Investing in online learning

As the industry begins to realise the benefits of educating the workforce with e-learning methods, Magda Ibrahim examines the pros and cons

Image: Garden Centre Group
Image: Garden Centre Group

A computer screen is not an image that traditionally reflects the horticulture industry, but as employers and trade associations have a growing need to upskill their sectors, the use of e-learning as a training method has snowballed. 

From garden centre workers to groundsmen, thousands of people employed in horticulture are now developing their skills in areas as diverse as pruning, water use and garden chemicals – all through the internet.

"You still cannot beat face-to-face and practical hands-on delivery for some learning," says the Horticultural Trades Association’s training and careers manager, Penny Evans. "But there are substantial benefits to e-learning in terms of its accessibility, cost and the fact it offers bite-sized learning."

She adds that e-learning works well when there is a need to quickly relay information and training to "a large volume of people, where there are barriers to them taking time out of the business".

The HTA last year worked with the Horticultural Development Company and the University of Reading on a pilot programme to develop training for ornamentals growers. Although a full rollout is not yet planned because of the cost implications, Evans says the project highlighted the pros and cons of e-learning.

"There are many elements to be considered: computer skills; educational levels and disabilities; the need for interactivity; and even whether an employer will simply tell a worker ‘you can do that at home’," explains Evans.

Cross-sector initiative

The HTA is now involved with a cross-sector initiative, in collaboration with the water industry, which it is hoped could help provide exemption from temporary use bans in the event of shortages.

Managed by water efficiency organisation Waterwise, the project also includes landscape bodies BALI and the APL, the Society of Garden Designers and the Turfgrass Growers Association.

The online learning tool aims to allow users to show they have been certified to a high level of knowledge about how to use water efficiently in garden and landscape schemes. A prototype is expected in September, with a full launch next spring. Landscapers and garden designers will be able to log on and complete the training sections, as well as undertaking a test, in about 45 minutes, with the cost expected to be less than £50, says Evans.

In a similar vein, the Crop Protection Association (CPA) is working with the HTA to develop a certified e-learning programme to meet new statutory training requirements brought in under the Plant Protection Products (Sustainable Use) Regulations 2012.

CPA garden group co-ordinator David Evans explains there will be nine months to a year of development, following an initial meeting held this month to begin formal planning. 

"The industry in general is beginning to move to e-learning and benefits include simplicity and cost efficacy," points out Evans. "E-learning provides a perfect opportunity to close skills gaps in the industry, because cost of training is always a big issue, particularly when you consider many of the companies and groups in the garden industry are not huge."

While Evans acknowledges there is a set-up price attached to creating an e-learning course, she adds that "once it has been set up, the costs of training are significantly reduced".

Evans adds that as the regulations require retailers to ensure sufficient certified staff are available to provide basic information to customers on the safe and effective use and disposal of garden care chemicals, there is expected to be a high level of interest in the course.

While such schemes target a specific skill or knowledge gap, there are many more far-reaching e-learning models out there.

With around 45 modules, and more being added every couple of months, the Garden Centre Association e-learning programme is now being used by more than 60 garden centres, with about 3,500 total users.

Trialled last autumn and launched in January, topics cover health and safety and food safety, as well as horticultural modules developed by the GCA including pests, compost, growing from seed and basic plant knowledge.

Better skilled workforce

Known as the Garden Retail Online Workshops (GROW), the training is anticipated to help retain people in the horticulture industry, explains GCA chief executive Iain Wylie.

"It helps to upskill the industry, as many people cannot commit to a college course, and hopefully it will help people find they are enjoying working in horticulture," notes Wylie. "Although I don’t personally see e-learning replacing traditional qualifications completely, it gives a good grounding and background knowledge."    

He adds that the investment pays off in the sense of a "better skilled workforce", while individuals get ongoing motivation and the knowledge they are adding to their employability. "We have been very pleasantly surprised how much people have embraced it," reveals Wylie.

The process of e-learning has been equally enthusiastically received in the sports and amenity turf sectors, according to the Institute of Groundsmanship’s regional adviser Allan Moore, who believes the internet provides a "major area of learning for our industry".

The IOG unveiled its e-learning portal iCampus in January 2012, and now offers short courses, as well as full QCF Level 2 Amenity and Sports Turf Maintenance, and Level 3 Horticulture – Sports and Amenity Turf, which are backed up with online tutors and also require three practical assessments.

"There is the flexibility for people being able to work at their own pace," says Moore. "Learners get three years of registration, so there isn’t the time pressure."

He adds that the IOG works with City & Guilds to offer the courses, and although they are available in colleges, Moore says he believes take-up will grow online.

"At the moment, there are 60 people actively undertaking the Level 2 course," he says. "A college would snap your hand off if you promised 60 students coming in to learn. There is a real demand for it, without a doubt."

The concept is also being developed by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which is set to officially launch its online portal Propagate Learning in June.

RBGE head of education Greg Kenicer says that securing internal funding of £70,000 ensured the project could get off the ground, with about 200 students already using the resource since a soft launch earlier this year.

The RBGE will offer RHS Level 2 online, as well as another four courses, including botanic illustration, which includes specially-created videos.

Meanwhile, Kenicer explained that e-learning’s benefits extended beyond the UK, as RBGE’s Centre for Middle Eastern Plants would be able to share knowledge with horticultural teams in countries including Iraq and Afghanistan.

The benefit of investing in online learning methods has also been embraced by college association Landex, which is now embarking on a year-long £200,000 project in collaboration with the University of Northampton to convert all of its paper materials into interactive electronic form.

Landex chief executive Chris Moody says it is a "major project" that will involve converting 600 learning packs to online tools including video and games, as well as pictures and text, in its first phase alone.

"It is being done for the benefit of the sector," says Moody. "E-learning is about upskilling the workforce. If you think about the potential benefit to learners and increase in participation, then it is a relatively small investment to make."

 
Case study: Garden Centre Group
When the Garden Centre Group went live with its comprehensive e-learning programme in March 2010, it marked the first widespread delivery of interactive online training in the horticulture industry.

Some six months of planning had gone into developing the scheme, with two technical providers assisting the garden retail group in creating the platform.

Training manager Pippa Hawkins says the key driver was the geographical spread of the firm’s 129 garden centres, and the desire to ensure fair access to standardised training for all 5,500 employees.

"It makes training accessible for everyone," she explains. "We made the decision that, while each employee would have their own individual learning path related to their role in the business, staff could also access the training from home so they could choose additional modules if they wanted to."

The group’s e-learning platform now has 100 modules – with content created by experts within the business – covering topics from health and safety to using a till, watering and use of different plants.

Each employee is allocated one of 30 bespoke learning paths, which they work their way through at times decided by their individual manager, with each module taking 20 minutes to complete.

A multiple choice assessment is then taken, with those employees gaining more than 80 per cent receiving a pass.

"We were very conscious at the beginning of different learning styles, and issues such as dyslexia, as well as the fact our employees range from 16 to 80," says Hawkins."The content is very visual, with use of audio and video, which helps to engage learners."

She explains that while some training is still delivered face-to-face, particularly management skills, e-learning has been a success in giving all staff a grounding in the basics, and saved time and money overall.

Meanwhile, GCG’s 60 current apprentices are also on board, using a combination of sessions at Pershore College and e-learning modules to train. "It will just grow and grow," adds Hawkins.


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