The economic climate has led many people to return to education to better themselves and develop new skills. Either to respond to changes to their existing role within the company, for promotion to cope with rising inflation, or to retrain for a whole new career. Balancing academic work alongside the pressures of paid work, family and social commitments and potentially even searching for the next career move is vital to the success of this endeavour, but what facilities exist to help people to achieve an effective work-study balance?

Richard Horton, Regional Vice President, EMEA at Blackboard outlines the findings of a recent survey they have carried out amongst students in further and higher education, including the role of technology in enabling employers and academia to work together more effectively and for learners to more effectively balance study alongside work and other commitments.

The survey provides an interesting insight into how modern day technologies are providing a number of innovations in educational delivery and having a major impact on study patterns. Amongst other findings it revealed that 62% of students believe online learning helps them to achieve higher results and that the majority of students now complete between 60-100% of their self-study and assignments outside of college facilities. It also uncovered the criticality of having 24/7 access to course content, with 42% regularly choosing to work between the hours of 9pm and 1am to complete academic assignments.

These results testify to the value of online technology in enabling students to work at a time and place suitable to them and to balance their academic workload with other commitments. Therefore, just think of the benefits of such technologies to those who are looking to enhance or update their qualifications while also holding down a full-time job! The value of 24/7 access to course content goes well beyond providing round the clock access to learning though. After all, there are still only a finite number of hours in the day in which to make time for work, study and play.

Rather, the real benefit lies in the in-built flexibility and the associated blending of academic and day-to-day work that this helps to facilitate. For example, an employee might be able to take advantage of some unexpected downtime, such as the cancellation of an internal meeting to work towards completing a training course. Or a worker currently taking a project management course might find a perfect example of a problem that needs to be resolved while undertaking their normal duties and be able to immediately log-in to their virtual learning environment to share it with their course-mates for class discussion at a later date. This scenario is particularly advantageous to the organisation as a whole as at no extra cost it leads to a group of people all working towards a solution for one of their current business challenges.

Globalisation and the rate of technological change have ensured that very few of us can expect to have a job for life. Even for those that do it’s almost certain that their specific roles and responsibilities will have changed beyond all recognition by the end of their career. It’s therefore imperative that the tasks students are being assessed on are relevant to the needs of the workplace and that the opportunity is there for existing employees to go back and update their skills. Delivering the most suitable skills relevant for today’s employers is already a key objective for educational institutions. Further education colleges in particular have a long heritage of offering courses to local industry and the reduction in the further education and skills budget is likely to lead to an extension of this activity as a valuable income source.

Employers are turning online for the facilitation and delivery of learning due to the demands of the workplace and the restrictions on employees’ time and availability. Newcastle, Doncaster and Middlesborough College have already had incredible success with investing in employer training schemes. So what criteria exist to distinguish a good provider of lifelong learning from a poor one? What factors should be taken into account when choosing the most important education and training partner for the needs of your sector or individual business? Obviously the reputation of the institution is important. As is the relevance of the specific courses that are on offer and their experience of having offered something similar to other employers. However, another key factor not to be overlooked is the institution’s investment in promoting online collaboration and enabling learners to achieve the best possible work-study balance.

Many business owners often bemoan the unprepared nature of new recruits for the world of work. A further advantage of choosing to partner with an institution with the facilities for online collaboration in place is therefore the added ability it gives the hiring business to go in and ensure the course syllabus and assessment criteria are relevant to their requirements. Only the largest multinationals have the internal resource to build their own courses from scratch, but it takes only a minimal investment of time and effort for somebody in the HR department to sit at their desk log into the online learning environment for an existing course to check that what is being taught is current and of a sufficient level for their needs. For example, advising the trainer for an accountancy course on which systems are currently being used in the business world and which are outdated. Such an approach benefits all sides as the business gets more employable candidates, learners can be assured what they are learning is not out-of-date and the institution gains a reputation for providing a valuable bridge for the transition between study and paid employment.

The future of education in the UK is a complex issue, yet one which we must devote time and resource to immediately if we are to create and maintain a working population with the skills needed to face the challenges of the 21st century. As existing jobs evolve and new jobs are created which haven’t even been thought of yet, a process of lifelong learning will be vital to ensuring employees’ retain and develop the relevant skills required to solve the UK’s key business challenges.

For employers, online collaboration with a college or university requires minimal technical investment and is a tremendous way of influencing the course curriculum to ensure a higher standard of existing employee or new recruit. While for the employees themselves, the ability to interact with the course anytime, anywhere via their computer or mobile device allows them to best manage their time to balance study around work and other commitments. If you’re already working with a college or university or are planning to in the future, be sure to ask what facilities they have in place to promote online collaboration and enhance the learning experience.

Richard Horton is Regional Vice President, EMEA at Blackboard, the education software company that works with more than 5,000 institutions and millions of users. A free summary of this research, entitled, Innovation in Education: The Student Experience, can be downloaded from the following link: