E-learning won’t solve all problems

E-learning has been widely touted as the answer to many of the challenges that make it difficult to take training. And make no mistake, there are still many challenges — a recent report from Statistics Canada revealed that 1.5 million working Canadians are disappointed in their on-the-job training. Being too busy at work was the number one barrier.

Through virtual training it’s said employees can go online anywhere and at any time, but for older workers e-learning may in fact be a barrier itself.

As businesses continue to embrace this phenomenon, older employees are finding themselves left behind, simply trying to learn the basics of today’s intricate and complex computer software.

Brenda MacLauchlan spends most of her days teaching older adults computer basics at the University of Regina’s Seniors’ Education Centre. They offer how-to courses in word processing, the Internet and desktop publishing.

The majority of her students are female, and the average age is 55 years, though one of her oldest students is 91. MacLauchlan said it’s never too late to learn the tricks of technology, it all depends on the way you are taught, which is why e-learning may not be a success with some older workers.

“You need to have the basic skills to use online training first. If you’re expected to go online before you even know how, that’s not going to be a very helpful program,” she said.

A number of students taking her classes are in upper management positions, and have little knowledge of how the computer works. With the growing reliance on technology, they can’t expect their administrative assistants to do the grunt work, such as sending out personal e-mail messages.

“It’s a very steep learning curve,” said MacLauchlan. “The people I get might be lawyers, might be the boss of a company but they didn’t have to use the technology before and now they do.”

MacLauchlan suggests a theory as to why there’s a technology age gap between older and younger workers — older workers are pragmatic. They need a reason to do it. Younger workers want to learn the latest computer programs because it’s trendy and exciting to them, she said. For older adults there must be some reason to do it with a specific task to accomplish. It may not be a work-related purpose either.

“Their grandchildren are using it and they want to keep up with them or they have family and friends who they want to stay connected with through e-mail...that’s their objective.”

Lee Donnelly, 59, did have a work-related objective. About a year ago, she was hired as a co-ordinator for volunteer programs at the Ranch Ehrlo Society, a non-profit organization for troubled youth, in Pilot Butte, Sask. The only problem was the job required her to do computerized record keeping and Donnelly, literally, didn’t even know how to turn a computer on.

“My former job didn’t require me to have computer skills and using a computer is a whole lot different from using a typewriter,” she said. Donnelly then turned to a co-worker for help, but realized she couldn’t learn all that was needed to fulfill the job. She wanted to learn in a more structured setting.

“The person I asked for help was so far above me it was hard for him to grasp that I didn’t know anything. Sometimes I thought he was thinking, ‘How could someone not know this?’ It was rather comical.”

Donnelly then registered for the Introduction to Computers class at the Seniors’ Education Centre, with the okay from her employer, who allowed her the time off to attend the three-day course. There needs to be more of these kinds of courses out there, she said. People of all ages should take up this class if they need to.

Companies that face this problem don’t have to always look outside for help. There may very well be budding young techies right in the organization that can teach older, senior execs how to log on to the Net, among other things. This is the concept of reverse mentoring, which has become widely accepted as a way to bridge the tech gap. Deon Sauer, learning and growth manager for Deloitte and Touche, said many companies are adopting the program in either a structured or unstructured fashion.

“Reverse mentoring has upgraded computer skills for many people. It promotes a sense of community in the office also because you have the junior people getting involved with the senior execs, there’s a lot of benefits to that. Everybody is on the same page,” he said.

Another option is blended learning, consisting of a combination of e-learning and the more traditional classroom learning. That’s a popular move — having a split between the two formats — it’s good to do hands-on exercises and then have classroom discussions after. The most important thing to remember, according to Sauer, is to customize all training programs based on employees’ different learning styles and preferences.

Barriers to training increasing: report

In a recently released Statistics Canada report on barriers to job-related training, primary findings suggest 1.5 million Canadians had not taken enough job-related training in 1997. Being too busy and expense was cited as the top two barriers to training and almost one in five people said family responsibilities and a lack of child care impeded chances to participate in training.
Out of the 1.5 million, with the majority employed full-time, only 40 per cent had some kind of related training in ’97 and felt they needed more. The rest (60 per cent) received no training at all.

Although employees are receiving more training since the same survey was conducted in 1993, the number of barriers reported per person has gone up considerably. The most recent data shows the average number of barriers reported per person was 2.2. Approximately 61 per cent reported two or more barriers to job-related training and more than 25 per cent said they faced three or more barriers. Whereas four years earlier, the average number of barriers cited was 1.8, with less than half of those surveyed reporting two or more, and under one-fifth indicating three or more.

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