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Learning needs in industry: Meeting the challenge

Rod Alford
Queensland Electricity Commission

Nev Pryor
Training Consultant

The article gives details of a strategy being put in place by the Queensland Electricity Commission to "change the face" of technical training within the Transmission Division. Assistance is given to subject experts to prepare learning "guides". Resources such as books, manuals, work instructions, diagrams, videos, site visits, subject experts etc. are selected as appropriate, and subject experts guide learners through the resources in as friendly and sympathetic style as possible. Each guide is short, with clear competency based objectives and opportunities for self testing. Study of the guide is followed by a computer issued and marked test. The marking is characterised by significant feedback. Thus learners find out immediately how they are going and are given support. The unitisation of the material allows flexibility to meet individual needs. The computer is used to administer the whole process.

Background to the challenge

Four to five years ago the Queensland Electricity Commission reduced its staff from over 5,000 to less than 3,000. The impact on those that remained was quite interesting to say the least. Firstly there was the loss of knowledge. Years of experience quite suddenly disappeared. Secondly those that remained could no longer rely on someone being available from the large pool of resources to help out when a problem arose. Everyone had to be able to do the job.

Suddenly, multiskilling was not just something everyone talked about. Almost overnight, job sharing - the need to be able to carry out additional duties - became a necessity. Training was in demand. About that time, it was recognised that one of the best ways to rapidly and economically train small numbers in the details of a particular task was to use self paced learning techniques. These are still based on identified competency standards coupled with an appropriate form of assessment, but the emphasis shifted from classroom instruction to providing an opportunity for learners to take some of the initiative.

QEC trialed the system in a recently introduced Trainee Paraprofessional Scheme. The trainees were given the opportunity to learn and be assessed for an identified task. The key to the exercise was the assessment. We didn't really mind how the knowledge was gained - we were mainly interested in the attained level of competency.

An interesting by-product occurred in that others who had been in the workforce for some time and who should have known how to do certain tasks better than they did, found a way of learning or re-learning without being embarrassed.

The Award Restructuring process has required a great deal of discipline in documenting workplace practices and needs. Work tasks need to be identified, skills and knowledge requirements documented and training developed to meet those "needs". Joint Working Parties, Joint Workplace Consultative Committees have had a role in this area, but for many industries the results have been disappointing. In particular, in house, industry specific training needs have not been clearly identified within any competency framework.

The basic challenges

Training needs can be placed into three overlapping areas: The challenges were seen as follows:

The basic strategies

The approach has been to self pace the learning material, as much as possible, using recognised subject experts to write the content. Reference is made to relevant "in-house" knowledge and skills sources. These may be particular portions of an Australian Standard or manufacturer's operating manuals or maybe a particular person. Existing resources are always used where possible. Involvement of "in house" subject experts, particularly "local experts", introduces local ownership to the material.

Thus, both in the preparation of the material and its "delivery", the approach represents a decentralisation of training responsibility.

Self pacing of learning material and associate assessment leads into the development of question banks and automatically into "management of learning" processes. These processes are best handled by computers.

The basic strategies have been as follows:

Making it work

Within the QEC, these strategies are being implemented. Some of the immediate training needs have been identified, analysed and broken into Units. Subject experts have been identified and allocated time to produce the 'guide to resources' material and the associated question banks. Most of the required Quality Assurance procedures have been put in place including use of external instructional design checks. The subject expert must sign each page of the finished Guide for technical accuracy.

The use of the 'guide to resources' concept and computer issued testing and administration needs some further comment from the point of view of its relationship with technology.

The use of guides

The guide gives directions and add on value to resources. They are friendly and use 'throw away' lines. They should give sensible, no nonsense advice. They represent subject matter experts helping learners to learn. They should not be written as an extension of the teaching process. The form used is paper based for many reasons including the opportunity for a quality presentation to adult learners. However, the use of a computer based or computer issued guide is not excluded from consideration.

A feature of the guides is the use of self test questions (with answers in the back) and various activities. For example, before the direction to go and watch a video there could be: "Make sure as you watch the video you obtain the answers to the following questions:

Q1. How many ...?
Q2. Which of the following ...?
Q3. Yes or No?
These same questions will be asked when you receive your computer issued test." This helps to keep the learners awake! There are many techniques and recommendations for writing "good" Learning Guides - most have come from experience.

The use of resources

The power of the 'guide to resources' approach is that for each Unit an independent decision can be made about the resource (or resources) to be used. For example, the development of a CAL package may be justifiable for parts of a number of Units, whereas it couldn't be justified for the whole program. Of course your first priority is to look for existing resources. All types of resources can be considered - manuals, old lecture notes, pamphlets, videos, audio tapes, CAL programs, site visits, subject experts, and so on.

While each learner receives an individual Learning Guide or set of Guides, a single set of resources can serve many learners. Another power of the 'guide to resources' approach is that the resources may be imperfect. The subject expert can 'talk' the learner through all sorts of possible difficulties, for example: "Skip Section 2.4 - its too hard to follow, and there's a much better explanation later in this Guide".

The use of the computer

As stated, the computer has two main uses - the issuing and marking of tests and (partly because it has done this) the ability to keep track of learners' progress. To a large extent courses can be tailored to meet individual needs by selecting Units and by the use of [earner 'exemptions' at enrolment. There is a host of features relating to learning program and learner management and to the controls exercised over the issue of tests. This article now concentrates on the issuing and marking of questions.

Objective type questions are those questions (true/false, multiple choice, completion, numerical and all the variations of these) which are capable of being assessed by the computer for answer acceptability. The computer can issue subjective type questions (essay type questions, practical assignments, etc) but the answers must be assessed by an expert and the marks entered manually.

It requires a lot more work up front to set objective type questions than it does to set an essay type question. But the computer can do the marking and be used to give a lot of support feedback to the learner. This latter is important in an industry/commerce adult learner situation. There is no stigma associated with not reaching the given competency level on the first attempt. The learner follows the feedback advice and has a second attempt later. Failure is not an option.

There is a challenge in setting objective type questions - it is an endangered skill. Within the Queensland Electricity Commission there has been a lot of development work in this area. Objective type questions together with computer support are particularly appropriate in the "in house", competency based training area because:

Some examples

For a typical Unit (theory plus practical) the normal process would be as follows: The Learning Guides have a set layout designed to be attractive to adult learners. A lot of thought was given to choice of font and use of different font sizes, white space, icons (not too many), and so on. In this we gratefully acknowledge help provided by the Instructional Design Unit, The University of Queensland.


Appendix A shows a typical page (page 7) from a fairly technical in house Guide.

Appendix B shows three typical questions for TEST 1 as they would be issued by the computer. The full test included ten questions many of which were multi-part, and these are drawn at random from a bank of questions. Each learner receives a slightly different test and randomisation is possible within many questions.

The next page shows the marking and feedback for the above three questions. Note that for Question 2 the feedback can show how the calculation was performed by the computer.

Appendix C shows two further questions to demonstrate some of the question possibilities.

Note the "trick" in Part (a) of the question. The learner is given a clue as to where he/she ought to be, before proceeding further. The feedback can be as detailed as you like. Remember, no two learners get the same calculation.


There is a commitment within the Commission to "change the face" of training away from centralised, instructor led classes towards the use of self paced, learner centred Guides. While this will take time to put in place, it is believed that it represents the most effective strategy overall to cope with the expected increase in training requirements under Award restructuring.

Author: Rod Alford has been employed in the electricity industry for over 20 years, as an electrical engineer, initially in the areas of Construction, Operations and Maintenance and recently in training. The author is a member of the Queensland Electrical and Electronic Industry Training Council, Queensland Electricity Supply Industry Vocational Working Parties and Queensland Industry/TAFE-TEQ curriculum review committee. The author is currently involved in assisting in the introduction of a revised approach to training as part of the award restructuring process in the Queensland Electricity Supply Industry. He can be contacted at Queensland Electricity Commission, 72 Toombul Road, Northgate, Queensland 4013.

Nev Pryor's background includes four years as a lecturer at the (now) Queensland University of Technology as well as three years in the development of systems and methodology associated with Computer Manager Learning. The author's background also includes 25 years as an experienced engineer in the electricity industry as a sympathetic observer of the difficulties faced by adults with a desire and a need to learn, but with little opportunity, encouragement or assistance to do so.

Please cite as: Alford, R. and Pryor, N. (1992). Learning needs in industry: Meeting the challenge. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 39-48. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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