Building bridges between Higher Education and Corporate L&D

I came across this nice line from my old boss Donald Clark’s blog recently: “Much as Higher Education would like to think it has a monopoly on learning, it is merely one in many, many layers in the learning cake.”

True words and they got me thinking about some experiences good and bad, past and present, that I have had as a learning and development professional interacting with the Higher Education world from the ‘outside’.

An undercurrent of mistrust towards the corporate world?

One standout memory involves being invited to and attending a regional JISC meeting about mobile learning with some colleagues, to share what we were doing with mobile learning in corporates. While the delegates were perfectly nice, the organisers warned us in no uncertain terms upon arrival that we were “not on a sales pitch now”. We were put on a stern warning and made to feel like naughty pupils before we’d even sat down. It was quite a shocking welcome and not the collaborative, friendly approach we were expecting.

More recently, two of my presentation abstracts were accepted for MoodleMoot 14 in Edinburgh. But they were accepted on the proviso that I wasn’t there to make a sales pitch, as some of the programme committee had concerns I might just want to take the stage to sell. I reassured them that I was attending the conference to share and learn, and it was all perfectly amicable, but it was another pretty disappointing episode.

So why the mistrust? Do Higher Education staff and academics think that the world of corporate, workplace learning has nothing to offer them? More likely it’s because I’m from a learning and development services agency. But believe me, I’ve tried many times to encourage my clients to take the stage, but they say “You’re the expert on this stuff, that’s why we use you, it makes more sense for you to talk about this project”. At the end of the day, I am not a salesperson, I am a software engineer working in learning and development. When I participate in an event, I might well be representing my employer but ultimately I just want to learn and share.

The mistrust is even more misplaced when you think that in the corporate world, many large global enterprises with geographically dispersed employees have been doing real online learning for donkey’s years and have a wealth of experience to share. Over the same time, many Higher Education institutions have been largely focused on teaching within the confines of their campus and using their VLE, with all the potential it offers, as nothing more than a dumping ground for lecture notes. So I just don’t get what gives with the ivory tower, to be honest.

A world of opportunities in corporate learning and development

Fortunately, away from events and back in the ‘day job’, I’ve had many good experiences too. I am glad to count some of the UK’s most prominent Higher Education  institutions among my clients, and they are great clients with whom we do genuinely interesting work. In pretty much every case these institutions are aiming to exploit their strong brand and subject matter expertise to offer professional development to the corporate learning world. With student funding decreasing, new revenue streams are needed in Higher Education, and it just so happens that the world of workplace learning needs good quality, research-led, professional development. The two worlds are natural bedfellows, it turns out.

Currently, many Higher Education  institutions are using MOOCs as the vehicle to enter the professional development arena in a bid to find new audiences. But the quality of the learning experience from MOOC vendors is often not up to scratch. Video lecture, knowledge check, repeat. Ugh. The courses may have famous professors’ names to them, yet frankly our apprentice Instructional Designers could do a better job of teaching online. The MOOC model is not working out entirely as expected of course, and models are being refined and adjusted. Harvard announced with some fanfare that they are now launching the Small Private Online Course, a SPOC, no less! The irony is that corporate e-learning practitioners have been delivering Small Private Online Courses for the past fifteen years. But try telling that to these professors who are acting like they’ve invented a new medium!

Two worlds working together

The good thing is that all the MOOC providers are now starting to show an increased interest in the corporate learning world. This can only lead to increased fertilisation between academia and corporate learning and development. The two worlds should be making much greater effort to learn from each other. I’d love to see Higher Education sharing research-led knowledge about learning and development with corporates, maybe even embedding researchers into the workplace. I’ve seen great work happening in the area of learning analytics where the same techniques used to identify at-risk students could be employed identifying at-risk employees. At the same time, corporates could be making more effort to share what has been proven to work in online learning over the past two decades with their online learning counterparts in Higher Education, many of whom are just getting to grips with online learning. As an example of the two worlds working well together, in the past few years at Epic we’ve engaged in two major research projects, such as this peer reviewed research report about mobile learning in the NHS, and this pilot study with Oxford University about the accuracy of Wikipedia.

Clearly the two worlds can work well together, when there is vision and trust from both sides. Hopefully more people in both worlds will develop a shared vision as time goes on. I’d love to hear about your experiences and positive examples of Higher Education and corporate L&D collaborating. Please use the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Building bridges between Higher Education and Corporate L&D

  1. Great post Mark. I’ve said, for a long time, that the two sectors have a huge amount to learn from each other. Thankfully, like you, I’m starting to see evidence of working together – like the Bevan and Anderson leadership programmes from the NHS Leadership Academy, which combine the forces of KPMG, LINE, Manchester Business School and the University of Manchester to create (in my opinion) a class-leading programme.

    See the press release from the NHS Leadership Academy.

    We’re also starting to see collaborative networks developing. I’m part of the East Midlands Learning Technologists group, which takes people from across FE, HE, and corporate learning and looks at common issues and shares experience.

    1. That’s really great, thanks for responding Mark. I’ll check out that press release. I like the idea of that group you’re part of. I’m involved in the monthly Moodle Brighton meetup with the Sussex Uni elearning team and we all gain a lot from each others updates and stories about what we’re doing in our respective sectors. That’s obviously a very narrow focus though, a wider ranging Elearning group would be pretty neat.

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