The Learning Process

In the drive for a more flexible, global-facing workforce, businesses are embracing technology-driven learning for skills development. What does this means for corporate South Africa?

All across the continent, the appetite for learning is high, yet access to formal education remains a challenge, and resources for expanding it are thin. Professor Deirdre Carabine, an independent researcher and former Deputy Vice Chancellor and Director of Programmes at the Virtual University of Uganda, sums up the difficulty succinctly: “The money is simply not there to finance increases in infrastructure and human resources. Financing a brick-and-mortar institution on fees alone is unsustainable.”

For local businesses, however, the need for a highly skilled workforce has never been higher, and more turning to online learning and massively open online courses (MOOCs) to fill the gap.

Enter the MOOC

MOOCs first emerged just over a decade ago as an evolution of traditional distance learning, through which a mix of traditional higher education establishments and young upstarts like Khan Academy began offering university-level courses for free. A December report from MarketsandMarkets noted that, although initially popular only with individuals, in recent years they’ve become increasingly popular for personal development within the corporate space.

The firm reckons that corporate use overtook individual in 2018, and the whole market for MOOCs is expected to grow at over 40% year-on-year between now and 2023. The most popular platforms tend to be the oldest ones, such as Coursera, which reports 37 million registered users.

The benefits of MOOCs have been documented by a Harvard Business Review report on a survey of MOOC learners, which found that more than 30% had experienced tangible career improvement as a result of their coursework. A further 26% reported that they had found a new job as a result of this form of study. Others reported promotions, pay increases, and starting their own businesses.

Pierre Aurel, Senior Consultant at Synthesis Software Solutions, says improved connectivity and access to streaming in South Africa have driven recent adoption of e-learning locally. He explains that increased access to knowledge lifts everyone’s skills. For trainers, this also introduces a huge audience and market.

Those that provide free content via MOOCs can use them as a marketing mechanism to pull customers to their paid-for services, if the customers (learners) want more premium content and formal certification.

One of the key benefits for businesses is that testing out different MOOCs to find the most appropriate content and teaching styles usually costs very little, other than time.

In with the new

Do MOOCs spell the death of traditional training methods? Aurel doesn’t think so, saying that there will always be a place for in-house and instructor-led training. “People are all different and learn differently,” he says, “so a mixed-method approach is best for skills development. Some people don’t embrace digital channels because they may feel the engagement levels are low, meaning they can’t stop and ask questions interactively. If they can’t relate the topic back to their real-world environment, they can always ask an instructor for a different example or talk through the example in a bit more detail.”

There is much untapped potential locally, however. Aurel says that despite improvements in connectivity, adoption has been relatively slow, mainly because internet is still costly in South Africa and companies don’t see the value in online learning when there is no “accredited” certification at the end of the course.

Another factor may be that employees might be pursuing courses that are not directly related to their jobs, and companies don’t want their staff being distracted from their day job by watching videos all day. However, this is evolving and we are seeing more companies taking out subscriptions for their staff.

“LinkedIn learning has been a platform I’ve seen in use,” Aurel explains, “and staff have enjoyed the freedom in learning at their own pace and delving into other skills areas. I have seen technical personnel like database administrators pursuing leadership courses, something which is extremely valuable for their personal and career growth. Yet without access to MOOCs, they may have always been restricted to technical training.”

Companies taking advantage of MOOCs are realising that they can improve their skill sets without needing to budget for costly training. MOOCs also provide a level of flexibility that traditional courses don’t; employees can learn at their own pace, which great for those who have unpredictable work schedules.

Learning alone

According to Aurel, employers and employees need to be aware of potential pitfalls when it comes to self-directed learning. To manage these, companies should set some parameters for when staff may and may not participate in MOOCs during work hours, and what content or courses are acceptable. Employers should also encourage knowledge sharing, establishing group feedback sessions where staff can discuss their learnings and things they thought were good or could be better.

However, Aurel maintains that the benefits still outweigh these concerns. For instance, MOOCs provide instant, free access to the latest digital training content from across the globe. Additionally, knowledge is shared instantly and is no longer confined to specific countries, markets or industries. “This levels the playing field as corporates from across the globe can improve their teams’ skill sets and compete globally,” he adds.

“If a course isn’t delivering the content they want, they can stop and immediately switch to another MOOC that might be more appropriate.” Aurel explains. “The financial gains are substantial, as staff can become experts in topics without expensive training, providing cost benefits to the business as no budgeting needs to be done for MOOCs.”

All in all, MOOCs open the door to thousands of learning opportunities. Smart employees stand to win if they take learning seriously, and capitalise   on the range and depth of opportunities available.

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