USDA will debut new version of online learning platform

A leading government online learning program that serves as a model for job training programs in China soon will allow federal employees to use more social media tools for training.

The Agriculture Department's program, AgLearn, is scheduled for an upgrade to a new version of its supporting software, allowing it to provide its employees with blogs and wikis related to their training, Stanley Gray, USDA's director of e-training told a group of Chinese trainers at a session organized by the World Bank in Washington on Thursday.

"More building communities around classes, that's where we want to go," Gray told attendees.

In an interview with Government Executive, Gray said incorporating more forms of social media into AgLearn could further the program's goal of motivating Agriculture employees to seek training. Gray said, however, the move was prompted less because of specific demands from managers in Agriculture's agencies and more from a desire to expand the promotional and communications activities that have driven the program's expansion.

"The belief that you can just put content in your learning management system and people will use it isn't true," Gray told the Chinese participants. "There's a generational issue. This is a change management issue to get people to use online training. You have to lead people to it."

Kathy Fallow, a senior training analyst for AgLearn, said in the session it was important for learning management programs to establish that they offer more than mandatory training if they want employees to return voluntarily for instruction.

"Often, mandatory training is training employees don't want to take," said Fallow. "It's boring, it's a chore." Such training "sends the signal that program is only going to deliver stuff that's unengaging or not particularly enjoyable."

The issue of change management might be a new one for the Chinese trainers, Gray said, if they are used to more centralized organizations where employees could be directed, rather than encouraged, to pursue training opportunities. He also said he was surprised Chinese trainers weren't familiar with using outside vendors to design training programs, a process AgLearn has relied on heavily as the source of its more than 5,000 online course offerings.

But social media and greater participation are only two ways in which AgLearn is looking to expand. Another area for growth, Gray said during Thursday's session, is in offering training to Agriculture partners in state and local agencies and programs. If those groups participated, Gray said, they could guarantee consistent training and evaluation for all employees at all levels.

"What we bring to the table is the means for these agencies to deliver their training across the country and to have all their training records in one place," said Dwayne Cotti, a project manager for AgLearn. "The cost to support them in implementing their training is one of the smallest costs that we have."

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