The importance of e-learning: An interview with an expert

  • Online mobile learning
Published last year

In a fast-evolving job market, where new sectors are emerging every few years, employers need to consider how they will upgrade the skills of their staff, so that they can respond to the new demands. Employees, on the other hand, must find ways to keep up with the changes in the workplace. Investing in e-learning comes with many benefits for both sides — fewer hours and costs of training new staff, and more engaged and responsible employees. Stephen Somerville, Director of Business Development at FutureLearn, talks to about the importance of e-learning for businesses and employees, and the current trends in e-learning.

Stephen Somerville, Director of Business Development at FutureLearn

Stephen Somerville, Director of Business Development at FutureLearn

Stephen joined FutureLearn in February 2016 as Director of Business Development, bringing with him a wealth of commercial experience spanning nearly twenty years. His focus is on public education initiatives for FutureLearn, while providing the necessary foundations to ensure it becomes a sustainable business.

Can you tell us a few things about FutureLearn and your role in the company?

FutureLearn is a social learning platform which enhances learning for people through conversation with other learners. We initially offered MOOCs (massive open online courses) to learners worldwide, but have more recently evolved to offer paid-for courses, credit-bearing courses, and fully online degrees from some of the world’s top universities.

We also work with corporations and education providers. My role within the company is focused on public education initiatives. These are situations where for example government initiatives tackle skills gaps in which our platform, approach, global community of learners and network of top academic partners have a big role to play.

One example is our recent collaboration with the British Council. We teamed up with them as part of their ‘Study UK initiative’. The campaign gave international learners in Official Development Assistance (ODA) countries the chance to experience British education, by giving them free access to online courses from some of the best UK universities. Participants could receive free Certificates of Achievement to strengthen their CVs and prove their commitment to personal development.

What new has FutureLearn brought into e-learning?

FutureLearn’s offering is unique as we offer learners a social learning experience. In the past, I think people associated online learning as being an isolated experience. FutureLearn is designed to support learning through conversation. For example, our approach includes pre-course conversations, comments and replies alongside each step, peer review, discussion steps, and study groups.

FutureLearn comes into its own on projects that require a conversation and are transformational — where minds are being changed. These projects tend to be large scale, both in terms of geography and volume of learners. One recent course we ran for a global automotive company had around 7 or 8 thousand words in the course materials, but the learners added 750-800 thousand words in their conversations with each other. Managers from one region were able to follow and interact with managers from completely different continents, all within the same company.

Why is e-learning important for businesses and employees alike?

Everyone knows that the job market is evolving quickly; there are new sectors emerging due to advancements in technology and therefore people will be applying for jobs in ten years’ time that don’t currently exist. We can’t expect to put everyone through a three or four-year undergraduate degree; instead, employers should be looking to upskill their employees so that they’re ready for the changing demands in the workplace. A great example of this is GDPR. The need for training is quite a complex issue, for almost all employees of all organisations. It is clear that an e-learning solution of some sort is the only viable way to tackle this. By using a social learning platform, conversations can take place around a heavily theory-based issue, but learners sharing real-world experiences can bring the course materials to life.

How can e-learning improve the productivity in the workplace?

Investing in an online culture should encourage employees to be more engaged with their work and boost retention, meaning less spend on re-hiring and training new staff. The online approach means that employees can balance their work with training by completing bite-sized chunks, as opposed to committing two hours to a face-to-face conference, lecture or seminar. We design our experience so that it is mobile first, as we recognise that learners like to dip in and out of our courses, and reply to comments on threads around particularly engaging experiences or subjects they are experts in. They might be commuting or sitting at their desk when this happens, so it is vital that our platform caters for that. E-learning tools are also a great way of tracking the development of your staff and is an effective way of setting objectives for them.

Very often, people start an online course and after a week or two they quit. What are some characteristics that make an online course successful?

We are fortunate to have started with the MOOC model, as that drove us to become world leaders in devising strategies and user journeys that were all about increasing the completion rate. As a result, we see high levels of engagement from our learners. This is partly driven by the social learning pedagogy integrated throughout the course; rather than “chalk and talk” methods — streaming content from the back of a lecture hall. Our courses integrate videos, articles, quizzes and conversation to ensure learners are actively engaging with the material. The role of our educators is also to support the building of knowledge, rather than instruct; many of the educators will ask ‘big questions’ to open up discussions, that can often lead into different directions from one course run to another. So, when businesses invite employees to complete courses on our platform, we see very high levels of engagement, which I think stems from our origins in MOOCs.

How can employers, who want to offer e-learning to their employees, choose the right course for their business?

There are hundreds of online courses out there and a big focus for L&D departments today is on curation, rather than creation; in the future, I think we’ll see employers curating pathways of courses that meet their employees’ specific needs. However, one of our biggest courses this year is on GDPR and for me, it’s less about choosing online courses for your employers, and more about thinking about the most efficient and effective way of getting essential training and compliance spread through the organisation.

Does FutureLearn often receive enquiries from businesses who want to offer e-learning solutions to their employees? In reality, to what extent do employees apply the new skills they have acquired? Are there ways for the employers to keep track of their employees’ performance?

We receive enquiries every day. The best fit are those that are transformational in nature (i.e. changing an organisation’s thinking and culture), those with a geographically dispersed workforce and perhaps those that might benefit from either existing courses or our relationships with the academic sector. The more ambitious applications of FutureLearn are almost always bound by confidentiality, but it ranges from embedding face-to-face sales training for global pharmaceutical companies to institutions of new leadership skills in global manufacturing companies.

When it comes to learners demonstrating the new skills they have acquired, learners on ‘Growing as a Manager,’ developed by The Open University and accredited by the CMI, have highlighted increased responsibility at work and even promotions following completion of the course. We are always keen to do further research into the outcomes of our courses, and routinely survey our learners to find out about the impact the course has had on their professional and personal lives.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that adult learners have to overcome?

We’re seeing more and more adult learners entering the online learning sphere. There is the assumption that the majority of our learners might follow the Open University. However, our learners are also retired people looking for a new hobby or interest through online learning. And, in fact, over 50% of our learners today are in full or part-time employment. I think the biggest challenge for adults is overcoming the mentality that online learning is too much of a commitment time-wise, particularly for those juggling work and busy lifestyles. But learning doesn’t have to be an onerous task; the draw for many is the fact that they can log on for ten minutes to half an hour a few times a week.

Is mobile learning the evolution of e-learning?

We’re one of the few platforms that work on mobile and it certainly enables greater flexibility as learners can tap into learning on the move. In fact, we don’t implement any features that won’t work on mobile to ensure we’re catering for those learning on-the-go. However, I don’t think we should consider these ideas — mobile learning and e-learning — as separate cases; overall, I think technology has a huge part to play in the e-learning evolution and has opened up education to a greater pool of learners who may not have had access to education before. All you need is an internet connection and an interest in learning.