Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory and Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

Current Problem

Where I currently work, we are finding that our instructors need and crave more targeted professional development. As mentioned in the Methodology section, adults want to know that what they are learning is relevant and has immediate application. If there is something that an instructor needs to know to do his/her job, then it is our responsibility to provide it. As a relatively new company, our resource library is limited and does not necessarily address the different skill gaps of our instructors, nor the levels at which they need to address them. In other words, we aren’t practicing differentiated learning. We are taking a one size fits all approach that leaves some instructors feeling lost and others feeling stagnant.

Proposed Solution

At the very simplest – build a searchable repository of professional development resources and pair this with the observations and assessments that are already happening. Ensure that all instructors across all campuses have access to this database and leverage instructor and employee knowledge to further populate it.

It’s extremely important that the resources you provide are accessible, relevant and accurate. Forgetting these simple guidelines can result in frustration (why do I need to learn this?), confusion (what does this mean/this contradicts something else), and resentment (I have to pay/drive an hour out of my way for this information) from learners.

Why Self Directed Learning?

You’re covering a few bases with this approach, most of which are covered in other parts of this site. Above all else, you are providing adults with actionable and applicable items. They can pursue as little or as much as they want to in order to meet the benchmarks set forth by their managers. They can also choose to expand their knowledge outside of the provided resources and are encouraged to improve their in class practice with the support of their instructional leaders.

In a classroom setting, this can be a useful tool for students who often finish early and crave additional knowledge. Conversely, it’s also a great tool for a student who is having trouble grasping a concept that everyone else has mastered. The missing information may be critical to the student’s success, so it cannot be glanced over. Instead, you can provide articles, textbooks, videos or other resources to allow the student to learn the concept on his/her own.

What it Looks Like

For me, this looks like a centralized web-based system that is managed by the instructional leaders across all campuses. Because this will be used by all instructors and is part of the message and culture of the company, it’s important that the information submitted is vetted and that it aligns with what you want to see in the classroom.

For you, this depends on the systems and process already in place for learning. Do you have a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas, Blackboard, Oracle or Schoology? If you answered yes, there might already be add-ons or functionality that allow you to build resource libraries. You may also be able to create videos, quizzes and other assessments that are specific to the goals of your course.

If you answered no, you can still create a system that ticks those three boxes. If you are working in an offline environment, have a listed of links, books, videos, etc to provide to students. Or, if you have books or articles in the classroom, suggest the student has a look during the break. You can also build a simple website, like this one, to act as an extension of the classroom materials.

How can I make this work for me?

SDL is best used when:

  • There are small or simple tasks the audience needs to know before you can move forward. This is sometimes called pre-work and has been used in as a requirement for trainings and classes.
  • A learner is struggling during class but you are unable to a)spend anymore time on the subject, b) provide the depth of knowledge necessary for understanding or c) adjust the lesson to address his/her preferred learning style.
  • A learner is excelling and requires more stimulus to remain engaged in the lesson.

Want to give it a shot? Download this Adult Learning Application Cheatsheet to get started.

Community Spotlight: Brooklyn Workforce Innovations

bwi_logo_copyBrooklyn Workforce Innovations isn’t a well-known name here in New York City. There aren’t advertisements on the subway, or anywhere on the streets of Brooklyn. A Google search doesn’t even place them in the top 50 results for NYC workforce centers. Without diligent searching, you’re not likely to come across them at all. It seems that that’s the problem with workforce centers. They provide a much needed service that the public doesn’t know exists.

I met with KenTara John, Program Coordinator for the Brooklyn Networks program at Brooklyn Workforce Innovations (BWI). Having obtained her undergraduate and graduate degree, Ms. John’s story is not an unfamiliar one. Those degrees didn’t get her where she expected. Working in non-profit organizations wasn’t enough to make up for the debt she accumulated and the skills she gained weren’t what she needed to maintain or flourish in the workplace.

During our class discussions, one sentiment became clear – workforce centers exist because college is not the path for everyone. Whether it’s a lack of education, a challenging home life or dissatisfaction with their current jobs, adults turn to workforce centers to help them create opportunities for growth. This is where organizations like Brooklyn Workforce Innovations come in.

 

Organization Overview

The stakeholders vary depending on the funding sources. In general, stakeholders include community based organizations, parole offices, schools, youth programs, substance abuse programs, HR administrators, ex-convicts, unemployed candidates, underemployed candidates, and New York’s Workforce 1 Career Center.

The programs at BWI focus on practical and immediately applicable skills. Unlike a traditional college, their programs culminate in a certification, not a degree. These certifications are transferable, generally opening up access to a broader range of opportunities. One of the motivations of participants is that completing a program at BWI provides you with a skilled trade or as Ms. John explained, “Something someone can’t take away”. The certificate is a tangible and measurable representation of the skills participants learned during the program. BWI’s include:

  • Brooklyn Networks: Which leads to a career in voice and data telecommunications cable installation
  • Red Hook on the Road: Which helps students get their commercial driver’s license (CDL)
  • Brooklyn Woods: A woodworking and fabrication program
  • Made in NY PA Training: Part of NYC’s initiative to cultivate diversity in the film industry
  • NYCHA Resident Training Academy: A sector-focused training program that leads to job placement within local housing developments

Ms. John is the Program Coordinator for the Brooklyn Networks. Spanning six weeks, the program is hosted at New York City College of Technology (CUNY). It’s an installation program that focuses on cabling for network, data and security. Upon completion, participants sit for the BISCI exam, a credentialing exam that tests theoretical and practical components.

Although all of the programs through BWI are practical or technical programs, all curriculum focuses on both hard and soft skills and places equal weight on each. There is a high demand for candidates to demonstrate situational judgement, a skill that has been flagged by employers as missing, even in college graduates.

Participant Demographics and the Selection Process

The screening and selection process for Brooklyn Networks is rigorous.  The selection process consists of multiple steps. The first is an orientation that is held weekly throughout the year. Candidates are required to take the TABE, an exam that gauges math and reading levels. To be eligible for Brooklyn Networks, candidates must be able to pass on an 8th grade level. Approximately half of the candidates fail this exam. They offer retests for those who score between the 5th and 7th grade levels. If they fail that, Ms. John recommends that they take additional courses and then reapply.

The next step is an interview with one of the program staff that asks personal questions about their current situation and the motivations behind joining the program. It’s important that candidates are interested in the field and aren’t just looking for a quick way to make money. There’s a high level of accountability on the participants; they’ll be responsible for completing HW and projects, maintaining consistent attendance, and remaining professional. Ms. John has identified that this as a ‘big risk program’ because many participants have not had this kind of responsibility, especially if they did not complete HS.

If the participants move forward from there, extensive documentation is required by the state and federal government and by some stakeholders. Following that, there is a drug screening. If candidates fail, they aren’t allowed to reapply for one year. The screening is not a surprise. On the contrary, candidates are notified so that they have a chance to get clean before it happens. Once those steps are complete, applicants ‘try out’. They come in on a Monday, go over the details of the program and then attend sample classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. Finally, the director and program instructors evaluate overall performance and interview responses. This committee selects 15 participants and those that are accepted start the next day.

The most interesting portion of this visit was the level of detailed that went into preparing the candidates. The selection process is extremely discerning but there’s a quota to meet, which can affect the way the program is run. However, Ms. John demonstrated true interest and compassion in seeing candidates and participants succeed. Given the background of participants, I believe this can make a world of difference for those who have faced discouragement.

Program Structure and Outcomes

The Brooklyn Networks program is five days a week, from 9-5. There’s an exam every week and 2 to 4 HW assignments each night. The week is structured to include practical and professional skills. There are 3.5 days of lab training and 1.5 days of job readiness training.

Student progress is closely monitored by the instructor, who is responsible for curriculum and homework.

Because of the strict policies, rigorous curriculum and expectation setting, the pass rate for the certification exam is 91%. Unlike course work, the BICSI is graded pass or fail. To ensure that students are prepared above and beyond the requirements of the exam, the level of rigor in the classroom is much higher than what is required.  Upon successful completion of the program, BWI offers job placement assistance for two years. There is also a follow up 60, 90, 180 and 365 days after graduation to gauge candidate success in the field.

Social Impact

Beyond providing job applicable skills, BWI aims to empower participants to aspire to higher levels of personal success. It shows participants that they have the drive and discipline to complete their GED or get a college degree. For others, it’s a way to excel beyond cultural expectations. Ms. John shared a few of these stories, including a female Muslim graduate who was told by her family that she couldn’t complete the program because she’s a woman. She also shared the story of Pete Rosado who said he always wanted to travel the world but ended up in prison, doing traveling of a different kind. In spite of his background, Mr. Rosado graduated and is now Lead Tech at his company.

In addition to the individual impact on the graduates, BWI and other workforce centers have the opportunity to equalize pay within their industries. All graduates from Brooklyn Networks has a starting wage of $12-$13, regardless of gender or race. Employers may have the option to pay more, but they cannot pay any less, which is at odds with how traditional hiring works.

Challenges and Looking Forward

Although BWI has been around for 15 years, they face some common problems. Outreach and recruitment was more robust in 2013 but changes in the economy have affected the number of applicants. In turn, this has impacted the quality of applicants and the program. With no official outreach process, they rely on referrals and word of mouth to source candidates. Other issues include alumni data tracking, getting women to complete the training, student engagement that helps prevent burnout and withdrawals, external dependencies, and lack of reliable record keeping systems. Additionally, attendance is particularly challenging due to the backgrounds of participants. If a student misses enough classes, they will need to leave the program, regardless of the reasons. Students who are counseled out are encourage to reapply once their schedule stabilizes.

Ms. John and I spent time to discussing the struggles associated with tracking student data. Above all else, being able to measure the success of the students during and after the program is the biggest challenge that many training programs face. We swapped stories and ideas about how to improve our current systems and I was surprised to hear that they have no real process for storing records and it is mostly paper based. Given the frequency at which technology is changing, I believe this lack of integration (which was also present when reviewing the outreach process) has the potential to be detrimental to BWI’s programs. For all the work they are doing, further investment in technology and outreach would make a huge difference in program quality and reporting.

Using Learning Contracts to Facilitate Success

Learning contracts can be a great tool to clearly define course or training expectations for the instructor/trainer and the student/employee. Although an employer may hope that information provided in a training environment is clear and relevant, it’s necessary to take into account context. Your audience needs to know why they are learning this information and how they are expected to apply it.  Take a look at the learning contract (above or view the PDF here) and course description (below), that I created for my sample ‘Data Management Across Systems’.

Sample Course: Data Management Across Systems

Course Description

This course has been designed to assist Data Administrators in evaluating current data collection systems in their department or company. Regardless of the size or purpose of your organization, you collect data in one form or another. Some of us are used to the old paper and pen method while some of us are almost completely digital. Both systems have pros and cons, which we will discuss in this course. Knowing the reason your company collects various types of data, who the responsible parties are and what the output format will be, has a great bearing on the systems you use and the issues you will face. We will take a look at all of these factors over the next 5 weeks to help you lead or support the implementation of more accurate and robust data collection.

 

Creation of a Learning Contract

Each of you come from a different background and may have slightly different expectations for this course. The purpose of this learning contract is to ensure each student sets and completes his/her objectives. The contract is between the student and the instructor, created as a way to clearly communicate course expectations for both parties. It will be completed at the end of the first week so that you have an idea of the material that will be covered and the options for projects used to demonstrate learning.

This contract should be personal to you and focus on what you intend to get out of this course. To help you begin this process, please complete the KWL chart provided on the first day of class. Use this document, along with the course description to begin developing objectives. During the submission of the Learning Contract, the instructor will meet with you to provide feedback. Once it is finalized, both the instructor and the student will agree on at least one in-person check-in and sign the contract. A copy will go to the student, one to the instructor and one will be kept on file with the department, to be revisited during the follow up meetings to ensure the objectives are being met.

After reading through the information, think about how learning contracts can be introduced in your learning environment to facilitate success.  Does this change the way you approach teaching or training? Are there any aspects of this that you can implement now?

Finding the Ideal Solution: 3 Approaches to Problem Solving

I may have mentioned taking a few courses through UniversalClass.com. So far, I’ve found the Problem Solving 101 course invaluable as it explores the topic in depth, including the identification and allocation of resources, objective and subjective input, and evaluation of outcomes. Moreover, introduces three main categories for to consider when faced with problems in the workplace (or everyday life).

First Approach – Pretty Straightforward

The first category is referred to as the “stop it and mop it” scenario. In this situation, there is an event, behavior or condition that you need to stop from happening, as well as clean up the existing damage. Imagine that you are a landlord and your tenants are complaining about mice eating through the walls. To stop this, you hire an exterminator to find out where the mice are coming from and place baits or traps to catch them. To ‘mop it’, or clean it up, you have the exterminator locate likely areas existing mice might nest and place baits there as well. You also hire a contractor to come in and fix all the places the mice have chewed through. With these items in place, the problem should be resolved.

Second Approach – Some Concessions Are Made

The next situation employs the “current reality vs ideal” scenario. In this case, what is happening in the now does not match up with predetermined expectations or goals. To demonstrate, we’ll use student enrollment as an example. You currently have 250 students enrolled in your school but the Department of Education has budgeted you for 300 students. This means you are 50 students short of the goal. There are two ways to approach the issue and the one you chose depends heavily on which holds the most acceptable outcome:

  • Option 1: Adjust the goal. Is it unlikely that you’ll get another 50 students? Is it possible to increase by 25 students instead? How will this affect your goals and budgets for the remainder of the school year? What about next year?
  • Option 2: Attempt to meet the goal. While this seems like the obvious first choice, it may not be possible. In this example, your pool of students is inherently limited by things like zoning, number of students eligible, class sizes and competing schools. This means that even if you recruit all remaining students, you may still fall short. However, this option might be easier to implement when dealing with products or services, as you can increase production, hire more staff, adjust hours, etc.

Third Approach – Hard work for Lasting Payoff

The third approach to problem solving is the “opportunity for change” scenario. This is best applied to a situation where the problem is something with room for improvement. Perhaps you supervise a call center. You discover that employees spend an average of 5 minutes searching the company database for answers to commonly asked questions. While this might not directly translate into dollars lost, it does affect how many customers can be served. It can also have a negative impact on the way customers view your company. After all, how many of us have spent hours on the phone with the cable company trying to do something as simple as reset a router? This sort of issue, under the right management, can be turned into a learning experience for everyone. Determining whether staff needs better resources, guidance or training can improve or eliminate the problem altogether.

To summarize, there are three main ways to categorize and resolve problems. At the most basic level, each categorization requires identifying what the problem is and then determining what the anticipated outcome is. Approaching adverse situations in this manner can help you structure processes and procedures to avoid similar issues in the future.