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Project Success Stories - New ways to work, learn and collaborate

Lifelong learning has emerged as an essential ingredient for success in our knowledge-intensive society. For many people, this is synonymous with short or post-graduate courses. But a new approach by European researchers proves that learning can and should be an integral part of working life.

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Not surprisingly, where 'e-learning' was the latest trend in corporate training in the early 2000s, and 'blended learning' was the craze in 2003 and 2004, today, thanks to the widespread availability of online wikis and portals, work-integrated learning is the next big thing. In reality, work-integrated learning is not new and also takes a number of different forms. A case in point is go-getter knowledge workers who check Google or other resources on the web to see who's got books or case studies or blogs on their topic. After they've got a sketchy framework of what's to be learned mapped out, it's time to dive in, try new things, and build on the knowledge of others. Knowledge workers don't usually take off for a week-long workshop; more likely, they pick up bits and pieces over time. But how can all these fragments of information be harnessed into a valuable resource, a concrete learning experience? Work-integrated learning can provide the appropriate context to the users - both suitable for the topics they are currently working on and their level of experience in these topics. This 'information context' can then be used to tailor the resources recommended according to the learner's needs. So a convenient place is needed to store all these so-called 'informal learning assets', including documents, slides, podcasts, videos, spreadsheets and many more. Some organisations use Microsoft Sharepoint®. Others build repositories of sorts with inexpensive wiki and social networking software. The 'Advanced process-oriented self-directed learning environment' (Aposdle) project, backed by European Commision's Sixth Framework Programme, proposed its own solution. It developed a software platform that offers a variety of learning support services - like practical guidance, content and expert advice - for the user to choose from. As far as possible, this support is provided within the work environment, and not in a separate learning environment. It is also based on knowledge sources available within an organisation which may not have been originally intended for learning. 'Our approach is based on trying to identify work tasks and competences based on the user's interaction with the [computer] desktop. The goal is to unburden the user from having to explicitly search and maintain a user profile,' explains Stefanie Lindstaedt, scientific coordinator for the Aposdle project. The system proactively identifies information needs and recommends relevant resources - parts of documents, people, parts of models, learning paths, and so on. So an expert and a novice both working on the same task will be offered very different resources, she adds. The space where coworkers interact The key difference with e-learning systems is that Aposdle provides support for all three roles a knowledge worker fills at the workplace: the role of the worker, the role of the learner, and the role of the expert. These roles are represented by the three rings of the Aposdle logo: work, learn and collaborate. Specifically, the system supports knowledge workers by automatically recognising their everyday duties, by searching available documents and displaying the most relevant, by recommending suitable partners, and by automatically adding new resources to an organisation's knowledge network. For this purpose, the project partners develop concepts as well as entirely new tools for modelling working processes, competence portfolios and learning preferences, or how to access different resources stored in different data repositories. The learners' peers and teachers are also represented in order to allow them access to expert help. 'The models can be constructed in a rather coarse manner, and provide the basis for reasoning within the system. The learning content is then automatically created by reutilising existing documents (text as well as multimedia) from the organisation's knowledge space,' says Dr Lindstaedt. In short, the interrelated pieces of a roughly designed network are orchestrated to deliver a meaningful learning experience to the user. In contrast, e-learning content is expensive to create, requires lots of standardisation efforts, and a lot of organisational structure. Dr Lindstaedt adds that 'Aposdle is a design environment for creating domain-specific [learning] support environments. We could show that we could significantly reduce the efforts needed for instantiation to about 120 hours. This is especially notable if you consider the amount of time needed to instantiate a learning system for a specialised work domain.' Coming together was the beginning To make sure that the needs of workers who want to learn at work are fulfilled, Aposdle was designed in close cooperation with potential users from three different companies: the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) in France, the Innovation Service Network (ISN) in Austria and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) in Germany. For about 3 months the system was available to 25 engineers examining the effects of lightning on airplanes and for consultants providing customised solutions for collaborative innovation or guidance for business start-ups. This ensured that the findings were not biased towards one particular field of work. Aposdle proved particularly useful for learners in highly specialised fields of work such as electomagnetic simulations conducted at EADS, where relatively inexperienced workers were able to broaden their knowledge by using the learning guidance provided. On the contrary, in customer-driven fields, where knowledge is shared to a large extent, it was less effective. On 15 January 2010 most of the source code for Aposdle's platform was made available through the project website as open source software. The Aposdle partners are keen that 'this will make cooperation with other researchers and projects easier', according to Dr Lindstaedt. 'For example, we intend to integrate results from the Aposdle project with insights gained from the 'Continuous social learning in knowledge networks' (Mature) project. Also, we are currently exploring application possibilities in a number of corporations and examining funding opportunities which would enable us to turn Aposdle into a product.' The Aposdle project received funding from the Information Society Technologies (IST) initiative of the Sixth Framework Programme.