UNITE the Union
UNITE the Union is trailblazing an innovative new model which builds on its collective ethos to bring additional learning opportunities to the workplace. Working in partnership with the Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS) project, the union is piloting an initiative which will combine the advantages of open education resources with the rewards of learning alongside fellow workers.
"We could see the benefits of working with open, online materials straight away," said Pat Egan, a Learning Organiser with UNITE, after attending one of the OEPS workshops.
A major benefit of open educational resources (OER) is that they are freely available, a 'God send' in the current environment, according to Pat. Moreover, material from online courses can be downloaded onto smartphones, PCs and tablets which allows learners to study at a place and at a pace that suits them. This is particularly important to many UNITE members who need to fit study around shift patterns.
At UNITE and other unions, learning opportunities in the workplace are identified and promoted by Union Learning Representatives, typically to members who are non-traditional learners with less confidence in their ability. During early discussions with OEPS, UNITE's Union Learning Representatives identified potential barriers to the take up of open courses from members. These included a perception that online courses offered an isolating learning experience with limited support. In addition, the sheer volume of on-line courses available could be overwhelming for those trying to locate appropriate material.
Taking on board these concerns, UNITE has developed a portal on its website (www.learnwithunite.org) that takes interested members directly to open courses that have been vetted by the union as appropriate for their learning needs. Before embarking on any particular course, members register on the portal and are taken through a step by step guide to online learning as well as a short description of each unit.
To diminish any sense of learning in isolation, participants will be placed in groups with other union members where they will have an initial induction with a Union Learning Representative who will act as coach and mentor over the course of their studies. At the induction, members will be encouraged to take ownership of their learning by deciding how often they meet as a group and how they will stay in contact with each other, for example, by Facebook, Twitter or email. It is anticipated that this structure will encourage members to support each other which in itself will increase the skills and confidence of participants.
The initiative is to be piloted between May and August 2017 with 16 care support workers employed at three Scottish NHS Health Boards and one in the north west of England. The pilot has targeted care support workers, which includes cleaners, due to the limited learning opportunities available to this group. Four Union Learning Representatives will support the learners over the course of the pilot to ensure they set their own pace and do not to feel rushed.
'Short chunks of learning, pitched at the right level are vital,' says Janet Dunbar, fellow Learning Organiser at UNITE. On that basis, four open units developed by The Open University, of 8-12 hours in length, have been selected for the pilot (Introduction to Healthcare; Caring for Adults; Dealing with maths; and Succeeding in a Digital World).
Crucially these courses award learners an online badge on completion. Recognition of learning is particularly important to UNITE, not only to help members feel encouraged and motivated, but to ensure their learning is acknowledged by their current, and any future, workplace. The union is discussing formal recognition of online badges with the relevant Health Boards who have shown a particular interest in this aspect of the project.
UNITE wanted to ensure that members continued to feel supported by their union even after they had embarked on an online course developed by another institution. As such, the portal has been designed to allow learners to keep returning to the UNITE site if they encounter any problems, and at the end of every unit, learners will be brought back to the portal and asked to complete an evaluation form. The portal will also track participants so UNITE can monitor the learning journeys of participating members and identify any possible barriers.
At the end of the pilot, participants will be asked for feedback to help UNITE identify any technical glitches in the system and/or any aspects of the overall process that might inhibit other members from starting and successfully completing a course
Once any issues arising from the pilot have been resolved, UNITE intends to roll out the portal to members working in every sector across the UK and Ireland. In addition, UNITE has plans to adapt the content of open courses to make them more pertinent to their members, by for example, including relevant examples from the workplace.
Learning Organisers, Pat Egan and Janet Dunbar, described the support and help UNITE received from OEPS to develop the initiative as "immense". The portal was taken forward within UNITE through two working groups, one of which looked at course content while the other looked at the technical side. OEPS supported both groups by providing technical expertise as well as more general advice around guiding individuals through the learning process.
As a result of this innovative new development, it is hoped that hundreds, if not thousands, of UNITE members will enrol on open courses in the future for their own personal fulfilment, to upskill or to take their first step into formal education.