Implementing Networked and Global Learning tools and principles to transform organisational learning
*Note: The education organisation analysed in this essay, is referred to as ‘The Agency’ both throughout the body of the text and in the reference list. The institution name has been changed to align with confidentiality requirements and to protect the reputation of the institution.
Context and Problem
The concept of networked learning and the establishment of global online networks have evolved over the last few years with the rise of digital technologies and more recently, the increased social capacity of Web 2.0 (Goodyear, 2014). This rise of new technologies, offering improved ways of accessing, collecting, storing, communicating and creating knowledge has profoundly affected the tradition of learning and teaching, and has given rise to new possibilities and opportunities to transform the way we learn (Bell, 2010; Goodyear, 2014; Puentedura, 2014). The relevancy of the traditional classroom structure, where the teacher is the expert and where learning is isolated to resources available at hand, has changed (Bell, 2010). As such, educators, in a range of learning environments, have begun to delve into ways to harness the tools and principles of networked and global learning (NGL) to enhance outcomes for their students in a way that was previously not possible (Bell, 2010; Goodyear, 2014; Puentedura, 2014).
This essay will explore the use of NGL in an organisational setting, and how it can be applied by corporate learning managers (the teachers) to transform learning for their staff (the students). The organisation that will be focused on is a Government Agency whose chief aim is to effectively and efficiently deliver services in the best interest of the Australian people (The Agency, 2014a). Like many contemporary organisations and businesses in the current political and challenging fiscal environment,*The Agency, is under continuous pressure to innovate and find efficiencies by ‘doing more with less’ (Atkins & Cole, 2010; Gilchrist, 2014). In response to these pressures, The Agency to be considered in this essay, has turned its attention towards developing new and improved work practices and processes for staff (The Agency, 2014b). The role of the teacher (The Agency learning team) in this instance is to determine the best ways to help the organisation’s staff to learn and implement these improved practices. In doing so, the learning team is also expected to deliver innovative training and utilise new technologies to achieve the organisational learning aims, while also operating within strict online security policies and limited budgets (The Agency, 2014c). These security and financial challenges are combined with an underlying resistance to change among staff (Personal Communication, May 2014).
This essay will focus specifically on the training of a particular Division within The Agency containing 300 staff members that are geographically dispersed – the staff work in six different Australian capital cities. The staff are from a range of age groups and while some staff are comfortable and familiar with interacting online in their personal lives, the majority of staff have limited experience with networked technologies in the workplace (Personal Communication, May 2014). It is expected that any new learning online activities implemented by teachers, will cater to the different ages and levels of experience among the 300 staff in the Division (The Agency, 2014a).
This essay will look specifically at how NGL tools and principles can be applied in this particular agency to support staff to effectively learn and transition to the new practices. The key NGL tool that will be considered for implementation in The Agency is the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system, Microsoft SharePoint, and this essay will also explore the challenges to be addressed, as well as available learning theories, to support successful implementation of this platform.
Literature Review – SharePoint and Networked Learning Theories
SharePoint for Organisational Learning
In recent years, research has emerged about the implementation of networked learning into educational contexts – primarily in higher education learning environments; although there has also been some literature considering NGL tools in corporate organisations and businesses (Downes, 2011; Dyrud, 2012; McConnell; 2005). This research has focused chiefly on the use of online tools and strategies such as Massive, Open, Online Courses (MOOCs), social media platforms and, in particular, the Microsoft SharePoint platform (Bragg, 2014; Downes, 2011; Dyrud, 2012; Ennis & Timms, 2014; Harbridge, 2013). With a lack of research available that looks specifically at networked learning opportunities in Government agencies, this essay will largely draw on the literature around NGL in the corporate environment, and in particular the literature on SharePoint. While there are a number of online tools that could be considered for implementation in The Agency – such as Blogs, MOOCs and social media – SharePoint has been selected as the focus for this essay, due to the financial and security benefits it offers and its capacity to support NGL, as will be discussed further in this essay (Bragg, 2014; Downes, 2011; Dyrud, 2012; Ennis & Timms, 2014; Harbridge, 2013).
The Microsoft SharePoint tool has emerged as one of the most popular enterprise content management (ECM) systems in business and organisations in recent years (Cameron, 2013). The tool consists of a range of different interactive features, designed to support online communication and collaboration among organisational staff, however, it is often not implemented effectively, or used to its full potential, especially in relation to supporting organisational learning (Murphy, 2012; Carr, 2011). A SharePoint, in its basic form, is a webpage portal, hosted on a staff internal internet or network site, which contains links to document libraries, discussion forums, blogs, wikis, resource lists, contact lists and image libraries (Brandel, 2010; Harbridge, 2013). The software is designed so that a teacher or learning manager, can set up their own online community site which they can easily customise to contain features that are needed for the learning activity at hand (Brandel, 2010). The teacher can also decide whether the site will be accessible to the whole organisation, or only a certain group or community within the organisation (Brandel, 2010). The students are able to access, upload and edit documents, work collaboratively and contribute to group discussions through this SharePoint site (Brandel, 2010).
Recent literature also discusses a range of logistical benefits to using SharePoint for organisational learning, including security and cost. The SharePoint software is intended to be hosted on the organisation’s secure internal network connection, where site security and technical issues are managed by the organisation’s existing Security and IT support teams (Brandel, 2010; Diffin, Chirombo, & Nangle, 2010; The Agency, 2014c). This means that the privacy of any information placed on the SharePoint site can be managed by the organisation itself, unlike external collaboration platforms, such as Blogs and online forums, which are owned by external parties (The Agency, 2014c). For this reason, the use of SharePoint is desirable for organisations, such as The Agency, where online security is paramount and where access to other, less secure online learning tools, is limited (The Agency, 2014c).
The Agency can also easily access the SharePoint software as it is included in the basic IT start-up package many organisation’s commonly purchase (Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010). This means that there is no additional cost to The Agency to set up multiple SharePoint sites for learning activities as they arise. This aspect of the platform, can help ensure any new networked learning activities at The Agency will be cost effective, to align with The Agency’s strategic business objectives (The Agency, 2014a; Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010; Ennis & Tims, 2010).
Other benefits of SharePoint, as discussed in the literature, relate to its capacity to support networked learning (Atkins & Cole, 2010; Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010; Moore, 2013). One of these benefits is that SharePoint can enable collaboration (Atkins & Cole, 2010). Some businesses have tended to use SharePoint only for record keeping or information storage, by simply uploading documents to the site so that, if needed, another staff member can access that information (Atkins & Cole, 2010). However the platform offers more than just information sharing. The site has functions which can support online communities to work together to create knowledge, thereby enabling a transformation of learning using NGL (Atkins & Cole, 2010; Goodyear, 2014). For example, the SharePoint Wiki page, which teachers can choose to include on their group’s SharePoint, acts just like Wikipedia by enabling members of the community to share ideas or knowledge, and for peers to provide feedback, alter and add to that knowledge – thereby creating a peer reviewed resource (Atkins & Cole, 2010). The SharePoint software also enables teachers to effectively manage information and versions, through creating a document library, where a member of the community can post a document and other members of the group can then access and edit the same document, without having to create a new version (Aitkins & Cole, 2010).
However, creation of knowledge through collaboration can only succeed if the teachers and students choose and know, how to effectively use the SharePoint features (Aitkins & Cole, 2010). Researchers, Aitkins and Cole (2010), highlight the need for teachers to scaffold and structure learning on SharePoint, by setting up targeted exercises to help the students learn to work together on the site and create knowledge together. They advise that this is especially important for students that are not used to the platform or working online and will help avoid resistance from students, stemming from a lack of self-efficacy (Aitkins and Cole, 2010). Some well-structured and scaffolded learning activities would be particularly beneficial for the staff at The Agency who have demonstrated a resistance to change and limited experience with using online technologies in the workplace as already discussed (Personal Communication, May 2014).
An article reviewing the implementation of SharePoint at the University of Maryland library also explored some of the learning benefits of using this tool – claiming that it can help enhance team efficiency, organisation and cooperation (Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010). In addition to using the Wiki and Document Library features to share and build knowledge, the library staff at Maryland University, used the automatic alert functions, to let staff know when new information was posted on the site or when they were required to complete a task (Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010). They also combined the SharePoint with remote access technology available at the University, which enabled any staff who were working from different off-site locations, to access and contribute to activities on the group SharePoint (Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010). Once again, the authors of the article, like many other researchers exploring the implementation of SharePoint in organisations, also warned about the need for teachers to make sure they have the skills and technical capacity to use the tool effectively so that they can provide ongoing guidance and support to staff to use and interact with the SharePoint (Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010; Ennis & Tims, 2010; Moore, 2013). This could include: regularly monitoring and guiding interactions, planning for ongoing engagement, creating user guides so new adopters will feel less overwhelmed with the technology, and also thinking critically about the use of SharePoint and its functions for learning, both before and during implementation to ensure success (Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010; Ennis & Tims, 2010).
Networked Learning Theory
Literature around the use online platforms like SharePoint ineducation and learning, has argued that the tool itself, does not automatically equate to improved learning outcomes (Carr, 2011; Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010; Goodyear, Carvalho & Dohn, 2014). Rather, ‘how’ the tool is applied and the learning approaches that are adopted to support the use of the tool, is considered pivotal to its success for organisational learning (Carr, 2011; Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010; Goodyear, Carvalho & Dohn, 2014).
Outside of suggestions to scaffold and structure learning for students, the literature discussing SharePoint in organisations, does not go into depth about the specific pedagogies that can support learning using this tool (Aitkins and Cole, 2010; Diffin, Chirombo, Nangle & Jong, 2010). As such, it is necessary to draw on other literature around networked leaning pedagogies here.
Over the last few decades, a new learning theory ‘Connectivism’ has evolved to help educators understand and support learners to interact in the online networked space (Kop, 2011). This theory, promulgated by George Siemens (2008) and Stephen Downes (2007), promotes the idea that learning occurs through interactions with networks, and it is the role of the students to form these connections and for teachers to guide and support this process of learning.
This theory offers guidance for the implementation of SharePoint at The Agency, by highlighting the need for teachers to establish learning activities using the tool, which will guide students to form and learn from networks and connections (Downes, 2007; Siemens, 2008). An example of this might involve the teacher setting an activity where students are asked to find and share links on the group SharePoint, relating to policy and legislation connected with the new work procedures that are being implemented at the Agency. The teacher would guide the learning by setting boundaries for the activity and equipping the students with relevant skills and mindset to make appropriate connections and collaborate to support their learning, rather than simply transmitting the knowledge (Siemens, 2008; Downes, 2007).
The theory of Connectivism has come under criticism by other researchers in the field (Bell, 2011). One challenge, posed by Francis Bell (2011) is that on its own, Connectivist theory cannot adequately inform how networked learning occurs. Another learning theory that can support the implementation of the SharePoint tool at The Agency is the theory of situational learning as proposed by Ralph Putnam and Hilda Borko (2000) in their article exploring new views on knowledge in networked learning. Situational learning emphasises the importance of the ‘physical and social contexts in which an activity takes place’ as they are integral to the activity and the process of learning (Putnam & Borko, 2000, p. 4). In relation to the implementation of SharePoint at The Agency, situational learning theory would suggest that any learning activities designed by the teachers to help staff transition to the new work procedures, would need to include real-life examples and scenarios, which link closely to the actual work that staff perform, in order to gain the most from this learning activity (Putnam & Borko, 2000).
The Plan for Intervention – Summary
In summary, it is evident that there are a range of factors that teachers need to take into account when using SharePoint to support learning activities in The Agency. Drawing on the discussion that has occurred so far in this essay, an effective workplace intervention involving SharePoint, needs to involve the following considerations:
- Understand the organisation’s strategic environment and ensure the learning intervention aligns with the Agency’s strategic business objectives, in particular, any financial and security considerations, which could jeopardise the success of any new NGL intervention.
- Use SharePoint to its full potential by considering ways that it can be used to support collaboration and creation of knowledge among staff, as well as how it can be used alongside other technologies, such as remote access, to enable participation from geographically dispersed staff.
3. Ensure that the teachers or learning managers are able to effectively use the different SharePoint features, so that they can scaffold learning activities to guide others with their learning. This is particularly important for those students with limited experience using NGL tools in the workplace.
4. Draw on range of learning theories, such as Connectivism and situational learning to enhance and ultimately transform students’ learning through the use of this platform, including:
- equipping the students with the relevant skills to effectively undertake networked learning activities;
- establish learning activities to guide students to form and learn through online connections.
This essay has only scratched the surface of the possibilities of using networked and global learning tools and principles in organisational education contexts. As the financial situations of organisations change and online security technologies continue to advance, Government Agencies could benefit from continued research into new online tools and learning theories that can push the boundaries and transform the way these organisation’s learn.
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*The Agency. (2014a). Towards 2020 Strategic Plan. Retrieved from The Agency’s website.
*The Agency. (2014b). Branch Strategic Plan. Retrieved from The Agency’s website.
*The Agency. (2014c). IT Security Plan and Protocols. Retrieved from The Agency’s website.