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On the right track: learning pathways and bridging the skills gap

In the modern business world, it doesn’t pay to stand still.  You need well-trained, experienced people to move the business forward and that means keeping them up to speed with what they need to know.  Learning pathways can help.

The Learning Continuum

It’s increasingly recognised that learning needs to be continuous rather than a series of one-off and circumscribed events. The idea too that you can learn everything you need at the start of your career is continuously undermined as we move through our working lives.

But how do you chart the way to continuous learning? How do you know what you need to advance? And where can you find it?

What are learning pathways?

The concept of learning as a track is embodied in the concept of learning pathways. The notion is straightforward enough: a pathway keeps you on track and on the right track. The pathway leads you to, through and beyond your present level of proficiency to equip you with the skills you need to progress your career and help organisations meet their business challenges. You can see learning pathways as a personal map for career development. The logic behind learning pathways is that standard courses, however, expert, comprehensive and well-intentioned are not meeting the needs of learners in work. Busy employees don’t have the time and attention to devote to completing courses. And organisations don’t have the luxury of allowing their staff sabbatical time to learn a new skill.

Learning pathways instead prioritise the practical and the personal. They’re about learning what you need to know to do what you need to do. They may make use of existing training, but they focus more on resources than courses. In their conception and implementation, they correspond to the way most of us now look for and access information: on the go, when we need it, using information technology as a research tool and a learning resource. The map analogy is a key one. In a working environment, learners don’t necessarily start from the same place, as they might be expected to in a higher education course. They have different, formative experiences. They may be at the start or middle of their career. Or they may be changing career. Or adapting to a change in their working environment and responsibilities.

Adult learners need to find where they are and have an idea where they’re going. This isn’t simply about learning objectives, but rather about defined career goals and practical skills needs. Once the destination is identified, they need to be offered a way to get there. As with any map, there are different destinations and different ways of travelling there. And the speed of the journey and the distance involved differ from person to person.

Fuel for the journey

At the end of the journey, it’s easy to see where you’ve come from and how you got to where you are. The challenge is to see where you are on the journey and have the resources and route to get to where you want to be.

This requires training to be flexible. If you’ve learners at different stages of development and with different needs and ambitions, you’ll need to be able to tailor the right learning to the right person at the right pace. Adaptable e-learning and digital resources can help provide the means to move along the path.

The journey along the pathway is essentially animated by an individual’s needs. It’s highly unlikely that a single course with undifferentiated content can cater to every possible need. But if we see learning not as a big banquet, but instead as a series of refuelling stations, we can adapt e-learning and digital content to provide the learning people need and build their learning pathways.

Pathways via e-learning

The multimedia e-learning experience appeals to modern learners. Its flexibility, accessibility, responsiveness, and adaptability are familiar features of our interactions with search engines, wiki sites and social media. It’s possible to interrogate the content and find what you need according to strict parameters. It allows for self-direction and pacing. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution but one that allows for re-use and repurposing to suit different scenarios.

Digital learning resources can also be made available on a variety of devices, allowing access to the information we need without needing to enter a classroom or log in to an LMS. Mobile connectivity takes us closer to the working environment. It’s here where our learning is going to be applied. And that helps bring learning into the workflow, where it can act as performance support and a timely refresher of knowledge learned long ago but first needed only now.

The logical next step in this paring down of knowledge and its application to its essence is the appeal of microlearning. Microlearning slices learning into easily and quickly digestible chunks. These can be consumed while working and can help cement knowledge by placing it directly in the context in which it’s required. Building a pathway doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will necessarily move along it. Elearning builds uses strategies explicitly to motivate the learner. One of the most powerful is gamification. The pretext of a challenge that needs to be overcome can be a forceful driver to move learners through the material and give them a sense of the context in which the knowledge they’re acquiring matters.

The idea of games includes the notion of levels. Adult learners will have a variety of experiences and knowledge acquired elsewhere. They won’t want to repeat what they already know and as an organisation, you don’t want to discourage or waste what they have to offer by failing to acknowledge prior learning. At any given time, learners may be on different stages of their learning, at different levels. Learning pathways can recognise this by being structured in such a way that you can’t reach one level without completing the one before. Or, equally, that you can allow learners to bypass levels in acknowledgement of what they already know.

Earning the badge

Digital badging is another aid to motivation and an increasingly common means of recognising attainment. Just as organisations and individuals may feel that full courses are no longer the complete solution to modern training requirements, so they are also recognising that the qualifications associated with them are becoming less relevant to modern ways of working. These paper qualifications can quickly become redundant.

Digital badges can be used to recognise and verify attainment in the performance of specific tasks and the acquisition of skills. Badges can also be used to recognise informal learning, such as that gathered from colleagues or obtained outside of the standard learning resources (from wikis or blogs, for example).

Organisations can decide for themselves the criteria by which they award badges and the currency of the badge given. Increasingly, organisations and individuals are looking to open standard badges that have recognition and currency beyond a single organisation. With open badging people can collect badges from a variety of places and roles and place them in a portfolio or backpack that accompanies them along their learning path. And they can be shared through Social Media.

The advantage of a widely-recognised system is that badges can be used not only as a qualification but as proof of proficiency at or mastery. It’s been said that whereas a c.v. comprises a series of (hard-to-verify) claims, badges provide clear evidence of achievement.

Covering gaps

Learning pathways can be a way of fast-tracking employees to proficiency. They can also be used to address skills and performance gaps. Pathways can be planned as a series of interventions in key areas where gaps are identified.

In this way, organisations can use learning pathways not only as a way of upskilling their employee base but also as a planned approach to identifying and remedying skills deficiencies. Instead of relying on what people come with, you can instead offer them a path ahead that provides them with the knowledge and support to tackle areas where gaps have appeared. For employees, learning paths offer a clear direction forward to mastering new skills. The pathway is designed for them and relevant to their work. It recognises where they are and where they need to go.

Where learning pathways lead

For organisations, pathways offer a way to ensure their people have the right skills for the right tasks and offer a faster time to proficiency. The pathway can start at the onboarding stage and continue to offer support in the workflow where they need to apply their knowledge.

When we speak of being on a journey, learning pathways help us map it out and ease our progress.

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