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Digitising L&D delivery and accreditation

Learning and development delivery and accreditation, say Dublin City University's David Collings and John McMackin in the second of our two-part series

Digital accreditation in learning and development

In our first article on how the digitisation of L&D is playing a central role in enabling the workforce in working through COVID and for a post-COVID world, we looked at the digitisation of L&D professionals. In this article we explore the digitisation of delivery and the digitisation of accreditation.

Digitising delivery of L&D

The second key trend in the digitisation of L&D is the greater role of technology in the delivery of learning. Technology was identified as central to the shift towards more individualised learning paths which was a key priority in many of our case organisations. It has become even more central in organisations’ responses to COVID where content could only be delivered remotely for many.

We're in this age where people just want the stuff that they need. They just want it really efficiently. What can I do just to get this information, get it done and move on?

Greater use of technology enabled the dissemination of high quality, relevant content, accessible through any device, at any time, to employees. This was reflective of a desire for learning that was ‘just in time, just enough, and just for me’ (Peters, K. (2007). m-Learning: Positioning educators for a mobile, connected future. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning) Platforms such as LinkedIn Learning, GetAbstract, and Coursera were increasingly being adopted as a means of providing high quality, generic content. There was also an increasing recognition of the value of short ‘bite-size’ pieces of learning accessible though these platforms, meaning individuals can tap into learning when they have even a short window. As the L&D director from a banking organisation told us: “ We're in this age where people just want the stuff that they need. They just want it really efficiently. What can I do just to get this information, get it done and move on?”

However, the sheer volume of information available requires greater curation of content and a recognition of the challenge of capturing value from such platforms. A number of organisations spoke of the need to achieve a balance between curating content targeted at particular roles or business units, and enabling individual employees to access relevant content in a timely way. Almost all organisations were actively tracking engagement with these online learning platforms. At the most basic level, this was simply a means of tracking employee activity. However, more progressive organisations are actively using this data to identify trends in learning needs, as well as using the data to feed algorithms which suggest content to employees based on their job role or profile. A good example is the impact of early data following the shift to working from home in the context of Covid. Many organisations recognised the demand for resources on Zoom, working remotely and employee wellbeing and quickly worked to provide relevant content to meet their employee demands.

While many organisations put the launch of major leadership development programmes on hold in the early days of Covid, a number of these programmes have now been reimagined in a virtual format. Online collaboration platforms, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex are playing a key role in facilitating these programmes. We heard of additional benefits of bringing more international cohorts together on these programmes, which in the face to face version had often been scheduled within time zones, limiting cross-region engagement. Although unintended, a key benefit of online delivery has been enhanced learning and networking between these more internationalised cohorts.

Although we have seen limited evidence in our research to date, we expect to see greater use of tools such as virtual reality and other emerging technologies as organisations continue the evolution towards digitising their L&D. Without doubt the role of technology in enabling the delivery of L&D has been accelerated over the past number of months.

Digitisation of accreditation

The final trend evident in terms of digitisation was the digitisation of accreditation. The value of external accreditation of learning and development programmes is being questioned. As one HRD in a global pharmaceutical outlined in commenting on external accreditation of an internal programme, “We've looked at it...but to be honest, it's incredibly costly; so we're just trying to trial the use of digital badges and kind of badging your own learning”. This perspective was repeated, in varying forms, across many of the organisations that we spoke with. This represents a real shift, as accreditation of learning through awarding work and occupational qualifications has traditionally been a cornerstone of tracking competence globally. We saw significant debate about the ongoing value of macro- credentials, or conventional qualifications, in the context of the increasing pace of change in skills, and the emergence of alternatives based on micro-credentials newer credentials based on digital technologies.

For example, a number of respondents described a move away from supporting employees in undertaking MBA programmes. More broadly, our research suggests a very complex and evolving topography when it comes to the accreditation of learning. A recurring theme in our interviews was that while employees placed significant value on externally accredited learning, for many organisations the costs were significant while the benefits are less tangible. Key exceptions were around regulatory, occupational or even client expectations where accreditation remained important.

Respondents pointed to the expectation for professional bodies and educational institutions to become more adaptable and flexible in terms of the accreditation of learning. One example highlighting the efforts by accrediting institutions to adapt their offerings was the recent launch of the European MOOC Consortium “Common Micro-Credentialing Framework for MOOCs” in response to demand from learners to develop new knowledge, skills and competencies from shorter, recognised and quality-assured courses. Micro-credentials or accreditations for smaller chunks of learning and digital badges are emerging as a real alternative.

Our research suggests that most organisations are at the early stages of the development of digital badges.However, one professional services organisation had developed a more sophisticated framework of digital badges. These digital badges were explicitly focused on future skills, such as data visualisation, robotics and automation, that were considered key for the organisation moving forward. A mature framework meant that badges could be awarded at bronze, silver, gold and platinum levels. While a bronze badge is relatively easily attainable, expectations increase significantly as one moves up through the levels. The L&D Director informed us that one external body had already committed to recognising a silver badge for their professional qualification in that area.

How the digital accreditation of learning plays out will be an interesting trend in coming years but there is no doubt that there is significant momentum behind the trend.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hugely disruptive to organisatons. It has required significant upskilling and reskilling of employees as the nature of work for many has changed overnight. Those organisations that had invested in digitising their L&D functions prior to the crisis appear better placed to respond quickly to these changes. For others, the opportunity to digitise their learning and development represents a real opportunity to ensure their workforces are enabled for the future of work.

David Collings and John McMackin, pictured below, are professors of HCM at Dublin City University Business School

David Collings and John McMackin, professors of HCM at Dublin City University Business School

Published 12 August 2020

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