How training can contribute to your institutional culture

This week I read a report that has really got me thinking about what impact training can have on an institutions culture. The Open Universities ‘Trends in Learning Report 2017’ is not specifically targeted to the higher education institutions and research establishments that I primarily deliver training for, but I would encourage anyone who provides training, or runs a skills development programme to download a free copy via the hyperlink.

Why would you want to? Well the ‘Trends in Learning Report 2017’ is based upon research from The Open Universities (OU) Institute of Educational Technology and details five learning trends: learning through social media – productive failure – formative analytics – learning from the crowd – design thinking. Rather than duplicating the explanation and examples contained within the report I am going to share with you my interpretation of each of these trends in relation to what I know about i.e. training in responsible research conduct & research integrity for Bioscientist’s.

So let’s get started. The first trend, “learning through social media” is likely to be familiar to you. If you are reading this blog it is most likely as a result of a tweeted link or LinkedIn post in which case congratulations you are “learning through social media”. Most scientist’s that I work with are short on time, so it is perhaps not surprising that increasing numbers are choosing to use mobile technologies to quickly and easily update their knowledge at a time and place that fits their individual lives. It can be difficult to assess the quality of information accessed this way, but there are two main associated benefits. An individual can find it empowering to take control of and be responsible for their own learning, but also it supports and encourages the development of mentally agile and adaptable individual’s. These last two skills are vital to scientist’s whose work demands the ability to change their hypothesis or study focus in an instant depending on their latest results or another’s published findings.

The next trend is “productive failure” and this is the one that resonates most with me personally. I like many others run courses and workshops that are specifically designed to update participant’s knowledge. They also provide a supportive environment for individual’s to reflect upon what they do well and what they could do better. All of my sessions involve some form of activity that requires participant’s to apply their newly acquired knowledge, as well as enabling them to identify potential barriers or additional learning needs. “Productive failure” turns all this on its head. The idea is that by giving participant’s a problem or dilemma to solve first, they will test their existing knowledge and begin exploring any gaps that may exist. This enhanced awareness primes them to be more receptive to the information that follows resulting in improved learning outcomes. “Productive failure” is also thought to improve individual’s resilience, by encouraging them to persistent when they are working at or beyond the limits of their knowledge or experience. This is something that all scientist’s will experience repeatedly throughout their research career, so there are significant gains to be made by training individual’s to accept and/or be comfortable with this. By utilising this style of learning, establishments can encourage individual’s to feel supported to identify and learn from their mistakes or perceived failures. That is not to say that mistakes and failure will be rewarded, but within research cultures the fear of failure is a significant cause of stress for many individuals, so tackling this trigger could facilitate a culture that supports innovation and improves productivity.

The third learning trend outlined in the OU report is “formative analytics”. I am pleased to say that here I am on trend having already put this into practice during the development my ‘Bioscientist’s guide to Research Integrity’ workshop. This half-day workshop is a mix of presented material and activities that are complemented by an accompanying workbook of questions. Each participant is encouraged to use their booklet for personal notes and reflections during the session. This creates a record of their personal learning journey to support them in their efforts to implement change and action what they have learnt following the workshop. To facilitate its use I incorporate multiple intervention points within the presented content. This gives participant’s the time and means to: reflect upon their existing research conduct/practices in light of the information provided; identify what aspects they wish to investigate further; decide what they are going to do differently and how. The booklet therefore provides a mechanism for individual’s to take control of their learning, giving them ownership of what it looks like and the form that it will take.

As it turns out I also put into practice the fourth learning trend identified – “Learning from the crowd”. This encompasses learning opportunities both within research establishments, but also through the broader engagement of society with the scientific process both as a contributor and a beneficiary. Some individual’s and research disciplines find it harder to embrace this concept than others, which is where “learning through social media” can help. Over recent years I have been both witness and party to some great examples of peer to peer learning and experience sharing. For example, mentoring to enhance the likelihood of writing successful grant funding or licence applications; mixed peer group discussions of report recommendations, UKRIO case studies or ‘Dilemma Game’ scenarios involving researcher’s at all stages of their research careers; public outreach and engagement activities. “Learning from the crowd” can therefore take many forms and is already to be found embedded in many initiatives to support cultural change. An example of this is ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI – see my previous blog ‘RI what does it mean and to whom’ for more information on this).

The fifth and final learning trend, “design thinking” is one that as a biomedical scientist feels quite intuitive, but perhaps those with a different background to myself will disagree. So what is it? Well this trend is about teaching individual’s to develop an ordered mind set, or thought process that facilitates research and innovation. It starts with a creative, or experimental stage to formulate a new research model or hypothesis to test. This is followed by a testing process that requires feedback, or data to be collected and analysed. A period of reflection is then required before the model or hypothesis is revisited and revised, or refined and the whole cycle begins again. I guess you could say that this blog is recording an aspect of my own “design thinking” as I reflect upon knowledge gained and consider revisiting and refining my own conduct and training practices.

So there you have it, my thoughts on the latest learning trends. I hope that sharing my thoughts will prove in some way useful and that you now have some idea how training can contribute to institutional culture.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments on this blog or the report. If you’d like to find out more about the workshops and training that I provide then please contact me via my website using the link here.

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