In February 2013, I was asked by Leighton Andrews AM, then Minister for Education and Skills, to be a member of the Online Digital Learning Working Group which had the remit of advising on the challenges to higher education in Wales of emerging trends in online learning.

Earlier this month, its report “Open & online: Wales, higher education and emerging modes of learning” was finally published and should make interesting reading for those involved in the Welsh university sector.

However, one of its key recommendations also related to developing skills for the workplace and the Welsh economy. In particular, it proposed that the Welsh Government should develop a strategy, working with other agencies, to raise awareness of the potential for online learning to support economic development.

There has long been recognition of a significant skills gap in the UK and the Welsh workforce.

Various studies such as the UK Treasury’s Leitch Report and the Welsh Government’s “Skills that work for Wales” highlighted that fact that the we lag behind international competitors in employment skills.

More recently, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills showed that 28 per cent of Welsh employers reported a skills gap within their workforce with 35 per cent of managers and professionals in Wales lacking an "appropriate" formal qualification.

In this context, online learning may offer the potential to enable people of any age and in any location to follow courses and develop new skills.  Such a change has clear implications not only for personal and professional development, but also for work-based or work-related learning.

This may be especially the case for small firms, where skills development is a resource-intensive activity and needs mechanisms that make it easier for employers to involve their employees in training.

Indeed, with little engagement between Welsh universities and industry in terms of learning provision, online learning could provide higher education in Wales with an opportunity to engage directly with the business community in Wales to support skills development and learning within the workplace, given that they are well suited to enhancing learning and training within a corporate setting. It may also result in additional learning opportunities being offered to certain professions, especially at a postgraduate, executive or post experience level.

However, it is important that any such developments should be created in close collaboration with employers as it would ensure a partnership approach to curriculum design and student support in addition to a shared understanding and appreciation of learning outcomes.

One of the potential problems in delivering high quality learning may not only be related to the content as it is critical that the infrastructure is in place to deliver such high quality learning directly to the workplace. And whilst there is investment by both the UK and Welsh Governments in the high speed broadband that is vital for the delivery of online learning, one third of homes in Wales still do not have a broadband connection via their landline, and a quarter are mobile-only households.

Another key issue is that of awareness of the possibilities of online learning by industry. Indeed, those businesses that were contacted by the working group were largely unaware of key developments in online learning and it is therefore up to educational providers to find ways of bridging this gap. This can be done by raising awareness of online learning options amongst employers in the private, public and voluntary sectors which should lead to a dialogue between key stakeholders, establishing those training priorities where industrial and public sector partners would be best placed to benefit from online provision.

There is also a need for a more comprehensive strategy in utilising online learning as a key delivery tool for training and skills programmes. For example, over £800 million of the last round of European Structural Funding was committed to training programmes and yet delivery of these courses online has hardly been considered.

Therefore, there is little doubt that online learning will become a critical part of the educational experience for both students and businesses and as the report clearly suggests, there is a real opportunity for Wales to revolutionise the provision of education and skills to individuals and organisations through the adoption of an open and online learning approach to its skills development agenda.

In particular, with the new round of European funding coming on stream next year, it can ensure that every training programme that is supported by public funds has some online element as a critical part of its delivery. In doing so, the Welsh Government could begin a real revolution in learning that has the potential to transform the skills agenda within Wales and with it, the future of the Welsh economy.

Popular posts from this blog