Teresa MacKinnon Language Centre, University of Warwick
The Language Centre, a service department of the University of Warwick, delivers academic, leisure and business language learning opportunities to students and the local community. The aim of this case study is to document the innovations made to Business Language training that led to a successful bid to deliver training to the UK operation of a German owned utility company (E.ON UK) and its 18,000 employees. The developments discussed here have taken place over a period of 3 years. This article examines the methods used for increasing the volume of our Business Language delivery whilst ensuring that the quality of training is maintained. Moreover, it presents the challenges faced, the changes it has brought to the Centre and future plans.
As part of the income generation activities of the University, the Language Centre is responsible for delivering high quality services to the general public and local companies. The Centre has an established reputation in the area and has been actively involved in outreach for some 30 years. Outreach work often requires support from funding streams and has to generate sufficient income to provide finance for marketing and staffing. It is expected to operate at a profit. A Business Language Development Officer (BLDO) position was created in order to increase income from this activity. An important driver for innovation was the need to increase training hours delivered to companies, whilst maintaining the quality of this provision. Although already operating with many small and medium sized businesses in our region, there was an opportunity to expand our activity in the corporate sector. However, this means meeting the needs of participating companies for delivery over a greater geographical area and offering a service that is in tune with their aims and expectations.
The business language training operation delivers small group or one-to-one training to local companies and individuals. At the outset, a pro-forma is used for clients to carry out a self-evaluation of existing language level and requirements (Profile Questionnaire form). This enables the BLDO, an experienced language teacher, to discuss and agree a suitable programme of training with the client. An appropriate trainer and course materials are agreed and a set of objectives prepared for a module of training, usually lasting 20 hours. At the end of each module of training the tutor reports on progress and continuation plans are prepared. A total of 80 hours of training has to be completed for the trainee to be considered for accreditation under the University of Warwick Open Studies (Business Language) scheme. Certification carried 30 CATS credits at level 1 and evaluation is by portfolio. The framework for accreditation is calibrated against the National Language Standards and the Common European Framework for language learning.
A strategy for increasing the volume of language training was developed. This is based upon a needs analysis that takes account of the existing strengths of the provision, feedback from human resource professionals in client companies and the opportunities presented within the University. Quality control procedures include the completion of feedback questionnaires from all clients. Completed questionnaires were examined and revealed that our provision was considered to be professional and to meet the expectations of those involved. The expertise of our operation and the teaching abilities of our trainers were particularly appreciated. The most commonly reported problems were interruptions to training due to heavy workloads and difficulties accessing practice materials when travelling.
Based around the creation of an online client support site, the strategy aims to address these issues in order to increase the volume of training hours delivered, offering a way of scaling up our existing model of delivery. A virtual staffroom was also set up to allow tutors spread over a wider geographical area to interact with our local team.
Increasing the volume of training:
One means to overcome the problems experienced by existing clients is through the use of the University’s in-house web publishing software, Sitebuilder. This would allow the creation of a secure online client support site as a portal to facilitate the use of the various web based resources, authoring packages and voice based software packages used in the Language Centre. The aim was to provide a wrap-around model (Mason, 1988) consisting of tailor-made materials and online interaction blended with predetermined content to support the many different learning styles and needs of our clients and offer added value to our provision to clients and their employers. Through participation in a programme for e-learning development provided by the University’s Centre for Academic Practice, (the Warwick E-Learning Award, commonly known as “WELA”), the Development Officer was able to explore the potential for these developments. The result was an enhanced language training package including an online client support site which was presented to the corporate market, notably PSA Peugeot-Citroën and E.ON UK.
In 2002, one of our biggest client companies, Powergen, was acquired by the German utility giant, E.ON and this presented us with new opportunities for increasing our market share of their custom with the aim of becoming a preferred service provider. A presentation of a proposed 3-tiered programme for language learning (see fig 1) made in December 2003 to the Director of E.ON AG’s Academy, a corporate university, was welcomed and opened a dialogue to establish a partnership to support the Company in achieving their training requirements in the UK. The principal drivers for such training appeared to be recruitment and retention of the best quality employees, workforce mobility and the DfES Skills agenda at all levels of activity.
Language learning routes for E-on employees: (fig 1)
|Intensive business learning for relocation/ integration||Business language learning for use in some work contexts||General language learning for personal development (French,German, Spanish or Italian)|
|Learning event description||Intensive courses in small groups/one to one @ Warwick and online||Small group courses @ E-on University of Warwick’s Westwood campus or as arranged.||Evening leisure programme arranged by Warwick for E-ON employees and associates|
|timing/duration||Flexible start 30-40 weeks maximum in total||10 week blocks starting Sept/Jan/April or as agreed||3 terms 10 week blocks starting in September. January and April|
|accreditation||Evaluation of portfolio after 80 hours, Open Studies (Business Language) Certificate||Evaluation of portfolio after 80 hours, Open Studies (Business Language) Certificate||Open Studies certificate after 6 terms, online assessment for those off campus|
The unique selling points of the online site.
Small-scale piloting of the initiatives for enhancing our provision through a client online site began in earnest in 2004. A grant from the University’s Teaching Development Fund enabled the establishment of a small team of business tutors to examine the feasibility, advantages and disadvantages of online interaction between tutors and tutor/client. The tutor team reflected upon the applications of technology. The online case study published as part of the BLDO’s WELA portfolio was used to inform qualitative improvements in our support of the use of technologies by the wider tutor group, particularly highlighting the issues that need to be addressed for a multi-lingual tutor audience.
The client online site offers access to subscription-based learning packages that have been evaluated by the project team. They include some of the most innovative possibilities for voice interaction with other language learners and teachers, use of digital media such as news articles with sound recordings, video clips and interactive exercises. General information about grammatical terminology is regularly updated in a “Tell me more about” feature and a lifestyle section links to topical events such as the “Oktoberfest”, offering relevant cultural insight. Tutors contribute to the site through recommendations on the staffroom forum or emails to the project team. An investment was made in a virtual classroom which allows clients and tutors to meet online and communicate using both voice and text. This is intended to enable the delivery of “master class” sessions by experienced tutors to E.ON employees across the UK. Here they can meet to collaborate with their colleagues in language learning. All software has been chosen not only on the basis of innovative qualities but also sound pedagogic principles and ease of use.
The site’s structure also allows for a virtual staffroom which can only be viewed by university employees. This provides links to a range of information for professional development, a document bank for administrative purposes and a forum for interaction. Business tutors usually work alone, the possibility of sharing resources and tips in this way was welcomed by the team.
Throughout the developments, feedback from discussions with human resource professionals was very helpful. The online site would require a “makeover” in order to look less home-made (c.f. fig. 2.1/2.2) and satisfy the sophistication of our target market. It was clear that the virtual community approach was in line with the desired ethos of the newly-merged E.ON UK’s “one E.ON” strategy (E.ON, 2006) and the tailored Routes to Language Learning proposal (fig 1) provided opportunities to create the positive impact they required as it underlines the importance of language learning to all employees. The use of computer assisted training delivery was also an area for development across E.ON UK which was shortly to secure full rollout of the German parent’s Corporate University system, the E.ON Academy Online. Negotiations began in 2005 with E.ON UK’s Learning and Development team, resulting in an agreement with the Language Centre in December 2005.
The challenges presented
During the development phase described, the business language training office had one part-time BLDO and a full time (job share) clerical assistant. However, in December 2005, the more experienced of the job share was about to take maternity leave so we had temporary cover only. The implications of accepting the project with E.ON UK when operating within an academic institution are significant.
The E.ON UK’s expectations of service levels and response times had cost implications. All enquiries were to be dealt with in 24 hours, resultant training would be arranged within a week. Replicating the tailored nature of this training on this scale meant that staffing levels would have to be increased and this was a risky undertaking as we had no clear predictions of demand. Route 3, the leisure language Route was considered by E.ON UK to be the flagship from the point of view of raising awareness of the importance of language learning to employee development. This Route was also the most demanding for us in terms of investment of resource allocation. As E.ON UK were unable to quantify the potential numbers undertaking each Route five year costings were prepared assuming a minimal uptake of the Routes (fig. 1) based on their existing training demand. This informed the decisions regarding the staffing levels that could be afforded. We then advertised for a Project Manager (0.5 full time) and a clerical assistant (full time).
Corporate training on the scale that we were invited to deliver would require increasing our tutor base to meet the needs of the many sites across the UK, an expensive recruitment operation. In order to grow sufficiently it was vital to improve our systems for tutor induction and training, our administrative procedures and make an investment in more staffing. Bids were submitted for HEIF (Higher Education Innovation Fund) funding to enhance our services following on from HEROBaC funding (Higher Education Reach out to Business and the Community) that had been secured earlier, along with a submission to the recently established Continuing Professional Development unit at the University of Warwick. Fortunately, these bids were successful. Negotiations with the Learning and Development professionals at E.ON UK secured a small amount of funding to underwrite project costs.
Meetings were held with our finance officer and legal advisor to establish the terms and conditions for our partnership. A Letter of Intent was signed by all parties outlining the services agreed and the terms and conditions for delivery. Later a service level agreement was prepared to clarify expectations of the services we agreed to provide. The language learning initiative was launched under E.ON UK’s Employee Deal programme in December 2005.
The differing priorities, and indeed language, of academia and industry are well documented; definitions of competence are highlighted by Barnett (2004) and the importance of the creation of a robust framework for collaboration identified by Symes and McIntyre (2000). We embarked upon a learning curve that gave many examples of differing use of language by both sides of the partnership. Such differences can lead to misunderstandings and impede the progress of collaboration. These differences merit further investigation.
Reviewing the strategy:
In quantitative terms, there are some simple measures of success that can inform the evaluation of this strategy. The online staffroom forum has 73 threads and a total of 1564 views (people viewing messages) to date. This facility did not previously exist and reveals that there are many questions which would possibly otherwise go unanswered. The high number of views compared to postings indicate that there is an interested audience. Prior to the launch of the languages initiative at E.ON UK, the client support site averaged around 50 visits a month from business clients, since December 2005 this has risen tenfold to nearly 500 visits a month. The site has also been of interest to university staff with visits peaking at 1460 in October 2005, this implies that it has also played a role in showcasing what can be done with the tools available. The table below shows the pattern of hits from September 05 to the present (fig 3). A seasonal dip through the summer looks likely to precede another increase during the working year ahead.
The financial investment has been considerable, matched by time and effort given freely by those involved, but the site has provided a testing ground for further developments in the Language Centre(LC). Much of the software used is also being incorporated in our academic teaching. The strategy led to the LC acquiring a major corporate contract, maximising an income stream. The tutors involved have increased their IT skills and the project has contributed to their personal development.
Three of the tutors on the development team, all foreign language nationals, offered these reflections:
"Working in the E-learning project has opened up doors that I did not know existed. There is a whole world of teaching and learning materials out there! I have learnt to use the internet to my advantage as a tutor and am now able to help my students benefit from it too. This has been a fantastic initiative. I hope that it will continue to develop and I would like to still be part of it."
“I’ve enjoyed being part of the team immensely and I’m so proud of how it (the online site) developed. The site is very interesting and informative.”
“By being member of the team, I lost my"fear"/"barrier" to work with the computer. I started to develop new skills.I didn't design new websites but I used the site (e.g. for enhancing grammar teaching). Again and again I tried to motivate my clients to use the site. Some of them like to do it, others don't like to work online. But they all know about this learning opportunity. It's an excellent resource of texts for German as well. It is impressive how this business site developed. It offers many additional learning opportunities for our business clients”
Reflections on progress
The following results should be noted. The volume of training delivered in the academic year 2005/06 (nearly 3000 hours) is the highest we have had in the last five years. However, most of this income has been from one major corporate client. The demands of corporate delivery are high. Expectations of the speed and nature of response from the supplier at times threatened the success of the project. Securing the necessary staffing levels to expand sufficiently was slow, putting great strain on existing resources. Delivery of a project of this magnitude requires detailed planning and consultation. In a setting where resources are already stretched this was not always accomplished in a timely manner, leading to reliance on the good will of individual members of staff. Recruitment also brought problems. Hours were invested in interviewing and appointing staff, one of whom later turned down the post and another resigned within a short while. The necessary staffing was not in place until 4 months after the launch. Despite these difficulties, the online facility is proving popular and feedback on the launch of the leisure language programme was encouraging, establishing some very talented tutors working outside our local area who are now collaborating within our professional network. Our tutor team continues to grow across the UK. Looking to the future: Many challenges remain as we look to the future of this project. The potential for the use of our online classroom and voice tools has yet to be realised and there is a good deal of staff training to undertake. It is intended to enter into a dialogue with our academics regarding the nature of a language curriculum suitable for work-based learning. The use of voiceboards and the virtual classroom will be extended into the Centre’s academic teaching delivery. Further evaluation of the user’s experience of the client online site is to be carried out.
The BLDO intends to complete an MA in Post-Compulsory Education through action research based around corporate training delivery, examining the reality of building a blended learning environment and a community of virtual learners and tutors. This will include consideration of the contribution made by voice enabled tools to the language learning experience (Vandergrift, L 2002) It is also hoped that the sometimes differing definitions of “quality training provision” that exist in both industry and academia will be explored in order to understand the barriers that sometimes prevent clear communication between Higher Education institutions and industry. A good deal has been established by existing research into online interaction that could be contributed to inform the use of E.ON’s Corporate university platform Academy Online, equally the Language Centre stands to gain greater insight into the realities of global working through such partnerships.
The progress that we have made has not been easy but it has been facilitated by the creative exploitation of the networks and resources that exist within the University. When operating in a business environment we are expected to deliver according to commercial standards and this calls on a degree of entrepreneurial risk taking which is sometimes out of step with the committee procedures of a traditional academic establishment. It is vital to engage as many stakeholders as possible in this process and to report regularly through as many channels as possible to colleagues at all levels if a sucessful outcome is to be achieved. Discussions, formal and informal reports and meetings have a role to play in this. There is still more work to do if we are to establish a blueprint for future language training support for corporate business. However, we feel sure that there is much to be learnt from taking up this challenge.
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Citation for this Article
MacKinnon, T. (2006) Developing a Partnership Approach to Delivery of Business Language Training. Warwick Interactions Journal 28. Accessed online at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/cap/resources/pubs/interactions/archive/issue28/abmackinnon/mackinnon