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‘The future of online learning requires a human-centric approach’

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NovoEd’s co-founder and CTO discusses the future of online learning and the need to move away from a ‘lift and shift’ training approach.

Over the past 15 or so months, we’ve gone from joking about ‘the new normal’ to talking seriously about never going back to the ‘old normal’.

The extended period of remote working and learning alongside the need to decentralise systems and infrastructures has forced us to look critically at what processes we want to return to post-pandemic and which ones we want to transform.

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Online learning is one of the biggest areas that could see acceleration due to the pandemic. Though students were thrust into the remote world in much the same way the workforce was, under less-than-ideal circumstances, it has presented an opportunity to bring different approaches into the mainstream.

Not only could this change how the education sector works, but it could bring a new way of upskilling to the world’s workforce.

While the online learning environment might feel very new to many right now, it’s something Farnaz Ronaghi has been working on for nearly a decade.

‘Engaging online learning will enhance employee connections and a culture of togetherness’
– FARNAZ RONAGHI

Ronaghi holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree and PhD in management science and engineering, information science and technology from Stanford University.

It was during her PhD that she built the first version of NovoEd, an online collaborative learning platform, in Stanford’s Social Algorithms Lab in 2012.

Ronaghi is passionate about building the next generation of online learning experiences and said it is the only way forward when it comes to upskilling a highly distributed workforce.

“But to be successful, organisations need more human-centred approaches to create the community and social connections that drive engagement and sustain change,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

The value of online learning

While students all over the world have had to switch their full-time education to online learning at different points over the past year, online learning could also be of critical importance within the working environment.

“Corporate learning has the power to systematically cultivate organisation-wide capabilities that employees need to innovate in an increasingly complex and distributed environment, but only if they can learn from and with each other, and only when learning is tailored to their company culture, mission, values and specific roles,” Ronaghi said.

“When done well, effective and engaging online learning will also enhance employee connections and a culture of togetherness in today’s environment, which can be very isolating and disconnected across regions and time zones.”

But leaders need to get more creative about designing and delivering learning experiences that address the needs of learners and make a real impact, she added.

“To do so, they’ll need to unlearn mindsets, assumptions and practices of the past about how learning happens online.

“One mindset to overcome is that self-paced learning is solo learning. Many in the learning community create content or traditional e-learning courses as the solution to every problem. This approach might be OK for one-way knowledge transfer on some hard skills, but it does not develop capabilities. Developing capabilities requires practice and application, peer learning, feedback and social reinforcement.”

Another mindset that can negatively impact the online learning space is the belief that, even in an online world, bricks-and-mortar institutions still hold the top spots.

A 2018 Northeastern University survey found that 58pc of US employers believe that an institution’s brand and reputation is the main driver of a credential’s value, regardless of whether or not it was earned online.

And according to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 92pc of employers view online degrees from brick-and-mortar schools as favourable, while only 42pc would consider a candidate with an online degree from a university that operates solely online, despite the accreditation.

While these studies are based in the US, it presents a concerning bias that may exist against fully online offerings that don’t have the legacy of an established in-person programme from a traditional institution.

Another misconception that Ronaghi highlighted was the idea that in-person training could simply ‘lift and shift’ to an online video environment – a challenge that affects employers when it comes to upskilling their workforce.

“Over the past year in particular, attempts to replicate in-person learning through Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams and other workplace collaboration tools have revealed the difficulties of maintaining learner engagement as digital fatigue kicks in,” she said.

“Adopting a human-centred iterative approach to the design, agility in the creation and delivery, and contextualising content via relatable and purposeful activities in learning, is critical to unleashing the power of online learning in organisations.”

Advice for leaders

Aside from the need to shake off misconceptions, Ronaghi offered some advice for leaders when it comes to creating better learning environments.

She said these should incorporate virtual instructor-led workshops, self-study sessions with articles and videos, practice and application-oriented projects, peer feedback, group projects, and mentoring and coaching.

“With online training, you’re not limited to lectures and PowerPoints. Think videos, articles, podcasts, infographics, games, e-books, web conferences and other creative formats. Repurpose existing content wherever possible and create your own content to supplement it so you can include messaging and a look and feel that’s on brand.”

She added that, to achieve long-term success, online learning should be stretched over time. “Retention is higher with more time to absorb and reflect with peers. Designing for application is also important to ensure that learning activities are authentic to your company culture and allow participants to connect what they’re learning to the real world and their current roles.”

Another tip Ronaghi offered was for businesses to start small when it comes to building online training from the ground up. “This will allow you to maintain quality before scaling your programs organisation-wide.”

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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For a true display of wealth, dab printer ink behind your ears instead of Chanel No. 5 • The Register

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Printer ink continues to rank as one of the most expensive liquids around with a litre of the home office essential costing the same as a very high-end bottle of bubbly or an oak-aged Cognac.

Consumer advocate Which? has found that ink bought from printer manufactures can be up to 286 per cent more expensive than third-party alternatives.

Dipping its nib in one inkwell before delicately wiping off the excess on some blotting paper, Which? found that a multipack of colour ink (cyan, magenta, yellow) for the WorkForce WF-7210DTW printer costs £75.49 from Epson.

“This works out at an astonishing £2,410 a litre – or £1,369 for a pint,” said Which?.

The consumer outfit also reported that since the Epson printer also requires a separate Epson black cartridge for £31.99, it takes the combined cost of replacement inks for the Workforce printer to a wallet-busting £107.98.

On the other hand, if people ditched the brand and opted for a full set of black and colour inks from a reputable third-party supplier, it would cost just £10.99 – less than a tenth of the price.

Printing has become essential for plenty of workers holed up at home during the pandemic. The survey by Which? of 10,000 consumers found 54 per cent use their printer at least once a week. Which? said it estimates an inkjet cartridge would need to be replaced three times a year.

The report discovered tactics used by the big vendors to promote the use of “approved”, “original”, and “guaranteed” ink supplies.

It found Epson devices, for example, flagging up a “non-genuine ink detected” message on its LCD screen when using a non-Epson cartridge, and HP printers are actively blocking customers from using non-HP supplies.

Adam French, a consumer rights champion at Which?, reckons this situation is simply unacceptable.

“Printer ink shouldn’t cost more than a bottle of high-end Champagne or Chanel No. 5,” said French. “We’ve found that there are lots of third-party products that are outperforming their branded counterparts at a fraction of the cost.”

In a rallying call to consumers he said that third-party ink should be a personal choice and not “dictated by the make of your printer.”

“Which? will continue to make consumers aware of the staggering cost differences between own-brand and third-party inks and give people the information they need to buy the best ink for their printer,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Consumers Association said almost 20 years ago when it reported that printer ink cost around £1,700 a litre. Then – as now – the Consumer Association advised consumers to steer clear of brand-name printer cartridges and pick cheaper alternatives instead.

The survey by Which? found that 16 third party brands beat the big brands in terms of ink prices.

Epson wasn’t the only printer biz to be singled out for sky-high ink prices. Canon, and HP were fingered too.

For its part, Epson said customers “should be offered choice… to meet their printing needs” and listed a number of options including its EcoTank systems and a monthly Ink Subscription service.

And in a nod to anyone looking to save money by using a third party, Epson said: “Finally, as non-genuine inks are not designed or tested by Epson we cannot guarantee that these inks will not damage the printer. Whilst Epson does not prevent the use of non-Epson inks, we believe that it is reasonable, indeed responsible, that a warning is displayed as any damage caused by the use of the inks may invalidate the warranty.”

As part of its investigation, Which? found that some HP printers use a system called “dynamic security” which recognises cartridges that use non-HP chips and stops them from working.

HP has tried to battle against third party ink makers trying to capture supplies sales by overhauling the model of its printer business: by shifting to ink tanks printers that come pre-loaded with supplies for an estimated timeframe; or by selling the printer hardware for more upfront and allowing biz customers or consumers to buy the supplies they want.

In response to Which?, HP said it “offers quality, sustainable and secure print supplies with a range of options for customers to choose from, including HP Instant Ink – a convenient printing subscription service with over 9 million users that can save UK customers up to 70 per cent on ink costs, with ink plans starting at £0.99 per month.”

Reg readers may remember the kerfuffle around HP’s Instant Ink. The free plan was reinstated, sort of. For existing customers.

Over at Canon, a spokesperson said third-party ink products can work with its printers, but the “technology inside is designed to function correctly with our genuine inks which are formulated specifically to work with Canon technology.”

“Customers are encouraged to use genuine inks to ensure the longevity of their printer, and also to ensure that their final prints are of a standard we deem Canon quality. In addition, the use of third party inks invalidates the warranty of the printer.”

With almost four in ten (39 per cent) people saying that they do not use third-party cartridges because of fears that they might not work with their printer, it might go some way to explain why more than half (56 per cent) of the consumers quizzed said they persist with using potentially pricey original-branded cartridges despite cheaper alternatives being available. ®

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Repligen to create 130 new jobs in Waterford site expansion

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The project adds to the 74 people already employed at the Artesyn Biosolutions facility acquired by Repligen in 2020.

Repligen Corporation is undertaking an expansion of its Waterford site which will see 130 new jobs created, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, has announced.

The life sciences company is building a new 3,000 sq m facility which will be a centre of excellence for single-use consumable products used in bioprocessing applications. The site currently hosts a 1,000 sq m facility employing 74 people, which was established by Ireland’s Artesyn Biosolutions before that company was acquired by Repligen last November.

Repligen Corporation is a multinational that produces bioprocessing products for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has sites across the United States and in Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as here in Ireland.

According to the company, the new building will be certified silver on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system from the US Green Building Council. The consumable products manufactured there will be used in filtration and chromatography systems during the production of vaccines and other biopharmaceutical products.

Commenting on the announcement, Varadkar said: “This is excellent news from Repligen with the creation of 130 new jobs in Waterford. It comes on foot of a major jobs announcement by Bausch and Lomb. Waterford is on the move as a centre for jobs and investment.

“I wish the team the very best with their expansion plans.”

James Bylund, senior vice-president at Repligen, added: “We are thrilled to continue the collaboration with the Irish Government and the IDA that was initiated by the Artesyn team. This build-out is an important step in expanding our capacity and establishing dual manufacturing sites for key single-use consumable products used in manufacture of biological drugs.

“With its LEED Silver designation, the facility is closely aligned with our commitment to responsible growth and sustainability.”

Dr Jonathan Downey, managing director at the Waterford facility, said: “Having delivered beyond our commitment in 2019 to bring new jobs to the region through our development of high-end manufacturing capabilities, we are energised and excited about our integration with Repligen and this next phase of growth.

“In addition to our expansion of Artesyn products, and the transfer of manufacturing of certain of Repligen’s current products to our Irish operations, we expect to be utilising the Irish sites to advance additional research, development and innovation programs.”

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