Learning at the workplace: what does actually happen?

There are many different ways for investigating workplace learning. If the focus is on supporting workplace learning with computer based tools, insight into how workplace learning currently takes place is indispensable. Ignoring it, greatly increases the risk of finding a nice solution for the wrong problem.

In the context of the APOSDLE project this was recognized and a workplace learning study was included in the work plan. The study consists of two phases. In the first phase detailed data are collected about workplace learning as it actually occurs in the organisations participating in the project. In the second phase, these findings will be validated by using a questionnaire distributed to a larger sample of people in organisations.

In the first phase a variety of data collection methods were used: interviews with workers, observations at the workplace and workplace learning diaries. As “learning” must be identified by being different from other human activities, a pragmatic definition was adopted: learning is acquiring new information that has a high likelihood of being re-used in the future. This definition enabled the researchers to distinguish between using new information for solving here and now problems and information that will be used for other problems.

In the period between the end of March and the end of July 2006 146 learning events (a moment during daily work when a learning need occurs) were registered. Learning is triggered mainly by the task(s) a person is working at, serendipity learning also occurs. The majority occurred at a computational workplace, which is not surprising as this was the focus of the data collection. Of these, 72% were successful. Persons (colleagues) and digital sources are used most frequently. Learned are facts (27%), procedures (31%) and concepts (42%). In 48% of the events bottlenecks occurred that made learning more difficult.

The initial results are summarized below:

  • There is quite some workplace learning
  • About ¾ of the efforts succeed, so there is room for improvement
  • Even if successful, bottlenecks delaying or obstructing learning are frequent
  • At least acquiring three types of knowledge (facts, procedures and concepts) should be supported
  • Striking a balance between personal and digital support is necessary
  • Learning material should be as close as possible to the learning need

The results of the first phase show that a system like APOSDLE can contribute to more effective and efficient workplace learning. However, the design and fielding of the system should be neatly tailored to the way people are working. For this purpose, the data of the first phase of the workplace learning study provides very valuable insights.

We are looking forward to the result from the second phase, to see whether the findings of the first phase are corroborated or need some adjustments.

The final results of the Study have been published in the Workplace Learning Study (Deliverable 2.1) as well as in a EC-TEL 2007 proceedings volume with Springer.

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