Last edited 12 Jun 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

E-learning and the heritage sector

Heritage e-learning.jpg
E-learning at the IHBC’s virtual annual school in 2020 (Photo: Gordon Sorensen).

E-learning has become a bit of a buzzword recently for obvious reasons. with little or no opportunity to attend face to face training events, seminars or conferences, many organisations like the IHBC and Historic England have taken to the digital world to provide their members and colleagues with alternatives. Academia has been doing this for years now; videoing lectures and providing students with learning resources via online platforms. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has not prevented academic institutions from delivering a full curriculum; albeit online. But within the heritage sector this all seems new to most of us.

Broadly, the term e-learning may be used in this context to describe any learning or training resource that is delivered to the user via a digital platform. A familiar example may be the corporate compliancy training video on fire safety or ‘heavy lifting’, but that is only a very small part of the whole e-learning landscape. For example, if you needed to fix something in your home, such as a dripping tap or the washing machine maybe, the first thing most of us do is to search online for a YouTube video that shows us how to do it. In other words, a training video. As long as the resource delivers training or transfers knowledge, via a digital platform, it can be called e-learning.

There’s a huge amount of e-learning out there, in all shapes and sizes, from a formal online compliancy assessment to an instructional video or a pdf document, and all providing some level of knowledge or training. So, the question here should be ‘what does good e-learning look like?’. That’s a little harder to answer because there are many variables to consider. One thing is certain; just because it’s big and shiny and costs huge amounts of money to create, does not mean it’s good; there are plenty of decidedly poor e-learning resources that tick those particular boxes. The point here is that we need to consider those variables. This is not the place to go into any great detail, but one would certainly be looking at factors such as learning objectives, learning outcomes and learning styles. What this all amounts to ultimately is whether the resource is fit for purpose and delivers the required outcome. To use the dripping tap example, which would be preferable, a pdf document containing all the technical data or a video showing you how to fix the tap?

Two terms often waved around during conversations relating to training or learning are the ‘virtual learning environment’ (VLE) and the ‘learning management system’ (LMS). Essentially both describe a platform that hosts digital learning resources, but there is an element of ambiguity as to their meaning. Put simply, a VLE is a learning platform that promotes learning through open discussion and collaboration while an LMS hosts resources for individual learning. Another, and for some the most important, element to both is that they provide assessment and reporting; a means by which a learner’s progress can be tested and analysed against specified objectives. Going back to the dripping tap example therefore, it is possible to see that the video on its own is fine, but hosted on an LMS or VLE, with the inclusion of a quizzing element, it is possible to assess, not only whether the learner has watched the video, but also whether they have assimilated the intended learning outcome. For some organisations, that is pure gold.

Unlike academia and the commercial sector, the disparate world of heritage has been relatively slow to recognise the potential for e-learning to deliver training and knowledge within the workplace. Universities or commercial companies know who their target audiences are and what their learning requirements are; they know the learning objectives, learning outcomes and learning styles before they start. They have also recognised the potential of e-learning to address the many issues surrounding accessibility needs and how e-learning can evolve and be changed to support this ever growing area. For the heritage sector however, the keyword here is disparate in that the sector is made up from a myriad of public sector, voluntary sector and commercial organisations, employing people with a vast range of skillsets and expertise, all working at different levels. It is therefore almost impossible for any one organisation to gain oversight of training or learning needs across the whole sector. Indeed, Historic England has commissioned two research projects to better understand this issue; one to study training needs across the sector, the other to look at e-learning currently used within the sector. These two projects will be completed later this year (2021).

Covid-19 changed the learning environment for everyone overnight. Many organisations, including Historic England, had no ‘plan B’ for training and little capacity to consider how best to convert face to face training into digital resources. Quick and low-cost answers were required and for most that meant screencasts and webinars, utilising existing presentation slides to create recorded voice-over slide presentations or live online seminar events. These have certainly addressed the initial needs of the sector, but in the light of continuous lockdowns and a potentially fundamental change to the way we work in the future, the heritage sector as a whole will need to address its training and learning requirements in a more structured and programmed manner in order to create sector resilience moving forward.

So, how does the heritage sector achieve this? Most people and organisations are already working under restrictive time and financial constraints. Some might suggest that the skillsets are not available within the sector to facilitate the creation of a structured programme of e-learning. While that might well be the case, there is sufficient technology available to everyone that, in part, can achieve this; we all use computers and mobile phones which are the perfect tools with which to create screencasts, webinars and videos. Therefore it’s not technology that’s the issue but rather our digital literacy and the discoverability of the learning resource.

Most of us know how to use a computer, but generally this is purely for the tasks that we require it to perform and most of us remain blissfully ignorant of all the additional functionality it has to offer. In addition, we can use the old adage here that ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’. There is a wealth of digital resources to be found online that exists to help us create excellent learning and training resources, however if we don’t know what to look for, we are forever destined never to find it. There are also many digital resources that are totally free and open source. Indeed, it is possible to create a learning environment totally free of any cost; all we need is the understanding of what is required and where to find it.

The second part to this equation is slightly harder: discoverability. In digital terms, this is the process by which content is made more easily found online when using search engines. This practice, for most of us, takes on the semblance of the dark arts and requires an in-depth knowledge of search engine algorithms and the mechanisms used, such as metadata, to make content visible to search engine spiders. Not something for the faint of heart. For the sector to acquire the level of resilience it needs to not only survive but flourish in the future, it might be necessary to consider a collegiate approach to the adoption of training and learning via digital platforms. These platforms and resources would benefit from being open to all and not protected by firewalls or paywalls. Think of a YouTube just for heritage; a central repository that hosts learning and training resources, created by all for all. One only needs to look at learning resources for schools to see that this model has been widely adopted already.

Future watching is a risky business at best but, for the heritage sector, with the right aspirations, something akin to that described here is eminently achievable. With a basic understanding of learning theory along with the right, easily learnt, digital skills to create meaningful resources, individuals and organisations alike could quickly amass a wealth of quality learning content equal to many academic institutions. The key here is to have these resources curated within a single environment that is available to all and easily found. As a result of Covid-19, with face to face activities curtailed, there is now a perfect opportunity for the sector to look closely at the learning and training needs of its workforce and, collaborating in a collegiate manner to create and curate resources that not only support its members throughout their careers, but also makes the sector as a whole more resilient to change in the future.

This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC) Yearbook 2021, published by Cathedral Communications Limited in 2021. It was written by Matthew Faber, the e-learning instructional designer for Historic England.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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