Obstacles To Small Business Usage Of eLearning In Europe

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I would like to start my article with a few economic facts which could lay a background for the message I want to get across.

The political agenda of making Europe the most competitive global economy by 2010 has not been matched by developments over the past five years. Demographics show that Europe will continue to have a shrinking workforce between now and 2020 with older workers forming the core of the European workforce.

Currently 80 million EU citizens are low-skilled. By 2010 it is estimated that half of all additional new jobs on the labour market will require tertiary education and almost 40% upper secondary level. Logically, the job prospects for the low skilled will decline. So we are currently confronted with the situation where half the EU workforce (some 100 people) require upskilling.

This in my view cannot take place in the back to the classroom scenario, Learning and upskilling must be integrated in the workplace.

These unsettling prospects must also be seen in the current European economic structure. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the European Union. They account for 99% of all businesses; they provide employment for 74 million people.

Elearning through the flexibility and facility of access it offers is seen – at least politically – as an important enabler of lifelong learning. However, while we can observe an increase use and impact of elearning in large European companies – up to 60% of the training needs of key players in the ICT sector is now provided by elearning) the uptake in SME’s is at best slow and does not meet initial hopes and expectations.

A recent study carried out by Cedefop and the European Commission shows that elearning has had a limited impact on SME’s in terms of those who use it and what it is used for, The use was almost always limited to managers and ICT based staff. The case studies carried out showed that in five European countries there were a number of factors decisive in influencing the development of ICT for learning in SME’s. The most significant were:

- the total lack of training culture within the SME

– lack of appropriate learning materials

– the attitude of individual managers

– and lack of access to sufficient bandwidth to ensure high quality training.

Broadly speaking and with few exceptions, despite spawning a number of new technology companies and numerous government and European sponsored programme’s the uptake and efficacy of learning using ICT has been less than convincing. The development of learning in Europe has been dominated by the metaphor of the virtual classroom and the virtual university, it has equally been dominated with an obsession with technology and very little attention has been paid to vocational and occupational learning or the development of elearning environments in less formal learning contexts.

Like it or not, research suggests today that most learning takes place in every and work social situations, In other words, most of our learning is informal and takes place in a variety of social contexts. Work is carried out in a social context – this is particularly the case in small and medium-sized enterprises and plays a very important part in people’s lives. If elearning is to make a contribution to changing the traditional learning paradigm – institution based – phase and stage related) it must become embedded in the work organisation.

The use of ICT in the broad sense for learning is considered a major factor in implementing the paradigm of lifelong learning and in providing staff from SME’s in particular with access to continuing vocational education and training.

The main objectives of ICT supported learning should take forward the following objectives:

- it should increase access to learning opportunities through increased flexibility of delivery modes and by overcoming geographical barriers to participation,

- it should enhance the quality of the learning experience in terms of content and teaching

– ultimately it should increase the efficiency of the organisation by reducing costs and increasing productivity.

So what are the obstacles to making elearning happen in SME’s

Firstly I believe that people are ready to learn when they realise that they don’t know something that they need to know in order to accomplish a goal they wanted to approach. Thus there is little use in a philosophy of one size fits all, To date most elearning has been an attempt to put books on computers interrupted by a multiple choice test, The advocates of elearning have not spent time trying to understand how the new medium changes the educational experience. They are simply trying to replicate what is there now while leaving out some of the important parts such as the teacher. The value of a computer may seem at first to be its ability to deliver information anytime anywhere but its value in education is much more important. When the air flight simulator was invented what was important was not the fact that it could be used in any remote location. It enabled pilots to learn to fly without risk and to accumulate the experience but not be harmed by it

Today, to give another example, most university courses are lecture courses. Lectures are evidence of the inertia that exists in education and still reflects ancient educational considerations. ELearning needs to be about learning by doing, also using the computer to evoke simulated experience. One should learn to run a business by running it rather than reading or hearing about how to do it.

The emphasis in the elearning industry has changed somewhat over the past five years from a technological to a pedagogical perspective.

So first and foremost there must be a broader understanding of what elearning really is and that it impacts largely on how, where, what and how the learner progresses.

Secondly, I would return to the issue of the learning culture. What is the motivation of the learner in the SME. Are their incentives – tangible or intangible for improving his/her competences. ELearning cannot be removed from the whole debate of the learning organisation, of managing human capital and recognising the assets of the company are largely in the heads of its employees. Workplaces need to be designed to facilitate learning and learning infrastructures. This requires examination of what forms of work organisation are needed to support elearning in SME’s and how skills gained from formal and informal learning activities can be applied in the workplace. In this domain current research is weak.

The third issue I would touch upon is the question of pedagogies and learning cultures. Work is still outstanding in defining and analysing the training and learning needs of SME’s and of its managers and employees. In an elearning context there is a need to develop effective pedagogies, materials and eresources,

Fourthly the issue of elearning materials and infrastructures. We need a much broader understanding of how electronic media and applications can be used to support elearning. This should go hand in hand with an audit of what elearning materials are actually available to SME’s, how does it fit their real learning needs. This would led me on to the issue of localisation of software but that I shall leave aside for the present.

Point number five. That elearning is a cheap learning solution is a myth. On average US estimates put costs of one hour elearning instructional material at 20 000 dollars – in some cases as high as 80 000 dollars. If materials can not be recycled, if learning materials cannot be adapted to specific learning environments, it learning materials have not complied with technical standards, then there use is limited and the return on investment non-existent.

And perhaps the last point I wish to make. What about the models and frameworks to support elearning in SME’s. There are growing national and regional initiatives, and here I would point to Scotland as one outstanding example for networking and support to the SME looking for elearning opportunities. For SME’s I believe in terms of financial resources, the most convincing model is one based on learning regions and partnerships.

The issue of open standards is essential it elearning is to be a feasible investment = particularly for SME’s. Similarly there is a need for a lifecycle model of learning content covering all aspects of content from creation to delivery storage and retrieval.

The issue of the changing role of the trainer or educator is equally important. They potentially play the key role as change agents. Their continuous professional development is essential and work we have carried out at Cedefop shows that there is major concern among teachers and trainers that they are not equipped to support technology in the learning environment

To conclude, I think I have tried to advocate the view that the issue of how a culture of lifelong learning should be developed and supported in SME’s is a complex one. It is unsure to me if present national and European policies promote access to continuing learning as a pubic right or. a private good, What is the balance between the responsibilities of the public and private sectors regarding elearning. And this raises the vital question of funding. Already there are substantial differences in access to lifelong learning and elearning for different occupational and social groups. This in turn raises the issue of social exclusion.

I am afraid that my article raises more questions that provides answers to the issues of elearning in SME’s. But if such issues are not addressed at all levels – European, national and regional, the promise of elearning as a driver of economic growth and performance in Europe could easily turn into a myth.

Colin Mc Cullough works in knowledge
management in the public sector. He has consulted for a number
of comanies including http://www.mv4men.com and

Obstacles To Small Business Usage Of eLearning In Europe
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  • http://www.zamshed.info Zamshed Farhan

    Hello author.
    nice article about SME and e-Learning. It will be veru helpful for
    my dissertion.