Monday, June 23, 2008

E-Learning (part 1): Some Good Definitions, Some Challenges for Public Policy

The session on e-learning started with John Biss of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) discussing the theme. The CCL, which explores learning issues throughout the lifetime through its six centres (Work and Learning is just one of them), has, as its core philosophy, the four pillars of learning proposed by Delors:
· Learning to know (savoir)
· Learning to do (faire) (technical skills)
· Learning to be (etre) (personal skills for self-direction, guidance)
· Learning to live together (vivre esemble) (volunteerism and community action)

(More at the CCL website,

E-learning is a theme that runs across all 6 of its centres, and the Council defines e-learning as the “development of knowledge and skills through the use of [information and communication technologies] ICTs, particularly to support interactions for learning—interactions with content, learning activities and tools, and with other people.” E-learning is “not merely content-related, not limited to a particular technology and can be a component of blended or hybrid learning” (J Rosseier, 20002).

Biss commented that, in the area of e-learning and public policy, he’s observed a shift in policy away from technology itself and more on the users of e-learning and learning approaches to take with it. On a personal note, this links nicely to my SSHRC study of emerging microgenres.

Biss commented that this shift also recognizes e-learning as a social and collaborative process involving interaction with learners, and focuses on the role of e-learning in knowledge construction more than knowledge transfer. With this comes a shift in concerns from ones about access to e-learning to its impact. The other goal is to develop understanding of e-learning from the research that can guide policy formation.

He added that e-learning can play a role in achieving the country’s main economic objectives, which are to increase productivity; improve human capital through investment in education and training, and extend our global economic capacity in key market areas.

Biss commented that one way to do this is through the development and adoption of e-learning standards, which let organizations move from “walled content” that cannot be shared to software that lets people produce and share knowledge easily, and build information in a systematic way.

My comments—that sounds nice, but the fact is that e-learning standards have not been as successful in removing those walls as they promised to be. Furthermore, implementing the standards within individual organizations has not been as easy as one might hope (say, as easy as creating word processing documents in MS Word on a Mac and using them on a PC running under Linux and using OpenOffice). As a result, content is not as easily interchanged as people might hope.

In terms of building a culture of learning and confidence in doing so, Biss commented that three issues arise:
· Raising awareness of e-learning for individuals and groups not familiar with ICTs
· Skills development—that is, building learning pathways to provide exposure to skills needed and develop those required skills
· Capacity building—for decision makers and trainers, appropriate level, time and place.

My comments: On the one hand, how can one disagree with these? But on the other hand, underlying them is the importance of coaching and counseling for skills development (now) and career development (later). In most cases, the skills needed to effectively coach people, provide feedback, identify options for addressing skills deficiencies, and motivating people to do so are essential to the success of any such effort. That the people in the coaching role have these skills (usually an instructor or supervisor in the case of workplace learning) is assumed on the part of leaders who raise these issues. At the same time, conversations with people at the Symposium confirmed my hunch that most people in instructional and supervisory roles often lack these coaching skills. At the least, research is needed to determine whether the gap exists and, if it does, the extent of that gap. At the most, action research is needed to find and validate ways to close this coaching gap.

Biss also proposed establishing a clearinghouse that provides high quality evidence as a basis for action, for identifying core issues and questions, synthesizing existing research, generating new evidence, and fostering knowledge exchange.

My comments: In general, this sounded like the CCL for research in the Canadian context, and ERIC for research in the U.S. context.

Because of the large the quantity of content on e-learning, I’ll have a second post on the topic soon.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

And Now for a Shopping Tip

Before going on my soap box, I should say that I’m a loyal Loblaw’s customer. Indeed—I’m probably one of 5 people in Canada who uses a President’s Choice (PC) mobile phone.

Now, for my soap box.

Loblaw’s gives me a credit when I provide my own reusable bags.

I want another credit: When I have to bag my own groceries there.

If I wanted to bag my own groceries, I’d go to Maxi et Cie. That’s essentially Loblaws but in a discount format. Part of the value proposition there is that prices are generally lower because you supply the labor yourself.

But at Loblaw’s, I pay more. And part of that “extra” is for the service of having someone place my purchases in a bag. (For that reason, I won’t use their self-service machines. Why should I do the work I’m paying them to do? Besides, those crotchety, difficult-to-use machines don’t offer a quicker option than the line.)

So why is it that, at least half the time I go to Loblaw’s, they don’t have anyone to bag? So I bag my own. I don’t do so because I want to. I do so because I’d never get out of the store otherwise.

The problem seems to be about 70 percent staffing and 30 percent attitude. In terms of staffing, Loblaw’s has a unique talent at scheduling between 30 and 50 percent less of the cashier staff than is needed at any given time. Why else would a store with 12 checkout lanes have only 4 or 5 open, and lines with 5 to 8 customers deep (and these at the NON-express lines)?

In terms of attitude, it was best demonstrated at the Loblaw’s at Cavendish last night. Everyone and his sister was waiting in line and my poor cashier tried in vain to get a manager to come to her lane to assist her with bagging. They ignored her first three calls. When one sauntered over, despite the fact that the line had grown from 3 to 8 customers, he didn’t seem to want to help, nor did he seem too interested in bagging the groceries quickly.

To be honest, I was surprised. In my experience, the Loblaw’s at St, Jacques and Cavendish usually offers efficient checkout; the one on Ste-Croix always seems chronically understaffed and the few overworked people there generally act like flight attendants on Delta Airlines (that is, dour). (That this prevails at the store that’s next to the company’s Quebec headquarters is even more surprising.)

So Galen Weston—if you’re reading this—perhaps you could spend a little less time in the TV studio making commercials and experiencing instead the customer service in your stores. There’s only so much a person will put up with for a President’s Choice product. Maybe it’s not surprising that Quebec customers are finding the Metro, with its excellent customer service, Irresistible. It’s not just their new store brand.