Insights: Formal courses are not dead, just different

This post continues my commentary to the Learning Insights 2012 Report produced by Kineo for e.learning age magazine. The third of the ten ‘insights’ in the report is that ‘formal courses are not dead, just different’.

Formal courses have taken a bit of a beating in recent years, as the pendulum has swung towards more informal approaches. There has been a realisation, I believe, that courses have failed to deliver in terms of real performance change and that there’s much more to learning at work than sitting in a classroom. Way back in 1970, Peter Honey pleaded for us to ‘stop the courses, I want to get off.’ He argued that organising courses was the easy option, but that to create effective learning interventions which were meaningful in terms of the job called for much more effort, imagination and innovation. Forty years later, we’re getting the message.

As ever, the pendulum tends to swing too far. There are some powerful arguments for keeping formal courses somewhere on the agenda:

  • Employees who are new on the job and have lots to learn, are more than happy for their induction and basic training to be formally structured and supported. They don’t know what they don’t know and cannot be expected to just get out there and network.
  • There’s truth in the notion that ‘qualifications only matter if you don’t have them’. When you’re young, in particular, and building a career, your qualifications mean a lot, because you can’t point to a great deal of job experience. That perspective may change as you get older and wonder how much your formal qualifications have helped you in actually doing your job, but at the time they’re very welcome. In fact some people never tire of collecting badges and certificates, particularly those who didn’t achieve so much through their formal education.
  • Pretty well all employers need to know for sure that certain learning has taken place (or at least training, which is not the same thing of course). Obviously this includes the compliance agenda, but could well extend to other key aspects of working life, where knowledge and skills are critical to the organisation’s success. The best way to satisfy that need is through some sort of formal course, whether that’s face-to-face, online or a blend.

Which brings us to the other part of this insight, which is that formal courses are changing in nature. Blended solutions, whether or not we call them this, are without doubt the strategy of choice among larger employers around the world. Blended solutions do much more than provide variety or choice. When well designed, they apply the right strategies at the right point in each intervention and use the media that can most flexibly and efficiently deliver these strategies. Most importantly, they can cross the boundary from formal to informal, making sure that learning is embedded in real-work experience.

In other words, formal courses are becoming less formal; less of an event and more of an on-going process. Designing interventions this way requires a serious change in thinking and we’re not there yet. However, many L&D managers have already embarked on a process of transformation and are prepared to do whatever it takes to get there.

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