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How do you increase the skills of your staff in these lean times? Philip Schofield sees the future of employee education
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The Independent Online
The knowledge content of most jobs is increasing, workers are expected to be more flexible and to master a wider range of expertise, and existing expertise needs constant updating as new technology becomes available. Moreover, as jobs grow less secure, workers are being advised to prepare for regular job moves by building up a portfolio of transferable skills. It is now widely accepted that everyone needs to undertake lifelong learning for their own and their employers' sakes.

However, the average workforce has become leaner and far harder worked in recent years. This has made it more difficult for employers to release people for any training that involves more than an occasional day or two away from the job. Short, sharp courses are now the norm.

Unfortunately, one- or two-day courses can do little more than give a "taster" for a new topic, update existing knowledge, or cover one small aspect of a subject. Few employees, except those classed as "trainees", now undertake lengthy off-the-job courses or get regular day release for programmes of sustained study. Moreover, employers who work shifts or have many small and widely scattered units - such as retail shops, banks and building societies - find even short courses hard to organise.

It seems certain that, in future, most employers will deliver comprehensive training programmes by using distance learning techniques. These can be used anywhere, at any time, to suit the employee and employer - and they are highly cost-effective.

Distance learning has come a long way since its origins in correspondence schools. These relied on written texts, often no more than duplicated pages stapled together, and on marked work assignments. Tutorial support was minimal. Today, distance learning utilises a wide range of methods, including high quality print, video and audio-cassettes, interactive video, personal computers, and radio and television broadcasts.

A survey of trainers by the Industrial Society, reported

in Training Trends 17 last year, found that 41 per cent make regular use of distance/open learning for in-house training, and 34 per cent for external training. Although more than a third could not identify which groups of employees use open learning packages, 33 per cent of middle and junior managers and 19 per cent of senior managers are known to do so. They are also used by 29 per cent of professional and technical staff and 15 per cent of administrative and clerical staff.

The survey also asked about trainers' plans for using different types of training materials over the next year. CD Rom, interactive CD and computer-based materials were the most likely to grow in use. Of the more commonly used materials, open learning packages headed the list.

Distance learning courses are now available at every level, from basic literacy to professional qualifications and higher degrees. Most are available internationally. They are provided not only by specialist distance learning institutions such as the National Extension College and the Open University, but also through more traditional education and training providers such as professional institutions and ordinary universities.

The National Extension College, founded in 1963, currently offers more than 150 courses and has 30,000 students worldwide. It provides people with basic literacy, numeracy, language and computing skills; GCSE 0- and A-level courses; professional qualifications for the Engineering Council, Institute of Linguists, and Institute of Marketing; and a range of career and business skills. The college also provides distance tuition for University of London degrees in a number of subjects.

The National Extension College was also the model for the Open University set up in 1969. This is one of Britain's greatest educational success stories. For the first time people could study for a degree without prior academic qualifications. High-quality texts replaced the duplicated sheets supplied by most correspondence schools. Radio and TV programmes broadcast by the BBC were an integral part of OU courses. A network of 306 study centres provided tutorial support and counselling services in all but the remotest corners of Britain. Lecturers from other universities were employed as tutors at residential one-week summer schools. Computer- marked multiple choice tests supplemented the traditional tutor-marked assignments.

The OU continues to pioneer new developments. It now takes students from all EU countries as well as other parts of Europe. Some courses already use the Internet for teaching purposes and for research.

Perhaps the most highly-rated postgraduate business qualification - the Master of Business Administration (MBA) - can now be studied by distance learning at many British universities. These are in no way inferior to other MBA courses, and five (at Durham, Henley, the Open University, Warwick and Strathclyde) have been accredited by the Association of MBAs.

Vocational courses are provided by the Open College, which was launched in 1987 mainly as a training provider. It offers a variety of vocational courses, which can be tailored to the individual needs of its client companies. Its courses combine the use of distance learning materials with workshops run by tutors on client premises.

Distance learning, by exploiting the potential of information technology, is set for even greater growth. With computers likely to be found in almost every workplace and most homes within 10 years or so, and with a need to provide quality programmes at the least cost, distance learning is going to be the main means of updating education and providing vocation training.