6 Digital Learners in the Workplace

Tammy Wise, Oklahoma State University

Oklahoma State University

 

Abstract. Training is invaluable and often required in most industries. To stay competitive, companies must be focused on keeping their employees up-to-date on the latest industry standards and compliant with new regulations. This writing discusses the types of learning and learners, the benefits and concerns of digital learning, and how these learners can embrace the digital platforms.

Introduction.

Training is invaluable and often required in most industries. To stay competitive, leadership must be focused on keeping their employees up-to-date on the latest industry standards and compliant with new regulations. Companies know that it takes time to train employees and time is money. However, many companies do not invest enough time in allowing their employees to be strong digital learners which leads to consequences in the workplace, such as, uninformed workers causing costly workplace errors.

The State of the Industry report released by the Association of Talent Development for 2016 states that “Organizations spent an average of $1,252 per employee on training and development initiatives in 2015” (ATD Releases 2016 State of the Industry Report, 2016). With this cost, instructor-led training averaged about “49 percent of the learning hours” (ATD Releases 2016 State of the Industry Report, 2016). The remaining 51 percent involves informal learning which includes digital learning. This last percentage represents employees taking control of their education and seeking out learning opportunities through online sources.

The benefits of digital learning for employers are vast, depending on how they choose/allow the use of this type of education. It is a cost-effective benefit as a one-time investment in a digital training course, and can add training for their entire workforce while supplying consistent information to all employees. For example, by utilizing computer-based trainings or videos for newly hired employees, companies can provide training with little effort, consistent messages, and on-demand learning as needed, saving the company money and time. The result is a well-prepared workforce ready to do the job at hand with the latest industry knowledge.

The old-school way of training employees is to put them in a classroom and show a slide presentation while droning on about the material. Many companies still invest in this type of learning as they feel it works for them. However, employees do not find it interesting enough to pay attention and the instructors grow tired of teaching the same material over and over. Another traditional way of educating workers is on-the-job training (OJT). Although this can be far more valuable than classroom training, OJT is not often consistent. One mentor may teach how he would do the job while another may show a completely different way. Digital learning addresses these issues of consistency and helps ensure a systematic way of learning for new and existing employees.

Software tools have made it easy to create fun, interactive learning experiences. Images spin and turn, text flows with the audio, and the user can click on buttons and icons to learn the topic. These online courses ensure consistency in what is being taught and how it is being presented while keeping the tactile employee engaged. It eliminates the saying of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and embraces the concept that learning does not have to be “one-size-fits-all”. The options that digital learning provides are endless and always changing for the better.

Types of Learning

LinkedIn Learning conducted a study on the state of learning in the workplace. They sum up the status with one statement…“But the L&D industry is complicated, with varying structures, shifting priorities, disruptive technologies and multiple audiences to appease. It’s a lot to keep tabs on, and it’s becoming increasingly more complex as new skills and new ways of learning emerge.” (2017 Workplace Learning Report, 2017, p. 3). These surveys provide much information about current and future state of learning in the corporate world. You can review the latest report here.

The advent of the internet has opened many doors for learners. People no longer have to visit the library to learn something new. With the click of a button or two, the information needed is readily available. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have provided a realm for users to learn college-type courses for free at their convenience. This has been beneficial for workers and the workplace as employees can advance their knowledge on specific topics in their free time. Most corporate environments have embraced the digital tools available for their employees to learn new techniques, maintain regulatory compliance, and build their leadership skills.

Some of the many digital platforms and tools through which users can learn include YouTube, computer-based training, online forums, and application communities. There are a multitude of sites that offer online training, many of which are free or low cost. EBooks or audiobooks are an ever-evolving way of learning the most up-to-date material as these are easy to maintain with the latest information. There are even applications where the user can highlight and bookmark pages within the eBook making the virtual textbook a good alternative to the hard copy textbook.

For learners who do not have time to sit through a lecture, they can now participate in one online at their leisure. These can be pre-recorded or live. Podcasts make learning easy for users as they drive to work, exercise, or are waiting at the doctor’s office. To take digital learning even further, training designers have the capabilities to create simulations for learners to apply their knowledge in a situation where mistakes are virtual and learning experiences include operating rooms, science experiments, and car repairs.

The offerings of these tools are endless with topics suitable for anyone’s learning needs. Luckily, users can decide what they want to learn and when. The tools available are vast and employees are only constricted by their own schedules.

Types of Learners

When referring to learners in the corporate world, one must realize there are several types of learners. There are those new and unskilled employees who require intensive training, those employees who know the job but need a refresh of knowledge, and existing and new leaders who need more coaching or want to advance their positions. There are also varying industry learners. For example, mechanics will need different training in comparison to accountants. Many companies delegate their employees to different levels and train them depending on their knowledge and experience level. No matter what kind of learner, the digital tools available can be applied to every type of learner.

Generational differences are also a part of the different types of learners. Employers appreciate employees with skills to develop themselves inexpensively and conveniently (Will Online Learning Replace the Classroom?, 2014). Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may be more hesitant to learn digitally, but Millennials and GenEdgers embrace it. Employers must recognize these generational differences and provide outlets for all of these diverse learning groups. This is often easier said than done. Developing programs that can address the learning needs of various generations is a daunting task. By taking the specific company’s workforce differences into account, employee specific training can be identified and developed. This is the responsibility of the company to recognize the company and employee needs and develop appropriate learning opportunities.

Among these types of learners, there are also differing levels of engagement. When an employee is highly engaged, he or she will actively seek learning opportunities. When companies do not provide enough training, then these employees tend to go digital to see what they can learn on their own. This new-found learning can enhance these employees’ existing departments or, unfortunately, take them elsewhere. The opposite extreme is the actively disengaged employee who does not want to learn much of anything for their existing job as he or she has lost motivation for the job. This employee may be using digital learning opportunities to try and enter a different field of work altogether.

Basically, there are a few types of informal learning that digital learning falls into. These include career-driven, on-demand, and social learning (Designing Learning for a 21st Century Workforce, 2012). Career-driven employees are those who want to advance in their careers and will seek out training opportunities to help with their goals. These employees often locate training sessions that will increase their own knowledge and possibly grow them into a leadership role. The on-demand learners want to learn when it is convenient for them. It may be work related or not, but they find a need to answer a question and want to search for ways to learn about it. Then there is the social learner. This type of learner will not only embrace learning from those around them, but also learning within the group. This is often due to group peer pressure. They find what they need and decide if they want to learn more. Now, to look at the method of learning in terms of “on-demand learner” or a “social learner”. These would be ways a motivated learner might learn. “On-demand” learner uses technology to quickly find answers now. Whereas, a “social” learner will seek out instruction from resources within the organization. This could be to find out how this specific group does this or that. This type of information, often referred to as “tribal knowledge” can’t be found through ‘on-demand’ technology resources. The learner has to talk to someone in the group that has the knowledge they seek. However, the social learner can decide to go online to explore similar content.

The types of learners, whether generational or situational, are going to find ways to learn what they need to maintain or grow their positions and themselves. Companies would be smart to embrace this desired learning and offer courses (along with time to complete) to their employees. The benefits are not only for the employee but also the company.

What Are the Good Things about Digital Learning?

Although the traditional classroom has benefits such as focused learning time and one-on-one time with the instructor, digital learning offers the workplace more flexibility and is more astute to today’s learning situations. MOOCs are readily available courses where the user can decide what they want to learn and when. Just-in-time learning provides the training these employees need at their convenience. The learners may wish to learn a new skill, enhance current knowledge, or even earn credits for a certification.

Workers are busy and on tight schedules. They don’t always have time to spend in a classroom and sometimes these classes are offered at inconvenient times. With video and computer-based training courses available, they can learn when they have a few minutes to spare while waiting on a meeting or at the end of the day. Microlearning lends itself as useful for employees to educate themselves conveniently. With shortened segments, focused on specific topics, microlearning allows the employee to pick what is most important to learn at the time or to complete a small portion of a required training. The flexibility of remote learning is invaluable for learners and companies while having a manageable cost.

With this just-in-time learning, users can pace themselves according to their learning styles and abilities. Learners are in control of their own education. Having the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward is a powerful tool for digital learners to accommodate their own learning styles. This allows the users to learn the way they prefer and when they want. For example, the learner may not be an avid reader but can listen to a podcast or audiobook with ease. Learning is relative to the situation and today’s tools make it ever so convenient.

Another benefit of online learning is online forums or communities within a similar industry which provides employees with the experience and knowledge of every member. Users simply have to submit a question, and within minutes, they will have the answers they need to do their jobs better. The time it takes to participate in these forums is well worth the return. There are some drawbacks in that the user has to stay active in order to remain up-to-date on the content being discussed. Once again, employers need to embrace this knowledge base and allow time during the day to participate.

One of the best aspects of digital learning is that it is customizable. An aerospace company can adjust a course on sales tactics to fit their sales team. An oil and gas company can create a training course that meets OSHA standards but also addresses specific issues to the company. This flexibility provides valuable training to employees rather than just completing a requirement. Also, companies no longer require dedicated instructors when working with digital material. This alleviates some of the training costs and ensures consistent training content for their employees, especially since the content can be taught to a large number of employees all at once. Remember that training takes time and time is money. There is no reason not to make it valuable for everyone.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong with Digital Learning?

A company must make digital tools accessible to employees while on the job, which has proven to be difficult in some industries. Digital security is a huge issue that many companies must manage in order to keep their information protected. While locking down their systems, they are also blocking users from the valuable tools only available online. Workplaces need to understand that if they want additional training sources available to employees, then they need to review their internet policies and find ways to secure access for their workers. Employees should also have the ability to reach out to IT and ask for permission to various sites of learning as necessary.

One way around some of the digital security issues is for employers to create their own internal digital training or purchase it from a vendor to be loaded into the organization’s learning platform. When companies implement computer-based training (CBT), they are offering just-in-time learning to their employees. Unfortunately, not all CBT courses are well monitored for their value and end up giving the employees a chance to simply check a box and no learning takes place. This is where traditional learning has leverage. Employees need to have time allotted to their learning throughout the workday, and employers need to recognize the importance of these learning opportunities while ensuring the provided courses are value-added.

Learners may not make as much effort while taking a course when there is little monitoring and expectations of participation. Without the human interaction, users can find it difficult to stay engaged. The courses are created at the time of usage and cannot be tailored to the user’s needs. The dynamic between the learner and facilitator is lost in cyberspace. It becomes prescriptive learning that does not always work for everyone in the audience. Online learning proposes a remedy for situations with few solutions without giving the user options to apply within their own organization or situation.

Taking a CBT or webinar is convenient, but what if the learner has a question? There is no way to instantly ask the instructor. The learner can send an email and hope for a prompt answer, but that is usually not the case. The user ends up having to search for their own answers or just be satisfied with not knowing all the information.

Another situation is that digital learners must be aware that not everything is true on the internet, so they must be aware of reputable learning sites. Just because it is read on the interwebs, does not mean that it is true. How does a digital learner distinguish between what is real and fantasy? Lots of research! Don’t ever settle for one explanation on one website. The user must always be looking for alternate solutions for all problems and situations.

When companies invest time and money into digital learning, they must remain vigilant to the effectiveness of the education being received by their employees. This is not an easy task but enhances the benefits of these digital learning opportunities. Commitment to improving their workforce is the first step.

What Does the Learner Get Out of It?

Competition in today’s workforce can be fierce. Employees must do more than obtain a degree to stay competitive. Certifications help maintain requirements, but don’t always mean eligibility to do a job. Increasing one’s knowledge in relevant subjects is necessary to ensure adequate employee placement. Unfortunately, not all companies offer career advancement training opportunities. Employees must take their education into their own hands and seek out training courses that will help them grow.

Building a personal learning network (PLN) can be invaluable to these workers when trying to keep up with the latest trends in their industry and trying to grow themselves personally or into a leadership position. Sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, association websites, and industry blogs are tools that all digital learners need in their PLN. With so many websites devoted to specific topics, enhancing one’s PLN takes time and cannot be accomplished overnight. However, this is an easy way to keep their knowledge current and forward-looking.

Since career growth is important to most employees, digital learning offers a greater access to training opportunities for the user. Utilizing digital learning options can help a worker grow into a new role, officially or not. With all of the digital learning options, users can determine what material they prefer to learn and follow it to more learning material suiting their styles.

Ultimately, digital learners obtain the knowledge they want out of the learning situations they are placed in. Experienced learners will know how to obtain the information they are seeking and where to apply this knowledge.

Closing.

Companies have a choice: they can choose to stay in the past and only utilize classroom training while not embracing digital learning, or they can welcome the new age of learning along with the benefits that it affords. If they choose not to accept this renewed way of learning, then they could end up with a disengaged workforce who is not learning the necessary skills to stay current in today’s trades. Having employees who know what they want to learn and how to achieve it is invaluable. Employers will be wise to listen and observe what is happening in their workplace and embrace the changes that are occurring.

References.

Andreatta, B., Dewett, T., Lu, L., Pate, D., Schnidman, A., & Thomson, L. (2017) 2017 Workplace Learning Report. Retrieved from https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/learning/en-us/pdfs/lil-workplace-learning-report.pdf

ATD Releases 2016 State of the Industry Report. (2016, December 8). Retrieved from https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/ATD-Blog/2016/12/ATD-Releases-2016-State-of-the-Industry-Report

Designing Learning for a 21st Century Workforce. (2012, April 9). https://www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2012/04/Designing-Learning-for-a-21St-Century-Workforce

Will Online Learning Replace the Classroom? (2014, March 11). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/avi-yashchin/will-online-learning-repl_b_4935348.html

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Learning in the Digital Age by Tammy Wise, Oklahoma State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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