Holding the vision in times of uncertainty

In my workplace, human relationships are at the heart of our “brand”. My organisation is ranking itself as  “the backbone of New Zealand construction industry”- providing foundations for employers to train high-quality builders to meet the needs of NZ housing crisis. For the last 15 years or so we have been providing bespoke 1-1 customer service to apprentice learners in on-site training environments, assessing qualifications using professional conversations. No homework, no assignments, no compulsory textbook, texts or teachers. Instead, collaborators in maintaining relationships between diverse groups of people who come together to learn and to support learning in naturally occurring workplace training environments. Out of this constructive collaboration, we have been able to change people’s lives and help better people’s actual living conditions by allowing them to learn at their own pace. 

In the COVID era, with everyone forced indoors, we were forced to look at alternatives to our on-site, in-person learning model.  No one expected this and we certainly weren’t ready to shift online i.e. all resources were paper-based and 99% of interactions were in person.

The introduction of a Learning Management System (LMS)  was part of the business plan but at this point was non-existent. It became urgent to ensure we had a way of communicating and supporting our customers when there was no face-to-face alternative. An LMS was stood up within just a few weeks and a lot of work went into creating online support tools and courses. I have taught in blended learning environments in the past so I was ready willing and able to support its implementation. 

Our assessors could not be on-site and the majority of our learners were not at work, time was spent reaching out and having conversations over the phone, and verbally explaining hows to access our newly developing site- which at that time was not much more than a repository for an online textbook and a small number of self-assessment quizzes. There was a strong willingness by many to engage in self-study (“bookwork”)  while locked down. All hands were on deck to develop a minimum viable product. Staff were stressed and afraid, but they reached out and connected via phone or by Zoom and did their best to explain this new system and how it would help supplement learning.  Not an easy feat as its fair to say that the majority of hte field team had no experience using an LMS as a user, nevermind training our apprentices how to engage with it. 

This capacity and capability of the staff were not there and we were essentially flying blind. Throw in the Review of Vocational Education (RoVE) and our eventual disestablishment that begun in 2019, and we are stewing in a cocktail of change.

Under the circumstances, it’s been easy to lose sight of what it is about what we do that really matters. I have been personally excited and believe we are being given a great opportunity to revisit and further embed our “mission” of serving learners’ needs in contexts that support their specific learning needs.

Here’s the BUT:

You can’t be on a mission together if you’re not traveling together

A mission means having a bigger meaning that adds value to what we offer. Our original mission of providing personalised ‘cohorts of 1’ service still held, but attached to it was a mission to be the ‘shiny cog’, showcasing what authentic workplace learning can and should look like in a blended learning environment.

The LMS has been stood up for 3 and half months. We have hired agile coaches and created an entirely new arm of the business- the digital products group. All good stuff. But somewhere along the line, the focus on creating new products is leading us to lose sight of the purpose of the product. The parts of the product are not all fitting together.

This is to be expected of course, but instead of doing the hard graft of communicating to align our vision we seem to be fragmenting in silo’s- different groups had different interpretations of how these new tools were to be used- many of these focussed on increasing efficiency and making it easy to serve more customers by transferring assessment online. There is limited understanding of the purpose of an LMS but I started to hear some talking about our ability to “sell knowledge”, as if it can be captured, bought, and sold in the results of a multiple-choice quiz! But in the eyes of a number of my colleagues, that’s where we are heading and they have no problem with this.

Apprenticeships have continued to exist through plagues and wars—arguably bigger crises than the one we are in right now—and a multitude of other challenges, physical and economic. So while we do not know exactly what the future holds, holding onto WHY our work matters. The goal of our integration into new structures is, or so I thought,  to ensure that the best of what we do will be taken forward. It’s proving hard to hold sight of this vision during this time of anxiety. Change fatigue is real and we still have another year or two ahead of us keep developing and implementing our digital service.