Educating at the Coalface: ICT and work-based learning


By Dr Alan Bruce


Living in a time of sustained change and crisis is something to which we are now becoming accustomed. While change and crisis are the staple elements involved in security and emergency contexts, they are not issues associated as standard in everyday life. The traumas of recent times, however, are a powerful reminder of cyclical patterns of growth, recession and transformation in the socio-economic universe we inhabit. A sense of crisis is now accepted across the planet, although the manifestations and impact vary from region to region.


These elements of systemic crisis concern us at a number of levels. How can effective and relevant learning be structured when the world that learning emerges from is itself changing at profound levels and at a pace that is dizzying in both its speed and depth? How does learning reflect the classically stated maxims of relevance, applicability, anticipation, modification, transformation and innovation when the meaning of that learning is being distorted by social, economic and technological stressors unique in our experience as a species? We are, in short, living through a time when meaning itself is being challenged by unprecedented insights into the nature of human relationships. It is no longer an era of certainties, if in fact it ever was.


In the emergence of a multi-centric world order we see a political manifestation of this. In the emergence of globalised production, consumption, design and communications processes we see the economic dimensions. It would be remarkable then if there were not similar manifestations in spheres of learning, research, knowledge acquisition and applications as well as traditional accreditation, certification and validation systems. It is no accident that from intellectual property rights to our understanding of the role and purpose of the university, the skills-knowledge matrix is undergoing a fundamental restructuring. The questions increasingly turn on how learning applications can adequately respond to a set of challenges which are at the same time unprecedented and (in the original sense of the word) unimaginable.


Applications of new learning to work must therefore also address the fundamentally altered nature of work itself in this emerging new system. We can trace a trajectory of analysis and critique from a number of standpoints. From the work of Braverman in 1974 on labour transformation and capital, we can see the clearest scientific depiction of the de-skilling of work in advanced-capitalist and early globalising societies. Over the intervening 40 years since this work, we can see the impact of advanced technologies, impact of mechanisation on “outsourcing” labour from people to machines and, within the labour and work structures that remain, the increasing hegemony of intellectual labour over all other forms. If we splice this analysis with the provocative insights of thinkers like Sloterdijk on the metamorphosis of work, science and the welfare state we can begin to glimpse the contours of a radically altered labour market structure and external milieu. Sloterdijk goes so far as to call for a “new semantic” in which creativity assumes centre stage: where a culture of pride and recognition of achievement supplants sterile debates around value-generation being only created by labour and production.


These theoretical considerations underline and inform a necessary interrogation of the dimensions of the current crisis. Writing in a week where the fundamental laws of Einsteinian physics would seem to be challenged by neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, I am aware that no certainties can be taken for granted any longer. But the critical issue for most designers of learning now is to respond to this socio-economic fluidity and, working within the knowledge that fundamental axioms of both state structure and knowledge transmission may themselves be undergoing critical transformation, develop learning that is relevant to work while at the same time equipping workers to anticipate and respond to changes in their roles (up to and including termination of those roles by new employment modalities).


Maintaining motivation and interest has always been as critical for work-based learning as the more traditional purposes of instilling skills, knowledge and attitudes which are deemed work-critical for externally defined job standards. But these intellectual and adaptive ‘soft skills’ are now more valuable than ever, as the external environment changes beyond recognition - indeed changes beyond what can be imagined within current intellectual and conceptual parameters.


These concerns have been central to a work-based learning initiative in which we have been collaborating with the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC). The SSSC is the regulatory body for social services in Scotland. There are over 196,000 social service employees throughout Scotland (and over 150,000 secondary tier volunteers, helpers and carers). This large sector of the workforce is charged with providing and maintaining a wide range of services and supports for a society itself in the midst of significant change and transformation. Scotland, in common with many European states, is witnessing a profound change in its socio-economic situation, with many pressing demographic and cultural changes impacting on traditional structures – not to mention a constitutional transformation that is witnessing the rise of a renewed nationalism (and in government at that), which is even posing fundamental challenges to the union with England established in 1707.


The traditional patterns of work and employment in Scotland have seen significant change and alteration over the past few decades. Scotland’s heavy industry has been replaced as the prime source of employment by newer sectors such as services, tourism and advanced technologies. The welfare state created by post-war governments has also witnessed profound stress and transformation as the impact of recession impacts ever more deeply. Quality service provision has therefore become a challenge and opportunity to demonstrate relevance, innovation and applicability to a rapidly changing sector.


A stand-up comedian at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Social Services provide care across a very broad range of issues and populations. Providing consistently high quality training and education to the large numbers of staff (SSSC employs more people in Scotland than the National Health Service) who are geographically dispersed across Scotland would be a challenge in any industry. However, given the subtleties and sensitivities of the focus of professional activity covered, SSSC is faced with further unique issues, particularly in relation to financial restraints, inertia, the need to reduce duplication of effort, support to learners and access to ICT.


Traditional e-learning solutions have been applied extensively. However these have some limitations and can only go part way to addressing the challenges faced in an environment of significant external crisis and change. SSSC therefore has embarked upon a radical strategy for developing the professional intellectual resources and skills capacity of its staff in novel ways. It had identified the use of virtual world/game technologies as a way in which these unique challenges could be met. SSSC has recently created a pathway of professional development that integrates work based learning and workforce development as a key priority for its learning and development strategy.


The concept of continuous professional learning and development is focused on the reflective practitioner. It is a radical shift from traditional forms of education, training and learning. The Scottish Social Services Council developed an integrated learning pathway for practitioners, lead practitioners and managers across the care sector working with children and adults in childhood studies and social work. This includes a Single Qualifications Frame Work (SQF) and Continuous Learning Framework (CLF). The Continuous Learning Framework sets out what people working in social services need to be able to undertake to do their jobs well now and in the future - and what employers need to do to support them. This inter-relationship between employer and employee perspectives has been vital in ensuring that learning and technological supports are relevant to customer needs. It further underlines the need for all stakeholders in environments of crisis and change to take responsibility for the learning and supports required to develop and sustain innovation.


In times of economic instability training investment (at both political and corporate levels) is monitored and evaluated for economic effectiveness and efficiencies. Learning is difficult to measure unless related to the workplace. This implies reductions in people, development of new content or purchase/upgrade of learning systems.   To achieve the same with less requires a complete rethinking of current practices. Although many still equate ‘learning’ with ‘training’, Charles Jennings (Performance, Learning and Productivity blog) makes an interesting comment in his posting, Real learning:

Most of us have been persuaded that the majority of real learning occurs in the workplace through experience and practice and over the water cooler through conversations and reflection. It may be an interesting intellectual pursuit to argue whether the percentage of learning that occurs outside classrooms and other formal module, course, programme, curriculum structures is 70%, 80%, 90% or some other figure and whether the evidence supports one assumption over another, but arguments like that add little value to the fact that there is an increasing body of empirical evidence that says we learn as we work.

The SSSC (in both continuous professional development and initial training) has recognised the need for work-based approaches to learning that link new technologies to case studies that connect professional knowledge, skills and values to sound research of what works in its range of services.


SSSC in-company learning development aims to enable full use of educational gaming. This centres on attractive online three-dimensional, multi-channel multi-user platforms for continuing educational development. Fully personalised, they offer a wide range of knowledge services that are flexible, highly interactive and reliable. Gaming architecture creates rich environments for tacit knowledge sharing and creation of new knowledge. It builds capacity for sustainability through continuing professional and technological development. More precisely, as technology rapidly improves the potential of the learning environment, it is critical to keep up with advanced technologies that facilitate this. This raises issues of changing attitudes to innovative learning environments, creative staff development and engaged management support.


Our project was based on learning solutions in the form of creative modalities and innovative learning design. It integrated social policy and bridged the digital divide, prerequisites of Scottish Government policy for capacity building through strategic workforce planning in the public sector. The project was based in SSSC workplaces in Glasgow and Perth. The experiment involved transferable and adaptable creative learning modalities that could cross professional and vocational/academic boundaries while addressing professional specialisations related to childhood, community, family and older people.


A key site testing out the perspectives and learning modules was operated by Glasgow City Council. The staff involved were social services personnel. The project was called PSP/Second Sight and used hand held gaming devices (such as PS3, X-Box, etc.) to deliver rich, multimedia learning materials linked to the work situation of the learner and also night staff who were unable to attend events run during ’normal’ working hours. Perth and Kinross Council operated the second site. The project RPL Materials focused on recognition of prior learning. Here SSSC redeveloped learning materials in a digital form to include interactive worksheets and supported e-learning. These digital materials were intended to (a) increase access and usability of the forms used to claim credit (as they can accept audio and video evidence in addition to text) and (b) remove the necessity for workers to attend courses prior to beginning to engage in RPL.


The site based learning design for workforce development allowed learning designers to achieve the following outcomes.


Stakeholder Outcomes:

* Policy makers, designers, facilitators and the learning community involved in the project identified factors that contributed to the development of creativity and innovation strategies.

* Designers and developers were aware of the techniques that can help to develop creativity and innovation.

* Policy makers incorporated results into their strategic plans for future developments.


Creative competencies:

* Sharing innovative approaches between different professional and learner profiles

* Self confidence and leadership training

* Managing interaction with different agents as companies, institutions and cooperatives

* Organisational creativity competencies.


These lessons learned emerged against a background of global education, increasingly diverse learner needs, changing demographics in Higher Education and a philosophy of 'learn anywhere, anytime'. This included development of new learning, teaching and assessment methods as well as engagement with innovative learning environments/learning technologies. It also engaged consideration of learning technologies (e.g. delivery patterns, on-line delivery/support, multi user interfaced VLE’s, social learning networks, E-learning 2.0 and distance learning/distance education programmes), accessibility and emphasis on widened participation. These concerns and methods were employed in both sites to facilitate transformative competence development using ICT supports through the project intervention. Two key themes emerged.


Learner autonomy

* Virtual learning environments

* Self-access centres

* Blended learning

* Distance learning

* Self-directed learning

* Content and Language Integrated Learning

* Work-based learning

* Community initiatives

* Self-study

* Mobile learning

* New literacies

* Situated learning


Innovative Learning spaces

* Meta-cognitive demands of new learning environments

* New ways of using technology to foster autonomy

* Technology and social aspects of autonomy - social networking

* Effects and outcomes of technology use in relation to learner autonomy

* Socio-cultural inquiry into autonomy-related aspects of learning through technology

* Technology and the measurement of autonomy


This project demonstrates that in times of deep change, the use of extended virtual learner communities enables a reshaping of pedagogical values, ideology and patterns of professional learning. Blending hybrid androgogical/pedagogical approaches increased access and flexibility for both learners and learning facilitators. SSSC continues to develop a coherent response with clear management protocols to sustain professional learning capability. This has been seen particularly in relation to employers’ abilities to reduce expenditure, providers’ abilities to reduce waste in relation learning materials and the learners’ ability to focus more clearly their efforts. There are two themes within this: learning to adapt and learning to learn.


It also indicates that in a time of crisis we cannot expect work-based learning to have as its goal simply system maintenance or some future return to the status quo ante. Transformation means that whatever does emerge from this phase of crisis is going to be significantly different from what we experienced as the norm in decades of plenty and sustained growth. Adaptable technologies should inculcate adaptability as well as technical skills. In facilitating employees to think, evaluate, choose alternatives and decide we may be approaching that synthesis of thinking and acting which advanced technologies often promise but seldom deliver.


This brings us back to systems, strategic change and crisis. If this can be approached in social services, how can the lessons be applied in security and emergency environments? There lies the challenge for us all.


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