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m-Workplace learning @ ITC-ILO Design thinking for developing innovative practices at work

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Alessia Messuti
3 March 2014

Background and rationale

The issue of workplace learning has become increasingly important in the development of workforce skills in a time of increasing globalization, new technology and changing patterns of work. In fact, promoting workplace learning, in the context of lifelong learning ensures that workers’ skills are constantly renewed and adapted.

However in such context of increased competition, it is difficult to find suitable time for attending formal training sessions. Workplace-learning initiatives are also often geared towards providing quick access to content-driven instruction. As a result, professional staff are relying more, and more often, on informal initiatives where learning happens at the moment of need.

This presentation outlines the approach of an applied research project intended to facilitate the learning at/for work of learning and development professionals by means of mobile technology. The focus of the educational approach is to seek whether the use of digital mobile media can support social learning and networked learning at work. The overall project was informed by a comprehensive learning needs analysis conducted at ITC-ILO between December 2012 and March 2013 to organise staff development activities in a more strategic way; moreover, previous experiences and projects conducted by the ITC-ILO pointed out the potential of mobile technologies as a means to facilitate learning and knowledge sharing with ITC-ILO beneficiaries as well as to allow the extended participation of staff in professional, work-based communities.

The results discussed below represent an exemplary overview of preliminary findings.

Approach and methods

The research approach moved progressively beyond the traditional instructional design towards design thinking methodologies focusing on the need as a first element.

Design thinking is a structured approach to generate and evolve ideas and provide innovative solutions. It is a human-cantered, collaborative and experimental approach which begins by understanding the needs and motivation of people, followed by translating them into frameworks and opportunities (abstract thinking), solutions and prototypes (tangible solutions), and finally realising solutions through rapid revenue and implementation planning. However design thinking was meant to be used for big corporations, we can use this approach to address any challenge, especially those that focus on the design and development of learning experiences.

Results from first phase

Firstly, a comprehensive learning needs analysis was conducted at  ITC-ILO consisting out of three different phases: online survey to assess individual learning needs, team meetings to assess team learning needs and focus groups to gather important elements for the organizational learning strategy.

The first noteworthy fact that emerged from the survey was that 35% of staff did not engage in any form of training in 2012; and almost 50% of staff did not attend any language training even if the staff generally perceives language competencies as essential to the work at the ITC-ILO.

Generally speaking, staff indicated that more investment in alternative development/delivery learning modalities other than formal training would be welcome such as: refresher courses, more career development opportunities, more e-Learning opportunities, more informal lunchtime sessions, more staff exchanges among sectors.

Secondly, a qualitative literature review was done to gain an in-depth-understanding of the “mobile learning” and “workplace learning” concepts, and to identify good practices of using mobile technology for continuous learning at work.

Mobile workplace learning has been framed according to the following definition: “the processes of coming to know, and of being able to operate successfully in, and across, new and ever changing contexts, including learning for, at and through work, by means of mobile devices.” (Pachler, Bachmair, & Cook, 2010; Pachler et al., 2011)

The definition stresses the importance of mobile learning for knowledge application rather than for knowledge acquisition by stressing the practical aspect of being able to operate successfully. A review of the five moments of learning need by Gottfredson and Mosher (2011) reveal that three moments are most appropriate for mobile learning: when trying to remember, when things change, when something goes wrong.

Thirdly, a qualitative field study was conducted to gain an in-depth understanding of (potential) mobile learning practices at ITC-ILO work-based settings.  For this purpose, 20 staff members belonging, including activity managers, programme assistants, senior managers and interns from different departments were interviewed. Visual facilitation techniques were used to facilitate discussion around the topics of workplace learning, interest towards training at work, mobile behaviours and interest in connecting mobile technology with learning processes.

On a general basis, interviewed people stressed the fact that learning at work mostly happens through sharing with others, through targeted interaction (individual meetings) and systematic follow-up actions rather than only relying on formal learning interventions. In addition to this, 30% of the interviewees confirmed that most of their learning happened through coaching. Mobile technology is already embedded in their life in form of different devices and is usually associated with better communication and organization, accessible information, and entertainment but also with time consuming aspects and privacy concerns.

Interpretation and questions to be addressed

Building on these findings, mobile learning has to be “on the spot” meaning that it has to be framed in a specific context, a concept not acknowledged by “anywhere, anytime” (David Parson, The Future of Mobile Learning and Implications for Education and Training). It has to be taken into account that we are not always able to learn and that we rarely learn while physically moving. But it is true that we tend to take our learning tools with us to the appropriate places.

An educational framework needs to be conceptualised to explore to what extent mobile technology can integrate ITC-ILO staff development learning activities. In particular, the framework should include the following elements: the learners, the learning goal  and the tools (mobile technology)  that are used to mediate; the learning context (physical or social), and communication among learners. In other words:

1) how it will be possible to create relevant mobile learning spots that augment informal learning, knowledge sharing and serendipity (Learning goal) by means of effective and improved interaction (Communication) within and outside the organization;

2) how personal learning devices can contribute to the personalization and appropriation of learning experiences, where the “m” that usually stands for “mobile” can easily be perceived as “me” (Learning tool).

3) How it will be possible to increase motivation towards learning at work through networking and gamification.



Ally, M., Tsinakos, A., (2014) Increasing access through mobile learning.

Frohberg, D., Goth, C., Schwabe, G. (2009) Mobile learning projects- a critical analysis of the state of the art.

Goffretdson, C., Mosher, B., (2011), Performance support at the moment of need.

IDEO, (2013) Design thinking for educators.

Pimmer, C., Pachler, N., Attwell, G. (2010), Towards work-based mobile learning: what we can learn from the fields of work-based learning and mobile learning

Sharples, M., Taylor, J., Vavoula, G. (2005) Towards a theory of mobile learning.

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