary to the questionnaires we distributed. Interviews (in a semi-structured way) were appropriate for gaining user organizations’ support, obtaining sensitive data, discussing complex issues that need further explanation, and asking follow-up questions.

 

Preliminary findings

The training needs assessment process provides valuable input to the design process of the web-based course and the development of the appropriate content. The results of the training needs assessment reflect the convergence that has been detected between the user organisations in technology areas of common interest and the common gaps in skills and competencies that affect business performance. The web-based courses will address two broad areas of skills and competencies:

  • S/W & Applications Development
  • IT Business Consultancy

In the focus job area of IT Business Consultancy the recommended areas for providing valuable input to the next phases of our work (content identification and preparation) as most significant and common ones are the following:

  • Data Modelling
  • Internet (Web Applications)
  • ServiceSolutionBuilding and Creation
  • Service Solution Integration (per application service)
  • Service Delivery Operations
  • Business Modelling
  • Process Modelling
  • Service Delivery Support,

While in the focus job area of Software and Applications Development, the respective technology areas are the following:

  • Database Systems for Data-Exchange with the Applications
  • Network technology in real-time systems
  • Enhance and maintain the applications
  • Operating Systems (e.g. PC, Workstations and Consumer Devices)
  • Financial systems

Additionally, training content should be developed taking into account the tasks, for which it has been perceived a high performance gap. Training in tasks will be correlated to the corresponding sub-topics of focus job areas. In the focus job area of IT Business Consultancy, more emphasis should be put on the following tasks:

  • Overseeing and coordinating various aspects of the solution including information flow, data security, business recovery, system implementation, and change management
  • Defining business requirements for the IT solution
  • Defining IT strategy for the business (which might be, for instance, the best ways to capitalize on the latest internet or mobile phone technologies). Participating in business needs planning and strategy process

The respective tasks in the focus job area of Software and Applications Development are the following:

  • Building prototypes of (parts of) the system
  • Applying modern design methods and associated development tools
  • Analysing system routines / modules, performance, memory size, etc. of (embedded) technical systems (when applicable)
  • Evaluating and arranging the Maintenance and Support
  • Specifying user requirements and functional requirements

Training needs assessment has revealed another important factor that directly affects the courses’ creation and design: In order to meet the real needs of the user organisations courses will be created in an executive level. By using the phrase executive level, it is meant that the content will be developed to cover all the important sub-topics of the two broad areas (S/W & Applications Development and IT Business Consultancy) in a high level. For more details (e.g. How to program in Java) in each sub-topic, the learners will be guided to other resources or existing web-based courses. We use the following words taken by a manager of one of the user organisations, just to highlight the aforementioned need: Most of the employees are engineers and they focus on their specialisation, therefore sometimes the “big picture” is missed”

Nevertheless, identifying training needs is not an issue, which is static in nature. To this end, there will be a refinement and a critical appraisal of these identified needs during the next phase of our work. A first step towards this direction is the trainee analysis at individual level we are currently undertaking. This analysis is expected to verify, enhance or modify the aforementioned preliminary findings. Additionally it will reveal (we are developing questionnaires as the main instrument) several important issues that will directly affect and guide the design of the web-based courses, such as past training experiences of the trainees, their attitude towards computer use, the assessment of their learning styles, personal learning strategies, feelings and motivations.

 

Design of e-learning service

Furthermore it is important to stress the milestone for our work, which is directly related with training needs assessment results; that is to design usable, learner-centered (Norman and Spohrer, 1996; Hsi and Soloway, 1998; Lohr, 2000) web based courses. Our imperative is to avoid technology-driven (Lohr, 2000) design for the web-based courses in order to involve the learners in an active way and take into account their real learning/training needs, which will be aligned with organizational/business goals. While working on pedagogical enhancement of our design approach we have to take into account elements from instructional systems design models (Lohr, 2000) and learning theories and adjust them in the web-based learning context. For us the major driver for the design phase we have just entered, is to develop an e-learning environment that will be based on a combination of the key tenets of the three major learning theories, namely behaviorist, cognitivist, constructivist (Jonassen, 1991). At the same time, we should adhere to the major goal; that is to enhance ICT skills and competences. Competency growth is a challenge for our work since competence focuses on the ability to operate effectively in ill defined and ever changing environment where participants apply knowledge, skills and attitudes adequately to the task situation at hand (Keen, 1992). This could not be more relevant in our context.

For instance (and according to constructivist approach) in IT Business Consultancy area of skills, which is more “soft” in nature, learning objectives are more loosely defined and trainees are expected to construct their own knowledge, to explore their own meaning beyond the predefined learning objectives. On the other hand tutors/facilitators that will be assigned by the “TrainIT multipliers” organizations, will foster group collaboration and they will coordinate virtual debates on “hot” topics that affect job-related issues of trainees. All these activities will be mediated by the collaborative tools of the selected e-learning platform (the Virtual Campus platform provided by the Open University of Catalonia). Additionally extensive use (mostly in IT Business Consultancy course) of simulations will provide the “authentic” business environment and tasks that foster competency growth, allowing trainees to make mistakes – which is quite useful for learning purposes- in a “safe” situation. The web-based courses will also support activities such as web search, virtual library visits, further readings, etc.

Enrolled trainees will be able to self-assess their progress (according to behaviorist approach) by answering to embedded tests, quizzes, questions, while tutors/facilitators will be able to set additional customized assignments.

Finally, developing and structuring  (according to cognitivist approach) the content for the web-based courses, is a significant part of the overall pedagogic and instructional design strategy we follow. Content will be designed and developed in small manageable chunks called learning objects. A working definition of the learning objects adopted by the authors is one that regards learning objects as e-learning’s equivalent to traditional classroom-based training lessons. The structure of the content is based upon the Reusable Learning Object strategy (Cisco Systems, 2000). This strategy combines information mapping with Merrill’s Component Display Theory (Merrill, 1983). In our case, the two focal areas of skills and competencies are translated into two web-based courses, which are further divided into fourteen lessons in total. These lessons are consisted of five to nine modules, which are collections of content, practice and assessment items that support a single learning objective. Therefore, the available content is structured into small and cohesive modules, which are then combined to form a larger structure (a lesson).

 

Conclusions and further work

Conducting training needs assessment in four different organisations is a challenging and complicating task, especially when this is the first step for developing an innovative training service, in this case an e-learning service. Trying to adjust traditional models of training needs assessment for e-learning purposes and tightly coupling it with a learner-centered design approach was and still is a major challenge for us. Concerning the first part, the basic tool for facilitating the whole process was the Generic Skills Profiles for the ICT Industry in Europe provided by the Career Space initiative. Web-based training courses will be developed according to selected Generic Skills Profiles namely a) S/W & Applications Development and b) IT Business Consultancy. The analysis work focused on determining and verifying these ICT skills and competencies (for the trainees of each user organisation) that will be trained during the pilot training phase. This training needs assessment effort is an ongoing process and goes in parallel with a learner-centered design approach. Concerning the latter one, the focus is on combination of elements from several instructional systems design models and theories and their application in web-based learning context. Next phases of our work include the development of web-based courses, the e-learning service set up and operation (pilot training with 200 trainees) and the finalisation of the evaluation framework for the e-learning service in the context of South-Eastern Europe.

 

Acknowledgements

Our work is based on the project TrainIT (IST-2000-28181) which is funded by European Commission’s INFORMATION SOCIETY TECHNOLOGIES (IST) programme. The authors wish to acknowledge all the partners of the project which are: INTRASOFT International, University of Catalonia, Lambrakis Research Foundation, Athens University of Economics and Business, Public Power Company of Greece, Bulgarian Telecommunications Company, LOGO Business Solutions, National Oil Company PETROM, IBM Central and Eastern Europe/Middle East/Africa Inc, Bulgarian Academy of Science, ISIK University, Training Center in Informatics

 

References

Career-Space project (2001). Job Profiles,
http://www.career-space.com/project_desc/index.htm

Cisco Systems Inc. (2000). Reusable Learning Object Strategy,
http://www.cisco.com/warp/public/10/wwtraining/elearning/implement/rlo_strategy_v3-1.pdf

Hsi, S., & Soloway, E. (1998). Learner-centered design. Paper presented at the CHI 98 conference, April 18-23, 1998, Los Angeles, USA.

Jonassen, D. (1991). Objectivism versus constructivism: do we need a new philosophical paradigm? Educational Technology Research & Development, 39, 5-14.

Keen, K. (1992). Competence: What is it and how can it be developed? In J. Lowyck, P. de Potter, & J. Elen (Eds.) Instructional design: Implementation Issues, Brussels, Belgium: IBMEducationalCenter, 111- 122.

Lohr, L. L. (2000). Designing the instructional interface, Computers in Human Behavior, 16, 161-182.

McGraw, K. L. (2001). E-learning strategy equals infrastructure,
http://www.learningcircuits.org/2001/jun2001/mcgraw.html

Merrill, M. D. (1983). Component Display Theory. In Reighluth, C. M. (Ed.) Instructional Design Theories and Models, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 279-333.

Nelson, R. R., Whitener, E. M., & Philcox, H. H. (1995).The Assessment of End-User Training Needs. Communications of the ACM, 38 (7), 27-39.

Norman, D. A., & Spohrer, J. C. (1996). Learner Centered Education. Communications of the ACM, 39 (4), 24-27.

Ostroff, C., & Ford, J. K. (1989). Assessing training needs: Critical levels of analysis. In I.L. Goldstein & Associates (Eds.) Training and Development in Organizations, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 25-62.


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