Archive for the ‘Education’ Category


When, in 2012, the government first signalled their intention to launch the Traineeship programme, I and many others in the sector gave the proposal a warm welcome. With its focus on employability skills and English and maths linked to a genuine period of structured work experience, I felt that it provided an ideal opportunity for young people to reach the first rung on the job ladder whilst at the same time acting as a stepping stone on to the Apprenticeship pathway.

The news this week that in the first six months of the scheme, only 3,300 people have started on the programme is therefore hugely disappointing. With unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds remaining above 900, 000, this level of uptake is going to have very little impact.

The government’s response is that the programme “is off to a good start”. If that’s the case, I dread to think how they define failure and if a potentially valuable programme is not to fall by the wayside, we need to understand very quickly why less than 130 people per week are taking up these opportunities.

I think the problems can be divided into 3 areas

  1. A Simple Idea Which Quickly Became Complicated

One of the great benefits of the Traineeships when the idea was first floated, was their apparent simplicity. This meant that potentially the scheme would be easily understood by employers and could be implemented quickly. However, as the proposals took shape, various caveats and conditions started to appear and the seed of confusion was sown.

Firstly the government decided that initially, Traineeships would be limited to 16-18 year olds thereby ensuring that people who had probably been out of work for the longest period were denied entry. Although the restriction was withdrawn, the damage had been done. Meanwhile, confusing rules were put in place around the rights of learners on the programme to continue to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). Up until a few weeks ago, 19+ learners faced losing their JSA if they did more than 16 hours training a week. A similar rule limiting 18 year olds to just 12 hours training a week before losing their JSA, remains in place.

Confused? Well, there’s more to come because JAS claimants are currently  limited to an 8 week job placement period, although this can be extended to 12 weeks if a job is imminent

  1. Do Employers Know About Traineeships?

With such a plethora of eligibility restrictions, it’s hardly surprising if employers are hesitant about embracing the scheme. But recent research by NIACE (https://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/opinion/more-visibility-traineeships-essential) suggests that the majority of employers simply don’t know that the programme exists. Whilst many saw the potential benefits, not a single one of the 14 employers interviewed by NIACE was aware of the programme.  Clearly this represents a huge communication gap and one that has to be addressed rapidly if the whole project is not to become yet another failed initiative.

  1. Is There Enough Clear Water Between Traineeships and Intermediate Apprenticeships?

Whilst we all want to encourage SMEs to embrace both Traineeships and Apprenticeships, ultimately the success of the initiative will be dependent on the response of the large employers. If employers such as McDonalds, BT and Rolls-Royce who have won widespread recognition for the quality of their Apprenticeship programmes and train thousands of apprentices every year, were to make similar commitments to Traineeships, they would provide the impetus that the programme so badly needs.

We have to ask therefore why few if any have chosen to do so.  I suspect that the main reason is that Traineeships simply don’t fit into their overall strategy.  Many of these companies have proven routes into their Apprenticeship programme. In effect, they have created their own “stepping stones” and simply don’t require the Traineeship proposition.

Arguably, there is also potentially a considerable overlap between Traineeships and Level 2 Apprenticeships (similar English and Maths components for example). You have to question whether a learner who may have reached an acceptable level of competency during a 12 week job placement and also achieved a Level 2 Functional Skills qualification in English and Maths, would gain much more from then starting afresh on an Intermediate Apprenticeship programme. Personally I doubt it and I suspect that many major employers have reached a similar conclusion.

A Four Point Plan To Kick-Start Traineeships

As a born optimist who firmly believes that the difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is simply a question of how you use them, I’m keeping the faith with Traineeships and still believe that they can play a key role in tackling the skills crisis. But to achieve that, we need some new thinking and a new plan. So for starters, here’s my proposal:

  1. Drop the 12 hour per week training restriction on 18 year-old JAS claimants. It serves no purpose
  2. Similarly, drop the 8 week restriction on job placements for JAS claimants and encourage employers to offer a minimum of 12 weeks. Two months is simply not long enough for a young person to get to grips with the complexities of the work environment
  3. Challenge the 400+ employers who have signed up to the Employer Ownership Trailblazers Scheme to also champion Traineeships  and produce a one-page plan to make the programme a success in their sector
  4. Reposition Traineeships as modules within a Level 2 Apprenticeship.  Learners who successfully complete a Traineeship would have the added motivation of knowing that they were also well on their way to completing an Apprenticeship programme

Could it work?  I don’t see why not. So let’s stop kidding ourselves about the programme being “off to a good start”. It clearly isn’t and we need to take corrective action now, not in 12 months’ time when it will be too late.



Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills




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A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at The Voice of Apprenticeships conference held in the impressive London Film Museum. The conference itself is a remarkable event in that it is organised by a single, hugely committed lady – Lindsay McCurdy, and is the product of a Linked-In group called Apprenticeships 4 England which now has over 17,000 members. It speaks volumes about the power of social media that a Government Minister and a wide range of distinguished speakers put aside time to attend such an event.

My presentation, like several others, focused on the proposed reforms to the Apprenticeship programme which are currently in the early stages off implementation. Whilst the deep concerns which I expressed about the proposal to replace Functional Skills with GCSE’s within Apprenticeships were clearly supported by delegates to the conference, I fear I was in a rather small minority in my general support for the reform proposals.

Apprenticeships Have To Change

My argument is that in order to stay relevant and to transform Apprenticeships into world-class qualifications, the programmes have to continually evolve and develop. Giving employers the responsibility for managing Apprenticeship training and funding is simply another stage in that process of evolution. Moreover, this shift of power from provider to employer will open up huge opportunities for those providers who do not currently have direct access to funding but have to subcontract and often pay extortionate “administration fees” of up to 30% of the total funding, for the privilege of doing so. Employer Ownership will create a level playing field whereby all providers, no matter what their size will be able to negotiate directly with any employer and agree a commercial rate for delivering their training requirements. Training bids will be won by the provider who can best convince an employer that they can deliver high quality training, not by the provider who happens to have a large amount of government funding in their pockets.

What Will Be The Impact Of The Changes?

Opponents of the Employer Ownership proposals are predicting a catastrophic fall in the number of Apprenticeships if the scheme proceeds. However, I cannot help but experience an acute sense of déjà vu. when I hear these arguments. 2-3 years ago, exactly the same dire warnings were being issued about the impact of Functional Skills. We were told then that there was no need to change, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Key Skills and that if they were replaced by Functional Skills, it would be the end of the Apprenticeship programme.

But of course we know now that Key Skills had failed totally to raise levels of maths and English competency. Hardly surprising really for what was basically a tick-box exercise linked to a Multi Choice test in which you could achieve 25% simply by answering questions randomly. Moreover, the introduction of Functional Skills did not result in the death of the Apprenticeship programme but instead boosted its overall quality and gave learners a meaningful qualification and a real sense of achievement.

Let’s Look To The Future, Not To The Past

So whilst I retain concerns about certain aspects of the Employer Ownership proposals, in general I support the changes. It seems totally appropriate to me that the people who employ apprentices and who ultimately understand far more about their organisations’ training needs than providers, should be the driving force behind the programme. Our role as training providers is to support them and provide a high-quality service. That’s where our focus should be – not on the daily grind to secure sufficient funding.

Currently only 13% of UK companies participate in Apprenticeship programmes. That number is far too low and I am hopeful that the planned reforms will address that issue. With that in mind, it is hugely encouraging to see that over 400 organisations have already signed as Trailblazers who will lead the reform programme. They include many smaller companies and many who are clearly new to the Apprenticeship concept. Employers are the only people who can impact on Apprenticeship numbers and by giving them the responsibility to run their own programmes, I am confident that they will rise to the challenge.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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The results from the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation an d Development (OECD) Literacy and Numeracy Survey published towards the end of last year, makes for depressing reading. In the critical 16-24 age category out of 24 of the most highly developed nations surveyed, the UK ranked 22nd for Literacy and 21st for Numeracy. Moreover, we were the only country in the survey where the age group nearing retirement performed better than the 16-24 group. So whilst other nations progress, we appear to be going backwards.

Even more depressing were the responses of our politicians. These seem to fall into two camps:

The survey methodology is questionable and the results aren’t valid (Labour)

• It’s all the fault of the previous government (Coalition)

In fact, neither response is valid. These results simply echo many previous surveys which have highlighted the fact that we face a skills crisis in the UK and the problem has been there for the last 20 years, so no political party can escape responsibility.

20 years ago these figures would have been of interest but arguably little value. However, today we operate in a global economy and the competition for skills is as fierce as the competition for business. Nothing could demonstrate this issue more clearly than the situation at Dysons. Sir James Dyson is arguably one of our most successful entrepreneurs. His company have just issued another excellent set of results with both revenue and profits up by nearly 20% and if the reaction of my wife is anything to go by, his new hand-held cleaner is going to sell like hot cakes.

As a result, Dysons are looking to recruit more engineers, split between their UK headquarters and their plants in Malaysia and Singapore. Sir James reckons he’ll have no problem recruiting in the Far East, but will struggle to find the 300 people he needs in the UK. Even more worrying is the fact that he says he has the technology and ideas that would enable him to recruit a further 2000 people in the UK if he could only find people with the relevant skills.

Time For Action – Not Just Words

So what are we doing to address this crisis? Well, the government will point to changes in the curriculum, more robust examinations and a focus on basic skills but I am not convinced that this will have the impact they are hoping for. We are in serious danger of relying upon “exams” as the sole measure of performance rather than a useful indicator of progress. The Council for Science and Technology, which provides strategic advice to the government, have recently warned that practical experiments in science are being dropped in favour of concentrating on exam preparation. As the council says, this would be like “studying literature without reading books”.

At the same time, the government is proposing to publish “earnings tables” which will rank future earning potential against different subjects. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see this working either. Whilst teenagers may be concerned about their future job prospects, I don’t believe they lie awake at night pondering whether they will earn more by studying Maths instead of French. I became a scientist not because I thought it would make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, but because I had great teachers in the subjects, enjoyed experiments and most importantly, my mates were all doing the same subjects.

Do We Need To Re-engineer Our Approach to Skills?

So what should we being doing? Clearly the basic building blocks of English and Maths have to be in place and few people would disagree that pupils should continue to study these subjects if they fail to achieve a decent GCSE grade first time round. However, for whatever reason, these young people are likely to have had a negative experience of English and Maths and probably see themselves as failures at least in these subjects. Simply subjecting them to more of the same is unlikely to have any impact. As an old mentor of mine used to say – “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. Unless we radically rethink the learning experience, we will be in danger of producing failing 17 year-olds rather than failing 16 year-olds.

So we need to find new ways of encouraging young people to engage with these subjects. That means using technology such as mobile which they are familiar and delivering the learning in an innovative way which provides understanding rather than simply knowledge and which relates the subjects to the workplace in which young people will hopefully be working.

I believe that Functional Skills could be the answer. Not surprising you might say from a company which specialises in this area, but the pressure for Functional Skills is not coming from training providers, it is being led by employers who see the qualification as being far more relevant to the workplace and therefore of more value than the academically focused GCSEs.

Whatever steps we are going to take to address the skills crisis that prevents one of our best entrepreneurs from recruiting more UK staff, we have to act now. Tweaking the exam system and publishing “earnings tables” isn’t going to solve the problem. We need a fundamental rethink of the way we develop a workforce with the appropriate skills if we are genuinely going to compete against the world.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Apprenticeships are very much back in the limelight at the moment. The word has been sprayed around like confetti at the Party Conferences, whilst at the same time the SFA is investigating allegations of malpractice in the delivery of Apprenticeships by major providers and provisional figures released last week show that the overall number of Apprenticeship starts in 2013 has fallen compared with the previous year.

So What’s Going On?

Listening to politicians as they hurl themselves belatedly onto the Apprenticeship bandwagon, I sometimes think that they view the qualification not only as a panacea for all the economic problems in the UK, but as a cure for world poverty as well.

So let’s put things into perspective. Of the nearly ½ million Apprenticeships started in the 2011/12, over 63% were at the basic “Intermediate” level. These qualifications require the learner to demonstrate competence in their job role, be fully aware of their Employment Rights & responsibilities (ERR), pass some tests in underpinning knowledge associated with their job and finally to obtain Functional Skills qualifications in Maths & English.

Intermediate (Level 2) Apprenticeships represent an ideal path for disengaged young people to rediscover the value of learning but let’s not kid ourselves that they are anything more than that. The idea expressed in some quarters that this training can be compared to an undergraduate university course is flawed and if we continue to promote this thesis, we are in danger of devaluing a university education. This country needs well-trained graduates just as much as it needs a workforce with acceptable levels of basic Maths and English skills.

We also need to remind ourselves that in 2011/12, 40% of people who started a Level 2 Apprenticeship were over 25 years old. Whilst I am a great believer in life-long learning, I question how many of these people would fall into the new definition of “Apprentice” as defined by Doug Richard in his excellent 2012 Review.

Of course it is perfectly possible for Apprentices to progress to Higher level qualifications which are more akin to the rigours of a university course, but in 2011/12 only 9000 people started on such courses – a mere 0.6% of the total number of Apprenticeship starts. I will return to the whole issue of falling Apprenticeship starts in my next blog.

Overall, I remain a huge supporter of Apprenticeships. However, I do think it is important that we keep the programme in perspective. I do not want Apprenticeships to be seen as second-class qualifications, but equally I want to see them promoted as an alternative to university and not an equivalent. There is a danger at the moment that we are blurring the lines between those two words.

Finally, I hope that the trend towards Higher and Advanced Level Apprenticeships continues. Level 2 Apprenticeships are a great way to get on the first rung of the ladder and we should celebrate them for that. But what we should really be doing is encouraging successful Apprentices to continue their journey up the ladder. Once we do that, even some of the politician’s fantasies about their value may come true!

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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In a recent blog, I commented on the rapid development of “collaboration” both as a way of working and a way of learning. In this blog, I want to focus on the mechanics of making it work

1. Leadership from the Top

Collaboration simply won’t work unless there is genuine leadership from the very top of an organisation. So getting your CEO or head teacher on board is a key first step. That task is made so much easier if they understand how this new way of working will add value. Moreover, lip service simply isn’t sufficient. When I introduced Yammer into my last organisation, our CEO made a point of contributing every day and this sent out a very powerful message to everyone in the business.

2. Ownership Throughout The Organisation

You can’t force collaboration down people’s throats. Just as it needs to be led from the top, it needs to be owned by the organisation. If people are to commit to a new way of working, they need to understand what problems it will solve, how it will help both them and their teams perform more effectively, why it will make their work life more fulfilling. My approach was to identify some genuine evangelists and empower them to take responsibility and make things happen. That strategy was hugely effective, not simply as a way of implementing change, but of making it happen quickly and embedding it throughout the organisation.

3. Part of the Culture and Values

Collaboration isn’t something which can skim along the surface of an organisation. It has to be embedded deep within the culture and supported by an appropriate set of values. If openness, honesty, integrity and innovation are not contained within that value set, a collaborative culture is unlikely to gain ground.
In my last company, I knew that a collaborative culture would work because we had a set of values which clearly supported it. Moreover, those values had been developed by the people within the organisation – not handed down from on high on tablets of stone.

4. Social Networks Are A Great Facilitator but not the Total Answer

There are now a wide range of different Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) available of which Yammer is probably the best known. Yammer was acquired by Microsoft last year so expect it to be integrated into Office at some stage. If you are unfamiliar with ESNs, think about them as a combination of Twitter, Linked-in, Google +, a smattering of Linked-In and maybe even a bit of Facebook, but ONLY available to the members of a specific organisation. They are therefore totally private (unless you choose otherwise).
If you are thinking of introducing an ESN such as Yammer, my advice would be not to ram it down people’s throats, but to adopt a “softly softly” approach. I found that within 6 weeks of implementing Yammer into a global company, we had almost 100% of our people using it – not because they had been told to do so, but because they gradually started to see the value.
It’s important to remember that ESNs are facilitators. They are a great way to stimulate collaboration but they are not the complete solution. Without the other building blocks in place, they simply won’t work.

5. Quick Wins Are Important

The best way to win hearts and minds is for people to see positive effects at an early stage. So quick wins are important. We developed an Innovation project and used Yammer not simply for people to log ideas, but for others to build on them and to evaluate them using a “like” system. Within a few weeks, we had dozens of ideas flowing around our relatively small (200 people) company and many of these were agreed and implemented almost immediately via our “just do it” policy.

6. Focus on the Skills

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about “new “ skills required to successfully implement a collaborative strategy. I don’t buy that but I do believe there are a number of “existing” skills which need to become higher focus and practiced more regularly. Collaboration will take people out of their comfort zones and into working in new teams, many of which may be temporary, and working with new people, many of whom they may not know or whom in some cases, may not even work for the same organisation. I find that skills such as listening, questioning and giving feedback become particularly important in these situations.
Somebody once defined “listening” to me (and sadly they meant it) as “Waiting for the other person to finish speaking so that I can say what I want to say”. Real or “Active” listening is of course so much more than that. It’s about not simply listening to what someone has said but showing through body language and responses, that you have not only heard them but understood what they were saying and why they were saying it. In an era of conference calls, webinars and multi-tasking, it is skill which is often poorly used and one I will return to in future blogs.
Finally, I would just like to touch on the area of Emotional Intelligence EI). Again, it is a subject I will return to in the future, but I believe that the self-awareness, social awareness and relationship management, all of which form a key part of EI, are of huge significance in any organisation which values collaboration.

And Finally

So effective collaboration is never going to be easy. However, I am convinced that it is worth the effort. The potential benefits both in education and business are huge, not just for the organisations in terms of resource management and productivity gains, but for the individuals involved. Collaborative work places tend to be more fun to be in and contain people who are far more engaged with the organisation. Not a bad starting point in my view.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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With those 5 words, Steve Jobs defined his vision for the iPod.  It is easy to see how such a vivid yet ultimately simple picture would have inspired his workforce. What I don’t know is to what extent Apple employees were involved in creating that vision or were simply told what it was.

I raise the question because recent research is showing that levels of employee engagement are falling, not just in the UK but in the whole of Western Europe and the USA. At MindLeaders, my previous company, we consistently obtained scores above 90% in surveys where we tested employee engagement. I believe that was partly because like Steve Jobs, we had a very clear vision of where we wanted to take the company. But more importantly,  that vision had not simply been articulated to our people, they had had the opportunity to help create it and to contribute significantly to the culture and values which underpinned that vision. It’s a philosophy and a strategy which we will duplicate within our new company, Creative Learning Partners, as it builds and develops over the coming months.

So in the light of the current heated arguments about reforms to the UK education system and the U-turn over the EBacc, the first thing I wondered was whether Michael Gove had a genuine vision for the system and more importantly, could he articulate it to all the stakeholders in a few inspiring words and had he involved them in its creation? I suspect that the answers to those 3 questions are “Maybe”, “No” and “No”. Mr Gove has set out a radical agenda which depending on your viewpoint is either the kick-start that a broken system requires, or a return to the class-based system of the 1950’s. What concerns me isn’t so much as to whether he is right or wrong but the fact that he would appear to have made no genuine attempt to involve practitioners in defining his vision for education. Whilst a Conservative Education Minister and the teaching unions are hardly likely to be bosom pals, there surely should be greater efforts to find some common ground.

Take for example, what to my mind are two  of the biggest problems we face in the UK – the deficiencies in basic maths and English skills in young adults and the huge disconnect between the needs of employers  and the skill base of potential employees.  Few people would argue about the depth of this crisis so is not possible to seek a common vision as to how we address this issue and then agree a comprehensive strategy to implement it? I would argue that currently all we are seeing is a series of piecemeal initiatives without a common thread and with only grudging support from those whose job it is to make them work.

So I worry about the proposed Traineeship programme due for implementation in September this year.  Potentially I think it is a hugely exciting development but where does it fit in to the overall plan (assuming that there is one!). Whilst I welcome the inclusion of a discussion period currently underway, the danger is that that this discussion will take place in isolation since few of us are party to where this initiative sits within the wider context of our education and skills system.

Sadly our Education system, like our other great institutions, will always to some extent be a political football, subject to the philosophies of the party in power. But that shouldn’t prevent us from being given the chance (if we wish) to buy into a shared vision. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do that at the moment because I have no idea what that vision is. We can’t all be a Steve Jobs but we can all paint pictures and share them and our political masters should be doing so far more frequently.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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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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