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Archive for August, 2012

This was a question I was asked when we were recently submitting a major Functional Skills (FS) tender. Of course, it would have been easy to reply “Because you have to. It will be a compulsory component of all Apprenticeship programmes from 1st October so if you don’t do Functional Skills, you can no longer offer Apprenticeships”.

That would have been the easy answer, but in my view, it would have been a very wrong answer. We should be embracing Functional Skills not because we have to, but because it is the right thing to do for the next generation of young learners. Functional Skills provides us with a genuine opportunity to address the skills crisis in the UK, a crisis which has seen us fall dramatically in international tables of literacy and numeracy and which is causing employers to increasingly look abroad in order to find the skilled resources that they require for the 21st century.

I’m still finding a lack of real enthusiasm for Functional Skills amongst training providers and the danger of course is that this will be transmitted to learners.  In some ways I can understand this. Key Skills (the predecessor to Functional Skills within the Apprenticeship framework) was easy to deliver and assess – a simple MCQ exam and a non-taxing small project. Pick up your funding and move on. The only problem was that it has resulted in no improvement whatsoever in maths and English skills.

The difference between Key Skills and Functional Skills was best summed up for me by an analogy I heard with the automobile trade:

With Key Skills, a trainee mechanic would be taught how to use a set of tools and then tested on their ability to use those tools. With Functional Skills, the trainee would be taught how to use the same set of skills and would then be tested by being told “There’s a broken car – go and fix it! “ In other words, it’s not about regurgitating facts, it’s about applying information to real-life situations. 

Personally, I would much rather my car was fixed by someone who I believed could actually do it, rather than by someone who simply knew one end of a spanner from another.

The evidence I have accumulated from many meetings and discussions over the last couple of months, suggests that many providers have still not decided how they will deliver Functional Skills.  So why the reluctance to take the plunge? 

Funding levels are clearly a major issue and I have referred to this issue in previous posts. We need to remember that Functional Skills is replacing two separate qualifications – Key Skills and Skills for Life (SFL). Key Skills currently receives funding in the order of £175 for each qualification and Skills For Life (the current standalone work-based maths and English qualification) gets around £420.

Everyone accepts that FS is a far more complex qualification than either Key Skills or SFL and backed up by a far more rigorous assessment process. So it seems  very difficult to understand why funding levels for FS remain the same as for Key Skills within the Apprenticeship framework and have been cut (yes, that’s correct!) by about 37% compared with SFL.  The government has promised to review the situation but as yet there has been a depressing silence on the issue.

In these circumstances, training providers are quite understandably asking how on earth they can deliver Functional Skills (a qualification equivalent to GCSE O Level A-C grade) and do so without losing money. Addressing the issues of a failed school education for just £175 hardly seems fair. The danger of course is that in looking for a cost-effective solution, providers will go for the cheapest option.  But if it doesn’t work, it’s not cheap. I would remind people of four key questions which I believe any Apprenticeship provider should ask a supplier of so-called “Functional Skills Solutions”:

1.       Does the provider offer a full solution?

There are some excellent diagnostics on the market, a number of software programmes and some valuable support material (much of it freely available from the Awarding Bodies).  The key point to remember is that learners are unlikely to pass Functional Skills purely by taking an elearning course. They are going to require a significant amount of additional support.  So be clear as to exactly what your chosen provider is offering…

2.       Does your provider have fully trained practitioners?

Most training providers currently employ Assessors and even with some “top-up” training, it is unlikely that they will have the experience or the knowledge to take learners through to the equivalent of an A-C grade GCSE in English and Maths.  So do ask your provider what qualifications the staff possess and what experience they have had with Functional Skills

 3.       How successful has your provider been in delivering Functional Skills?

 You need a provider who has not only had a track record of delivering Functional Skills, but has done so successfully. Ask them about first-time pass rates (you should be looking for at least 75%) and completion times. Can they deliver Level 2 qualifications as successfully as Level 1?

4.       Can your provider deal with large numbers of learners?

 Providers may well have one or two highly skilled practitioners who can handle a small number of learners, but if you are running a major Apprenticeship programme, you need to make sure that they can properly resource it and can do so quickly and effectively

 Despite all the issues, I still believe Functional Skills represents our best opportunity in a decade to address the current skills crisis. At MindLeaders, we now have several hundred learners on FS programmes and the feedback on our delivery solution has been overwhelmingly positive.  Pass rates and completion times have been well above the national average and learners clearly enjoy the challenge. We look forward to developing a new generation of mechanics rather than spanner wielders!

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I recently read a blog provocatively  entitled “Are Teachers Obsolete?”. Of course, like any good headline, it was written to grab your attention.  I don’t believe that teachers are a dying species, but it did for me raise the question of whether some ways of “teaching” should not be confined to history….

Whilst not wanting to get too hung up over definitions of “teaching” and “facilitating learning”, for me the primary difference is about ownership and responsibility.  Teaching is traditionally, in the prescriptive form, about the passive transfer of knowledge by an acknowledged expert. As such, the teacher owns the process and is held responsible.

If, on the other hand, we take a more descriptive approach to teaching we arrive at learning facilitation: that is, an active process and the responsibility of the individual learner who takes ownership and makes their own decisions as to how they will use the information.

And this is the direction young learners are moving in. A recent survey showed that schoolchildren are now far more likely to use Google to find information than to ask an adult. Our position as “experts” in the value-chain of knowledge transfer is changing.

That scenario is being mirrored in the workplace. A few years ago, I was approached by a disgruntled colleague who was complaining about the lack of opportunity for personal development. I pointed out to her that as her role had developed she had taken on additional responsibilities and was now managing people and taking decisions. At the same time, ongoing mentoring and support was constantly available.

But it was no good. She insisted that she “wanted to go on a course”. When it came to deciding which course she wanted, she was somewhat less clear. I got the distinct impression that any course would have done, as long as it involved formal training.

That scenario is unlikely to be repeated today. Just five years later, another recent survey has shown that the vast majority of senior managers prefer informal learning to formal training courses. That position is likely to extend across all levels of an organisation as the power of Enterprise Social networks such as Yammer help people to learn from each other. Like teachers, workplace trainers will need to change and adapt if they are to survive. L&D departments will need to morph into “Coaching and Mentoring Teams” and opportunities for collaborative and social learning will need to be actively encouraged

The move from prescriptive to facilitated “learning” poses some exciting challenges for those of us who are committed to the use of technology in education.  Not least is the issue of how to manage the enormous repositories of information that are now available to learners.  A Harvard Business Review study showed that in 2009 alone, more data was made openly available than in the whole history of mankind up until the end of 2008! That explosion of information and the learning opportunities it represents is scary. What sort of LMS can handle that?

I confidently believe that elearning will remain firmly at the heart of this revolution and I am already coming across the term “eLearning 2.0” (Does anyone know anything that is not “2.0”?). However, elearning will, like teachers, need to adapt and change. For example, producing expensive Hollywood blockbuster elearning courses may no longer be appropriate when perhaps a well-produced “bite-sized” trailer can provide all the relevant information and a much more intense learning experience.

We cannot expect that in the future elearning will meet all the needs of our learners. However, with the appropriate content and high “production values” it can still provide the framework from which other informal or collaborative learning experiences can be hung. And of course, we do start from a good place. Remember, it’s elearning – not eTeaching!

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Building a culture of learning starts with managers.Some years ago I attended a course at the London Business School and vividly remember a case study about how Komatsu, the Japanese construction equipment company, had decided to take on Caterpillar and try to achieve market domination.  Their Mission Statement was very simple – “Encircle C”. In other words, put an iron grip around Caterpillar and then squeeze the life out of them.

I remembered that story on the train, having spent the day in a very constructive and positive meeting with one of our key competitors. I hadn’t gone there secretly seeking intel on their operation or finding out whether they had any jobs available, but to discuss whether there might be ways in which we could work together. The answer was a very emphatic “Yes” and over the coming weeks I am confident that we will develop that relationship to our mutual benefit.

So does this mean that we are now longer competitors? Of course not. There will be times when we are both competing for the same business and we will fight tooth and nail to win it. But I’m sure there will be other occasions when we will consider combining our relative strengths and working together on joint bids. It’s a bit like watching Harlequins and Leicester rugby clubs bashing hell out of each other in the Premiership Final, and then joining forces a week later as brothers-in-arms to take on South Africa

My experience is a practical example of what my colleague Janet Garcia referred to as the “cooperative advantage” in a related blog post. As organisations operating in the same space, it requires us to focus on the needs of our customers rather than on each other and I can already start to see the expression “co-opetition” starting to creep into management lingo.

However, before we start donning the rose-coloured spectacles and watch Coke and Pepsi waltzing hand-in-hand into the distance, I think we need to be realistic and set out some guidelines. “Co-opetition” isn’t always an option and there are certainly a few companies operating in our sector with whom I would not wish to work under any circumstances.

The basis for “co-opetition” has to be a mutual trust and respect and shared or similar values.  However, with those foundations in place, I believe there are real opportunities to develop very different relationships with competitors rather than following the Komatsu line of trying to squeeze them to death – which obviously didn’t work!

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I remember someone once telling me that by the mid 1960’s, seven eighths of all the science that had ever been discovered had been done so since the end of the Second World War. If that is the case, then I expect that the figure now is well over 95%.

The figures, of course, reflect the astonishing rate of change over the last 60 years and those changes are mirrored in the field of learning. After centuries of traditional “classroom-style” learning, it has taken elearning a mere 30 years to establish itself as a genuine alternative and to corner a respectable share of the overall learning market.

But “social learning” has probably taken less than 30 months to “arrive”. Social learning has in fact been around for a long time. It’s just that in my days at school, it was called “cheating” and was actively (and sometimes painfully) discouraged. Nowadays “collaboration”, “working together” and “team projects” are standard practice both in schools and colleges and in the workplace.

I think it’s important to distinguish between “social learning” and “social media learning”.  Whilst social media platforms have no doubt encouraged the development of social learning, they are by no means the raison d’etre. An effective team meeting can be just as valuable a social learning experience as a session surfing the web.

So does this mean that social learning will replace elearning? I don’t believe that will be the case, but it does represent both a challenge and an opportunity for elearning developers. The new generation of learners, “Generation C” (Connected Communicators and Collaborators) will not respond to “traditional” elearning courses.  They will be seeking interactivity and the ability to share with friends and fellow learners, preferably on a mobile device

I feel that elearning advocates are ideally placed to respond to this opportunity, but will they do so or will they just stay in their comfort zones? 

At MindLeaders we have already started on this journey. Learners taking our Functional Skills programmes can interact directly with their online tutor via an ePortfolio and we are currently trialling the use of Yammer as a dedicated learning community. We are also actively investigating technologies and social platforms which can be embedded within our elearning programmes and which will enable our learners to interact with each other and with their tutors.

I believe the most important point we need to take on board is that social learning isn’t a “concept” which may or may not take flight in the next decade. It is happening now (and you only have to look at how your children are learning to recognise that fact).  I’m genuinely excited by the opportunity and will provide progress updates in future posts.

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