Dr Janene Piip and Dr Anna Fraszczyk present us with the results of an extensive survey on digital learning they carried out earlier this year
When we launched our ‘Barriers to digital learning in rail’ online survey in April 2018, we did not really know what to expect from our respondents. We only knew that our personal experiences of working in rail related academia and industry environments showed us numerous obstacles that exist in moving rail education and training into the 21st Century.
But these environments also allowed us to meet some brave individuals who are ready to experiment with new media and enter the eLearning era in rail. Here we report on academic and training perspectives on eLearning in rail.
31 individuals aged from 27 to 72 working in rail academia and other relevant areas responded to the online survey in April and May 2018. They represent 15 countries and the majority had some experience in delivering or participating in an online course. Next, we approached six respondents based in the USA, Austria, Switzerland, the UK and Australia for follow-up interviews.
Perception of eLearning
The idea of eLearning is that it can take place anywhere and all learners need is a device to access a course content. This device could be a mobile phone, a tablet, a laptop or a fixed computer.
A lecturer from Croatia said that eLearning is: ‘Today’s normal way of learning new topics.’ Overall, eLearning is perceived as a positive development, especially, as one of the respondents, a lecturer from Germany, said: ‘It is a good opportunity for students who want or need to work at home or are not able to come to the university.’
The online learning market is growing and there are already many dedicated platforms, paid and free, offering online content. But still very little content is available online in rail specific topics.
However, there is some optimism and belief that ‘(eLearning) may shift the market for higher education institutions dramatically as MOOC’s present much more economies of scale’ according to a lecturer from Brazil. Despite overall optimism, some recognize that eLearning is ‘sometimes isolated and frustrating when things go wrong’.
What about teachers?
eLearning is obviously designed by people and if sessions are live, delivered by people, too. Therefore, there is no fear that technology will eliminate teachers from an education equation. But the respondents recognize that the teachers’ role might change from a driver to facilitator of knowledge.
As one respondent, a lecturer from Germany, said: ‘Even eLearning needs a guiding person (professional educator) and the students need someone to reflect and discuss their learning.’
eLearning is still seen as a complementary activity, not the only way to learn. The respondents see its benefits in targeting large quantities of perhaps difficult to reach and varied groups of students but also highlight that it is still just a tool.
They recognise the enormous prospects the Internet offers and realize that ‘eLearning gives teachers the opportunity to send their voice and material not only inside their classroom, but also reach well beyond it’ a lecturer from Egypt said. Therefore, eLearning has a potential to enhance the teacher’s status ‘as long as they are proficient in the use of the required tools to develop and manage eLearning platforms’.
Some limitations were identified by the respondents and these overall relate to the three issues of: time, training and support required to achieve a good level of competency on digital platforms and tools by teachers.
These limitations cause negative feelings, which this lecturer from the United Kingdom expands upon: ‘I feel bad that I don’t engage more with digital technologies in my own teaching.’
The reality of course delivery
Higher education and vocational training providers are preparing graduates for a career in the rail industry that will be impacted greatly by digitisation and artificial
intelligence. Many courses and modes of delivery will become obsolete in the future as students demand more flexible and accessible modes of delivery.
The one thing that will not be obsolete in the short term is the ability of humans to collaborate, problem solve and devise creative solutions. So, it is surprising that rail courses continue in the main to be in a face to face format on campus only.
Our research found that there is limited innovation in learning methodologies in rail courses, identified across the board in our research. This flow-on effect is demonstrated in the industry where eLearning is not utilised to its full capacity.
This researcher from the United Kingdom offers up an example: ‘From my experience with the rail organisations that I have worked for, done some research in, digital learning doesn’t sit anywhere there really.
‘There’s a tiny bit of digital learning for things like contractors that come in, they do the safety module, and it might last five minutes. That’s usually on a computer on the side there somewhere. Other than that, I’ve never seen any examples of digital learning anywhere within the rail industry in the companies that I’ve been to.’
Knowledge management and cost benefits
When there is no direction or strategy around eLearning, we found that staff in educational organisations are reluctant to innovate with new learning methodologies.
This is based on a number of factors we identified including the increase of work required to create eLearning courses but little reward in the short term, higher value placed on experts who can teach in front of a class and higher education business models that favour on campus study, as just a few reasons.
Our respondents believed that by working together, education providers and industry could develop solutions that have cost and learning benefits to both parties, for example, collaboration between education providers and companies on the content and learning methodologies.
In this example relating to track diagnostics, the interview respondent, a lecturer from Switzerland, describes where eLearning could be used consistently without having to prepare the material each time: ‘Let me give you a quick example, if I may. If you are doing track diagnostics, there are certain principles which are seen everywhere but the geographical locations have their own specific handling; there’s a mud which is more wet, or it is very dry, this could be very different. So maybe this requires special training, but the rest could be done pretty consistently.’
We are working on a number of scientific papers where results of the study and recommendations for academic and training sector will be presented. Follow us on LinkedIn to get more updates. If you have developed any rail courses in an eLearning format we would like to hear about your successes and learning along the way.
Fraszczyk, A and Piip, J. (2018) eLearning courses in Rail. The International Seminar for Railway Education and Training 2018. 16-18 April 2018, Birmingham, UK