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eLearning on the up in South Africa mining sector, New Leaf Technologies says

A Johannesburg-headquartered learning software and solutions company that specialises in the mining sector has seen growing momentum among large miners in South Africa to move away from traditional facilitator-led, ‘classroom’-style training in favour of eLearning programs that reduce costs and increase productivity.

This evolution is coming at the same time as the country’s mining industry is facing pressure to cut costs, increase productivity and remain viable, “let alone operate profitably”, Mike Hanley, Managing Director of New Leaf Technologies, the company in question, says.

Figures for the country’s production released last week by Statistics South Africa paint a grim picture of the local mining industry, New Leaf said.

Production output for the June quarter shrank by 73.1%, the third most affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, after construction at 76.6% and manufacturing at 74.91%. This was already coming off a relatively low base – six months ago, Statistics South Africa released data on the performance of mining for 2019, showing that production was 1.3% lower than the year before.

These pressures are one of the reasons for the upturn in demand for eLearning programs, which can reduce costs and increase productivity, according to the company.

One of South Africa’s largest and foremost black-empowered resource companies, and a leading coal producer, recently signed up as an eLearning client. The world’s second-largest metals and mining corporation, and an independent global organisation of engineers and scientists consulting to the natural-resource industries, have also gone down the eLearning route.

“Cost savings are a major benefit for mining companies embarking on eLearning for their employees, as it does away with having to fly in, accommodate and pay a daily rate for training facilitators, eliminates the need for other non-essential training personnel, and reduces the amount of off-the-job time employees need for training,” New Leaf says. “For companies with several operations scattered around the country (or the continent, or even the world), ongoing consistency is ensured, with entire workforces trained using the same content at the same level.”

The training content, which can be designed and sent out through a central point, is “entertaining and captivating”, which leaves a memorable impression on the employee, according to New Leaf. “And eLearning systems have also helped mining companies to streamline their types of training and address skills gaps: eLearning is a great way of tracking employee training progress, as well as their experiences of what’s been taught, which in turn means that gaps can be quickly and efficiently addressed,” it said.

Hanly noted: “While mining is a highly mechanical process, it’s also been heavily impacted by global digitisation.”

New, sophisticated technology is transforming mining operations, which means that existing skill sets are continually needing to advance, with drill operators, blast hole engineers, etc being affected.

“For South Africa’s mining labour force to remain competitive internationally, the industry has to address these needs,” New Leaf said.

An additional complication is that only 14% of miners have a “post-matric qualification”, according to data released by the Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA) in South Africa. The education level among the 460,000 employed in the sector is also compromising its ability to mine more efficiently, compared with other key markets like Australia, Brazil, Canada and Chile, New Leaf claims. The MQA’s sector skills plan, released in 2018, revealed skills shortages and experience exist too, including those of mining managers, mining planners, and mining and rock engineers.

“The quality of courseware and how it’s shared through eLearning can address many of these skills gaps, and retain staff rather than lose them,” Hanly says.

New Leaf’s courseware is adapted to address specific challenges, with the imperative being on the eLearning provider to ensure the material is captivating and engaging, as well as meeting the educational needs of employees from a variety of demographics.

“Instructional design is important as a means of holding trainees’ attention while explaining sometimes difficult concepts,” Hanly says.

For this reason, the course material is normally multimedia in nature, combining words and graphics, ensuring it is engaging, memorable and stimulating. A combination of 3D modelling and animation, along with virtual reality and augmented reality material, is being increasingly integrated with course content.

Hanly added: “Courseware needs to grab attention, but also must be aligned with the company’s needs. It must stimulate prior knowledge and build on current skills levels. It needs to present information in a storytelling format, which may often involve gamification and interactive video. And it should be guiding in nature too, providing support to learners who may grapple with difficult concepts. To break the monotony, allowing learners to provide feedback is also a great way to retain their interest, and measure effectiveness.”

The courseware, which can be designed and scaled according to a company’s needs, can also be updated on an internet-based Learning Management System (LMS) licensed to a mining company and accessed by employees anywhere in the world, or an LMS system can be set up on a company’s premises and accessed remotely, provided the employee has a reasonable internet connection.

Hanly concluded: “We believe it’s only a matter of time before mining in South Africa becomes a champion for eLearning progression in this country.”