Scholarly Technical Education Publication Series (STEPS) Vol. 3
Online Learning for Sustainable Women Training: A Conceptual Framework
- Dr. Mamata Bhandar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Bridging the gender diversity gap has become a key KPI for most organizations today, and many interventions are implemented to recruit and retain women in the workforce. One of the approaches is to equip them with necessary skills and competencies for which corporates today are relying on online learning. The objective of this paper is to provide a framework to guide the effective planning and implementation of sustainable online women training programs.
Gender diversity has gained a lot of attention lately from organizations and governments. Gender equality is a sustainable development goal (UNWomen, 2015), and several measures, including the use of ICT are being put in place by the UN and organizations such as Google Inc. Organizations’ primary challenge is to retain women in the workforce, encourage them to ‘lean in’ (Sandberg, 2013) for career development and prevent them from quitting the workforce due to family commitments – marriage, mobility, maternity (Kumar, 2015) as this affects their career and results in loss of knowledge and talent for the organization.
To address the issue, interventions such as; women forums, speaker sessions, child-care facilities, work from home, flexible work hours and training programs (Evans et al, 2014) are introduced. Training and professional development opportunities during the careers help retain women in the workforce (Davis 2012, Knight, 2012). They also build skills critical for them to grow their careers, such as self-awareness, self- confidence, leadership and work-life balance (Saxill-Danielle & Wong, 2015).
The training programs are offered in tandem with regular work and so are limited in duration and frequency. Continuous training is not feasible as women juggle multiple responsibilities and is also not sustainable for organizations due to the costs, logistics and loss of working hours. Online learning provides a sustainable and cost-effective solution (Pamfile et al, 2012). The UN has also advocated for the use of ICT for gender equality and to make education, knowledge, resources more accessible for women (UNwomen.org 2017). Training programs can be offered over the organization’s intranet or through education providers that design customized programs offered over their learning platforms. Although online learning has gained prominence worldwide for its sustainable benefits, there are limited studies to guide their implementation for training women in the workforce.
The objective of this paper, therefore, is to provide a framework for corporate women online training programs based on data from a leading Online University that has been offering such programs worldwide. Five critical dimensions are identified as a reference for HR/talent/diversity teams, educational service providers and learning design teams to plan sustainable educational interventions for bridging the gender diversity gap.
Online Learning for Women in the Workforce
Online learning usually takes place over an LMS (learning management system) or VLE (Virtual learning environment) (Means et al., 2013). This can be purely online or blended with some face to face (f2f) and/or synchronous components such as webinars or video lectures. It offers several benefits such as reduced time for getting in touch with the source of learning, flexibility of learning schedule, less costs for participants as no travel or accommodation is involved, long term learning etc. (Pamfilie et al 2012) and access to global resources. Characteristics of online learning, that differentiate it from traditional f2f learning and make it beneficial and sustainable in the context of online training for women are:
Flexibility in terms of time, place and method of study. Learning activities can be completed within a fixed timeframe but at their own time, pace and place. It is portable making learning convenient and on-the-go (Kumar & Gulla, 2011). These features help women to study from home, after completing their other duties and over the weekends.
24/7 learning as the virtual classroom is always open allowing more time and opportunity for reflection and the convenience of learning anytime during the day providing women work-life and learning balance.
Collaboration & Interaction through the LMS for an engaging and collaborative learning experience to create a community of learners (Obura et al., 2011) which helps in retaining, motivating and inspiring women for career growth. A closed virtual classroom creates a sense of comfort for the women (Saxill-Danielle & Wong, 2015; Obura et al., 2011). Accessible, convenient and safe learning alternative in some countries.
E-content with multimedia such as videos, audios, recorded lectures, animations, interactive exercises and quizzes to enhance knowledge transfer and better recall (Kumar & Gulla, 2011). Women participants benefit from listening to role models hence videos are useful. E-content is also far more sustainable and can be easily updated, customized and adapted than printed content.
Student-centered learning experience based on constructivism (Siemens, 2014)focuses on the issues and learning of the student and not on what needs to be taught. This aligns well with women corporate learners with prior knowledge and experience to control their learning (Huang, 2012) and construct new knowledge by contextualizing the learning to their strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities.
Role of faculty in online learning, is that of a facilitator. They design the course, provide the content and assessments and manage the learning experience. They should be able to create a collaborative environment where women participants can learn the necessary skills and concepts but also feel free to share personal issues and challenges for peer learning.
Corporate Online Training for Women
Many companies are now leveraging online platforms for training considering the benefits such as reduced costs (Anderson & Woodill, 2004) and time spent on learning (Brandon, 1997), no logistical hassles, higher retention and faster application of the learning to the job (Fletcher, 1991). Some companies use internal platforms and resources to deliver training while most partner with institutes/ universities to customize the program to the women participants.
Online learning for corporate training, has its challenges such as: employee reticence in using learning technologies, insufficient corporate investment, lack of business-relevant courses, bandwidth/Internet access issues (Schweizer, 2004). For participants, the lack of f2f interaction and instantaneous feedback, distraction, technological difficulties/failure (Sitzmann, 2010), self-discipline are some of the major issues. For faculty, the challenges are in facilitating to ensure learning in a student centric environment. In online women training programs, the primary challenge is that women have less free time for learning, are usually averse to complex tools and platforms (Addah and Kwapong, 2012) and prefer f2f interactions. These challenges have to be kept in mind for sustainable corporate training for women. But there are limited studies to guide the implementation of sustainable online training programs for women. Minar (2013) provides a template to guide the implementation of LMS based learning in a Distance learning institute and acknowledges the lack of studies on the use of online systems in higher education. Wu & Huang (2013) conducted a study to investigate sustainability of online logistics training. A similar study would benefit online women training. Headlam-Wells et al (2005) provided a guide for the use of E-mentoring for women employees, and a similar guide can help organizations increase women representation in the workforce. This study, therefore, aims to conceptualize an implementation framework for online training programs for women.
Multiple sources of data such as the information on the best practices, insights, participant feedback and perceptions of online training were used for this qualitative exploratory study to build the framework through triangulation (Fielding 2012) and to cover the breadth of dimensions for a holistic framework. Data was derived from the best practices of a leading Online University, GlobalNXT (part of the Manipal group of Institutions) based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
End of program feedback collected from the women participants after they completed a 6-month women leadership program (WLP) were also analyzed. Survey questions (appendix 2) covered aspects of the online program with quantitative data and qualitative comments. This is a standard end of program survey designed by the university to collect feedback on the program. Data was also gathered from a semi-structured qualitative questionnaire sent out to about 13 working women in India & Singapore to incorporate perceptions of online learning as well into the framework. This questionnaire was designed based on the online learning themes discussed in the background section with the aim to capture perceptions of online learning. The semi structured questionnaire allowed participants to express related views without digressing too much. This data was collected over two months via emails, phone calls and face-to-face interviews.
Data from the above sources was analyzed and synthesized to identify themes and patterns (Stake 1995). The categorical-content method (Lieblich et al 1998) was used for analysis of participant answers to the open-ended questions to identify themes from the raw qualitative data. Data from the questionnaire was analyzed separately to help refine the framework. Data from the multiple sources was triangulated to arrive at the framework. For example program design as an element was identified based on data gleaned from the university’s best practice and process of designing programs, but was also deduced from the survey participants’ responses.
Framework for Online women training in organizations
Based on the analysis, a framework (fig. 1) was drawn to bring together critical aspects of online women training.
Training programs have to be customized for a target group taking into consideration the organizational goals, requirements and participants’ profiles. This leads to the determination of the program’s objectives and learning outcomes. It is an important part of the talent development process in corporate e-learning (Garavan et al, 2012).
Clear learning outcomes allow for measurement of program effectiveness. Programs designed exclusively for women are better to make them feel at ease, to collaborate freely (e.g Saxill-Danielle & Wong, 2015). Module selection and program duration are determined next. Module selection depends on the program objectives. Duration has to be long enough to ensure learning yet not too long that participants lose interest. Weekly study hours have to be stated, so participants get the necessary support. Module choices depend on the program objectives.
Online learning platforms have improved dramatically over the last few years in stability, reliability, scalability, tools, collaborative features, integration with other systems, user interface and accessibility on mobile devices. For women training programs, the key is to keep the LMS simple and ‘easy to use’ (Pamfilie et al, 2012) as most participants agreed this was important for them. This can be a gender trait as shown by (He & Freeman, 2010) but is also important to prevent drop-out (Sitzmann et al, 2010) due to technical difficulties.
As discussed in the previous narratives, the content for an online women program has to be interactive and engaging while also enabling participants to comprehend the concepts through self-study. It should include women related challenges and embedded multimedia as respondents mentioned that content has to be organized with videos, articles and readings embedded and customized to their industry and learning needs to ensure changes in behaviour to improve business results (Anand and Winters, 2008; Pamfilie et al, 2012). Customization is easy in E-Content (Pamfilie et al, 2011). Data also shows that videos of role models should be included in the content and assessments should be industry relevant case studies. Peer learning with the lively interactions on the discussion boards is preferred, underscoring the faculty’s facilitating skills and choice of discussion topics for active learning (Salmon, 2013). Respondents stressed on the need to have synchronous sessions (webinars) mainly to address their perceived weakness distraction when online.
Data reveals that reputed members of the faculty who can contextualize the learning, deliver webinars effectively and invoke enriching discussions are preferred. For online women training programs, the faculty should be effective facilitators of online discussions and excellent orators for them to be able to inspire during the webinars and create a comfortable platform for women to share, reflect and learn from the interactions.
Participants indicate that having women faculty helps them share their issues openly. One participant in the program feedback said, “Female professors in the program understand our needs better than male professors would”. In their study on women only training programs, Saxill-Danielle & Wong (2015) also found similar responses. Some women suggested that male speakers can be invited to conduct webinars to provide a balanced perspective on the issues and this is something program designers can keep in mind.
Measuring the effectiveness of a program ensures that the program objectives and learning outcomes are achieved in a sustainable manner. It justifies the investment, improves the program and ensures talent development (Garavan 2012 but there is a dearth of models to measure the effectiveness of online training. Dorobat (2014) proposed a model for measuring e-learning effectiveness in universities, but this has to be modified to be made relevant to sustainable corporate women training.
End of program surveys help measure program effectiveness. Pre and post assessment of skills surveys are used when required by the client. Holistic surveys can be designed with input from participants, faculty, organizations’ HR, reporting managers and other stakeholders to measure the behavioral change expected in the women for a positive influence on their careers and to assess the sustainability of the intervention.
The objective of the study was to develop a framework to guide the implementation of sustainable online women training programs. It provides a guide for implementing continuous and effective training programs for women with reduced costs and logistical hassles. It is also sustainable for the women participants due to the flexibility, accessibility and convenience. The framework is a guide for HR teams, diversity & talent management teams, educational and distance learning institutes, and policy makers involved in the planning and delivery of online training programs for women. This is important since several training programs fail to address the learning objectives, are expensive and unsustainable. This provides a basis for further studies that can examine, explore and text the entire framework or individual elements in further detail and in different contexts through a larger study with data from more online institutions. In doing so, this study initiates a research agenda in the area of sustainable online training for women.
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