As the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted day-to-date teaching processes and sparked the need for alternative learning methods, the rising popularity of eLearning and digital training platforms for miners is not surprising.

Working to deliver an easy and uniform approach via specialised platforms, New Leaf Technologies has taken on the challenge of creating an engaging learning process for the mining industry through the use of various tools like video, interactive elements, or animation.

While creating virtual classrooms, the company’s ambitions include awarding “students” from the industry with immediate access to instructors, peer-to-peer experience, and team collaboration to try and make a lasting impact.

Yoana Cholteeva (YC): Could you tell me a little bit more about the challenges cause by Covid-19 that prompted the need for more eLearning programmes in South Africa?

Mike Hanly (MH): The mining industry has certainly been digitally involved for quite some time, but the Covid-19 pandemic really changed things and catapulted it into the future. Operators had to think quickly, and it was no longer possible for them to bring people into the classroom for face-to-face training.

During the initial stages of Covid-19, there was definitely a panic situation where everybody was jumping online and using whatever they could, Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but it was really a nightmare to try and manage that sort of thing. From my point of view, it was important to get communications out and make sure everybody’s in the same place and managing the assessment side of it, so there was a very short stock gap type of measure.

What’s really happened now is that the mining industry has realised that using digital learning is not just for this sort of crisis management, but it has long-term benefits as well. So, there’s huge cost savings for mining organisations.

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There are lots of compliance, health, and safety regulations that need to be met, and lots of red tape when one visits a mine from a contractor perspective. So that’s really created an opportunity.

For example, a contractor has to go to a mine, and normally they would have to sit through an hour-long health and safety presentation before they’re signed in through the gate; that sort of thing cannot be done externally.

Maybe with alternative tools, this can now be done the night before they do the assessments required, tick the necessary boxes, and streamline that process completely. In turn, miners themselves, as long as they have access to a device and some data, can do a lot of the learning in their own time at home, wherever that might be.

YC: What are the unique characteristics of New Leaf’s training content?

MH: New Leaf technologies is an end-to-end solution provider; we usually speak with a client and check what technology the board has available for delivery. We’d also look at the learner profiles and the learner accessibility.

So, we would do an analysis of where they’re currently sitting and then make suggestions as to what sort of technology would be best suited for them. And that might be completely cloud-based technology, or if they don’t have access to the internet, then we could look at an on-premises solution.

We ourselves are not really content specialists, we help mines take content that they already have and they’re delivering in classrooms, which quite often is their own employee stock ownership plan, and we help them digitalise that material into a learning experience.

We have a catalogue of about 20,000 forces through our partner network that we can add to platforms, based on what the requirements are. We can take those little nuggets of learning on those short courses and build that into a learning journey.

So, it really depends on what their requirements are, how advanced they are from their own training materials, whether they’ve outsourced training, who owns the IP, those sorts of points.

YC: What specific challenges do you encounter while digitalising miners’ desired content?

MH: Well, I think the biggest thing is that quite often we get facilitated content from a client, which an instructor standing in front of a class would go through, and we have to transform that experience and try and make it as close to that as possible in eLearning. So, we have to think with the learner in mind.

That process is called instructional design, or Learner Experience Design is probably a better term to use. It’s a matter of looking through that content, we drill down into it, we think about how our learner might best absorb that content. In a classroom environment, a teacher might give an example with a case study or something that could make them think.

We also try to bring that sort of element into it, really get a deep level of understanding of the content. We very much avoid repeating what is in the PowerPoint presentation that the facilitator uses. 

So, what we’ll do is we’ll look at that document, add supporting stories to it, then we will really decide what elements should be included, a quick video might explain it better. Or maybe there needs to be an animation that goes along with it that tells the story, or there needs to be a puzzle that helps.

YC: Could you tell me a little bit more about your internet-based Learning Management System?

MH: We have a core product that we are exclusive distributors of in Africa and the Middle East, but we do have the capacity to sell it anywhere in the world. That system, it’s called New Spring, was developed in the Netherlands and is an advanced learning experience platform with unique functionality, which allows personalisation and adaptivity.

In other words, if a learner has a knowledge gap, using artificial intelligence (AI) provides them with content that relates to that knowledge gap. If a learner has a really good skill level and doesn’t need to actually learn something because they already know it, then AI will take that content out of the learning journey, so they don’t need to waste their time.

If you have already understood 70% of it, you just need to do the 30% that you don’t understand. And if I only know 30% of it, I’ve got a much bigger chunk of learning to do in order to match the same standard.

Neither of us have to do 100% of the course, we only need to do the bits that we don’t know. Then when we do an assessment, we’ll both get the same results, or very similar sort of results. If you think about that and you translate that into the commercial world, it means that learning can be reduced to a third of the time it used to take. And that time relates to money.

YC: What are your visions about the future role of eLearning in South Africa?

MH: The technology is advancing at this exponential rate, but I think It’s probably still in its infancy. Who knows what’s around the corner.

Now, we need to make sure that people are participating in it up to speed all the time, it’s not just a dip in and dip out. There’s a degree of deep learning that is required in the industry, which technology can really support and innovate.

At New Leaf Technologies, we don’t limit ourselves to mining, but I think the mining industry as a whole is a really great one to be in and I think South Africa is up there with the rest of the world, embracing technology.

We have all sorts of restraints, restrictions, and problems. We have difficulty with the electricity supply, with data costs and data availability, but I think South Africa has got potential to become a real-world leader in eLearning Technology in the mining sector.

It’s also interesting that in the last few months we’ve had inquiries from Canada, Australia, and the US and I think it’s going to be fantastic. Going forward, it’s an exciting space to be in.