The reskilling muddle: wasted time, opportunity, and money

I’ve had some strange experiences teaching workshops and continuing-education courses over the last couple of years (details have been glossed over for obvious reasons):

  • The learner who finished one of my continuing-education courses and asked “So what do I do with this now?”
  • The learner who, upset and viscerally offended, demanded to know why they had to learn a topic that happened to be outside their existing knowledge-base in a different continuing-education course
  • The would-be learners who pay for an online course they barely look at, much less complete

These challenges simply don’t happen in my regular library-school classrooms. Sometimes I can easily take them as a salient reminder to me to explain clearly the “why” behind the “what” in my teaching. More often, though, I find myself worried, both for these learners and for the state of the overall pool of professional skill.

It’s no particular surprise—often it’s necessary—for a library-school student to take a course they don’t entirely understand the “why” of. This is why library schools have advising; students who don’t yet have a coherent professional body of knowledge need guidance from someone with an overall concept map of LIS and the patience and intuition to match them with courses they can’t know they need, or will enjoy. In the classroom, students who don’t entirely know where I’m going with something—which is reasonable—are willing to spot me some time to make it clear, or explain the applications.

So what’s different in the continuing-education context that makes the occasional working professional either completely check out or go on a tear? In all honesty, I don’t know. I started on this train of thought because I felt so surprised and helpless over the situations described above. I do have some highly tentative guesses to share for discussion.

Library-school students have made a choice—more or less well-informed, of course, but still a choice—to be where they are, and the fact of that choice predisposes them to be open-minded about what I can offer them. Curiously, though, the more steeped in the library or archive environment a new student is, the less tolerance they seem to have for knowledge outside their experience. They aren’t quite as explosive or avoidant about it as the learners I discussed above, but they’re quite definitely on the same wavelength. I can’t help but suspect that the inflexible boundedness of many information positions, especially but hardly exclusively on the paraprofessional level, is damaging professional curiosity in some people. This certainly seems a shame.

Some of my continuing-education learners are being pushed into my courses by their management. We don’t currently ask our non-completers their reasons for dropping out, but in interactions with some who drop halfway I have seen extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivations at work. I hear three messages in that: first, that some professionals are having trouble motivating themselves to learn; second, that trying to force them into it does not create that motivation; and third and least surprising, without that motivation, learning can fail altogether. Another factor is time, naturally enough. I am always disturbed when a learner tells me they are in the course because their employer told them to, but their employer is giving them no work time to complete the coursework.

I also see a species of magical thinking around reskilling generally and technology-related learning in particular. Some professionals hear acronyms, buzzwords, or hype and immediately leap to buy training, without doing enough groundwork to understand how the topic might fit into their professional environment, or to know whether they themselves are genuinely curious about it. A few view the training almost as a drowning man might view a life-raft, hoping desperately that the topic (whatever it is) will insulate them from change. That’s an awful lot to expect of a four- to eight-week class.

As I was evaluating applicants for the last Digital Humanities Data Curation institute, I saw another odd phenomenon: workshop applicants (and there were many, some of them librarians) whose wealth of experience suggested they had little if anything to learn from the workshop. To me, this suggests a strong desire for some sort of credential as external evidence of existing knowledge. This in turn somewhat aligns this phenomenon with magical thinking about training: a defensive move to demonstrate value to employers, rather than a true need or desire to learn.

Whether my guesses turn out right or wrong—and I would dearly love to see more contemporary research on how professionals choose learning opportunities—what’s already clear to me is that an awful lot of time and money is being wasted on futile, unneeded, or bad-fit training. Clarifying, as a profession, what we expect in terms of lifelong learning, and sorting out how best to guide professionals in choosing what to learn and how to learn it, would be a terrific start.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”