No matter if you have just completed your studies or if you are a veteran employee, you will need to consult with your colleagues and peers to stay abreast of the rapid transformations that shape our society. Ali Soleymani investigates how professional learning networks can be improved.
With the energy transition going full speed ahead, it may well be the people in the energy sector that are most in need of support in handling the challenges and problems they face. ‘A few decades ago, the energy management of buildings did not involve smart systems, loads of data or artificial intelligence,’ says Ali Soleymani, PhD student within the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Learning and Education (LDE-CEL). ‘Now we have all that, and there is a knowledge gap between the people who know how to design and maintain the systems, and those who know how to make best use of the data. Learning networks can help in closing this gap, by allowing professionals to share knowledge, to learn together, to innovate together.’
Learning networks help close the knowledge gap between working professionals.
A perfect match
The energy transition – more specifically, its impact on the built environment – is the background against which Ali performs his PhD research into networked learning. Ali: ‘There are already lots of small learning networks in the field of energy management systems in the built environment, both informal and formal – through LinkedIn, for example. We first aim to understand these existing networks. What are their characteristics, their limitations and, in general, how do experts in the field communicate with each other? We then want to determine how technology can facilitate their connections, help them grow and help raise awareness about these networks.’ Passionate about helping people and curious to see how people’s minds work, Ali has a background in clinical and neurocognitive psychology. But he also loves technology and data analysis. ‘I consider myself both a psychologist and an engineer,’ he says. ‘Network learning is a perfect match because it combines technology, social science and computer science.’
Social network analysis
The TransAct project is a collaboration between Eindhoven University of Technology, The Hague University of applied sciences and several companies. ‘We just finished the literature review, and we interviewed employees of our partner companies on how they share knowledge, the technologies they use, their motivations, and if they experience challenges or barriers,’ Ali says. ‘Using so-called social network analysis, we now also investigate how social learning can happen in professional learning networks. For this, we analyse the interactions on existing platforms, such as the discussion board on installation technology of one of our collaborators and several educational MOOC courses on the edX educational platform. We are interested in knowing the context and the topic of these discussions, the motivation for initiating a connection and, again, if there are any barriers in the network.’ Extracting and analysing these data is something which Ali does himself.
Adding gaming elements to a networking platform may increase engagement and motivation
Progress has been somewhat slower due to COVID-19, but soon Ali and his colleagues will also start with experiments aimed at allowing stakeholders to share their knowledge in a more sustainable way. ‘Thanks to COVID, people are aware of video conferencing,’ Ali says. ‘But there are many more new ICT technologies that we think can help foster networked learning by increasing engagement and motivation.’ Adding game elements to a discussion forum or any other network is one such approach. ‘Some people may be hesitant to go online and upload documents or data. Others may prefer face to face communication over sharing their knowledge through a discussion forum. Adding a reward function such as badges that can be earned, or other means to provide feedback, may motivate them to change their behaviour. We will also develop methods to measure such behavioural change.’
The outcomes of the TransAct project are directly applicable to the energy sector of the Netherlands, but it’s impact will be much broader. ‘Most research on energy related learning networks is from modern countries such as the Netherlands,’ Ali says. ‘These governments are aware of the fundamental transition that is ongoing, and they are willing to invest money and time in strengthening professional communities and professional lifelong learning.’ Other countries may benefit as well, of course, as may other sectors. ‘The health industry and the IT industry are experiencing fundamental transitions as well. I do think that different contexts require somewhat different solutions, but they may certainly be inspired by our results.’
Born in Iran, and having lived in Germany, the context of the Netherlands is certainly a good fit for Ali. ‘I really enjoy living and working in the Netherlands. Everyone is so friendly. Neighbours are always willing to help out and my wife and I have made lots of good friends that are close to being family to me.’ From a professional point of view, Ali has also hit the jackpot. ‘We are a very strong team, even though we have hardly been able to meet each other in person thanks to COVID restrictions,’ he says. ‘I think it was one of the luckiest things that I was able to get into LDE-CEL.’