It's time for business to go to university
Quick question: what is the most quoted article in the highest-ranked academic journal about online learning?
Answer: It’s called “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers”, and it appears in the March 2013 edition of Computers and Learning.
The fact that this article was written after watching university students during lectures is no accident. For it’s noticeable that the most easily-available research into online learning is provided by university researchers. And they, naturally, look at their most convenient research participants, who are high school and university students.
Should business and industry pay attention to this trend? Should we care? Let’s summarise how widespread it is. Well, the latest edition of the scholarly journal Research In Learning Technology describes a study of social media use in learning by students at the University of Maryland. Another article shows how a group of science teachers used digital technology as part of their professional development. And there is an exploration of the challenges involved in online exams in Finnish universities.
This is only one edition of a single journal, but the pattern continues elsewhere both in general research and peer-reviewed journals.
Of course, this isn’t a new observation. In 2006, Professor Colin Latchem wrote an editorial for the British Journal of Educational Technology, pointing out that of 374 pieces published, only 3% came from colleges, industry and the learning and skills sector.
A study across multiple journals (PDF) from 2005 to 2007 made a similar observation. It found that 186 studies involved participants in college or university, equivalent to 45% of the total. A mere nine studies involved participants from ‘industry and other training settings’.
So it seems clear that universities are focusing their research on the best way to provide e-learning in a limited number of contexts. It’s rare to see research into online training in manufacturing, construction, aerospace or shipping, to pull a few examples out of the air.
But is this actually a problem? After all, most private sector e-learning providers are likely to be doing their own research, and it will be closely aligned to their private commercial projects rather than trying to expand the theoretical basis of e-learning. And it would be strange if Mercedes, for example, published and shared the test results of their new engine designs. It’s simply not in the DNA of this sort of business to share research in this way, and that’s for the very good reason that confidentiality can give them a competitive edge.
So should universities be doing more in this direction? I think so. They work with manufacturing to develop new materials and chemicals and they research the service sector to discover better ways of working. They provide vast amounts of reading matter for lawyers and they provide econometric forecasting for the fast-moving consumer goods supply chain. There is a long history of collaboration between academia and business, and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason why they should neglect the rapidly-growing online learning and training sector.
Perhaps it’s time for business to pay attention and encourage researchers to delve into workplace learning a bit more.