For the last three years, the Olive Group has been deploying online apprenticeship programmes in an attempt to bridge the skills gaps between education and employment.
Brendan Kavanagh, Olive Group’s chief executive, said this is a real problem across a range of professions.
“When people think of apprenticeships they tend to think of crafts and trades, but we’ve worked with professionals,” he said.
Delivering online training suits both businesses and employees, he said: businesses get better trained staff, and employees get to climb the career ladder.
“There’s a massive trend towards on-the-job training. We’re now deploying MBA courses, leadership courses and cybersecurity. The needle is moving toward growing your career and up-skilling within the work environment.”
That work environment can be in any industry, and Olive Group’s clients include businesses in construction, retail, manufacturing and healthcare, among others.
As of last March, each course is deployed using Olive Group’s own in-house developed platform, My Virtual Tutor.
My Virtual Tutor is different from traditional video-conferencing applications that tend to limit the user to communication capabilities, and instead uses a learner-centric approach.
It incorporates a learning management system, mobile apps and document management to allow tutors and learners to engage with each other, submit and assess coursework, track progress in real time, set goals and build individual learner programmes to be reviewed and audited by assessors.
The platform also helps tutors to map and co-ordinate the roll-out of customised learning materials and content, and many of the courses are created, or co-created by Olive Group.
The key is personalisation, said Kavanagh — something only digital platforms can deliver, and something that requires bespoke educational software.
“The great thing about digital is that you can focus the subject to individual needs. The content has to be changed significantly, though; it can’t be [just] PowerPoint online. It has to be interactive,” he said.
Interactivity helps learners by increasing engagement.
“Forrester [Research] is saying retention rates are moving from about 15 per cent in the classroom to 85 per cent with online. That surprises people, but, remember, they’re learning at their own pace,” he said.
The launch of My Virtual Tutor follows successful pilots with large multinational organisations and is intended to tap into the further education market in Ireland and abroad, including Britain and US where educational technology and e-learning are flourishing.
In Ireland, the company works with business associations including Ibec, the Restaurants Association of Ireland and Retail Excellence Ireland to provide relevant, accredited employee training to businesses.
Classes can include teaching, graphic and multimedia elements, video content and even virtual reality (VR).
The rush online
The launch couldn’t have come at a better time: when the coronavirus hit, all learning, whether it was school, further or higher education, or workplace training, either went online or it went dark.
“There’s a trend away from classrooms that has been accelerated by Covid-19,” said Kavanagh.
But the rush online has caused some corner cutting, and there will be a price to pay for this: lashing together a learning system using videoconferencing software degrades the experience for the learner and makes life difficult for the instructor.
“Some of the video conferencing platforms [that people have deployed in a panic] really aren’t suitable for education. Some have had security problems, number one, but [also] they’re not education software. We provide custom learning pathways, candidate tracking and so on. The video side has to be sophisticated, of course, to allow one-to-ones, as well as breaking students out into groups.”
Kavanagh said that Olive Group has proved the validity of the teaching methods. Initially working with highly systematised forms of content aimed at specific workplace accreditation, it now offers material at third level, even fourth level in the form of MBAs.
“We come from a regulatory and compliance background, and that has been good to us as it has been growing – not just health and safety but also things like privacy, GDPR and so on,” said Kavanagh.
Olive Group’s workplace-related courses are accredited by industry-specific bodies, and the higher diplomas by awarding bodies including City and Guilds and NOCN.
If it is done correctly, the benefits of online far outweigh those of the classroom experience, said Kavanagh.
“Being able to make people feel they’ve had a great experience is one of the most important things, but that interactivity between the tutor and the learner needs to be very sophisticated.
“There’s also a convenience associated with it: you don’t have to wait until September for a course to start. And it means you aren’t taken away from the business.”
He also predicts that, used well, online learning could do a lot to keep teaching institutions from having to close their doors forever.
“It could be the saviour of the smaller universities and other learning institutes, but some are not there on the technology. I’m on the phone every day to the deans of faculties and presidents of universities and they didn’t realise how far behind they were.”