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Championing elearning at the National Autistic Society


Many organisations flounder when introducing self-paced learning materials for the first time, but The National Autistic Society used eLearning faciltators to provide crucial support and pave the way for success.

Like many other organisations The National Autistic Society (NAS) recently found itself in a situation where it had to reduce overhead costs in order to be more competitive. The budget that was previously used for L&D (and associated costs such as travel and accommodation) needed to be directed elsewhere. They also needed to save on time spent away from usual duties, which was particularly challenging for the organisation. 

Traditionally most training, including IT training, had been classroom based, and even though the NAS used a national provider to deliver their IT training, it often involved staff having to travel to training centres and sometimes involved overnight stays. As the NAS was considering how to address this, the organisation that provided IT training ceased trading, so as well as having to reduce costs, the charity had to look for a new provider.

It made sense to consider how learning technologies could help increase the flexibility of learning across multiple locations, increase the offering of learning and reduce cost. So the NAS engaged with other like-minded charities to share resources, becoming a member of the Charity Learning Consortium (CLC).

Getting buy in 

The NAS had some limited experience of eLearning, initially using CD-Rom based training, and, from 2007, online learning was used to deliver basic health and safety training to desk-based office staff. This worked fairly well, particularly as health and safety was a mandatory part of the induction process. However, implementing a much wider programme presented its own challenges.
"However, 18 months into the project, the NAS realised that just making eLearning available was not going to drive usage."
The NAS started off with a softly, softly approach, in order to gently introduce the change. As a care organisation, its employees tend to be ‘people’ people. The NAS predicted that a change from face to face training would be difficult for staff: it is what staff were used to and for many what they preferred. The NAS started implementing the changes by identifying those employed, or with additional duties, for coordinating and managing staff training.
However, 18 months into the project, the NAS realised that just making eLearning available was not going to drive usage. Registrations were not increasing and a new approach was needed.
The decision was taken to start pushing eLearning by identifying potential champions within teams and inviting them to become eLearning Facilitators – ELFs for short! The ELF role was formalised, with a clear structure and set targets that they have to report on. The four elements of the role are:
  • To promote and champion eLearning within their teams
  • Register users, make sure training records are completed and facilitate learning by helping learners use the eLearning zone and making sure that they are given time to learn.
  • Monitor quality and ensure that learners are completing course evaluations
  • Network and share ideas with each other
The first step was to encourage interest and enthusiasm in the potential ELFs. The best way to do that was to ensure they also had a positive experience of using learning technologies themselves. So, to launch the programme, the NAS held a web conference, rather than a face to face event.
They also wanted to introduce an element of fun! The network was launched over the Christmas period so the role was likened to being one of Santa’s elves – a play on the acronym ELF. The project team responsible for eLearning sent out gifts to the potential ELFs and told them they could not open them until the web conference. 
"The NAS are really pleased with the way the programme is now looking and intend to set targets on a regular basis"
 The gifts were very simple, but related to one of the four different elements of the role. A sticker to remind them they were an eLearning champion, a laminated card with contact details of the project implementation team in case they needed help with user registration, a chocolate bar symbolising a reward for completing evaluations and a pencil to write down their ideas. The web conference was a great success and the ELF network was established.

The ELF programmes are just the first step to eLearning success. The NAS has also learned of successes that other Charity Learning Consortium members have had in making some eLearning courses mandatory, and now include mandated content.

It has moved from classroom-based learning to an online course for their equality and diversity training. For medication training there will be a blended approach. These subjects are currently delivered in a traditional way by attending a face to face course. They intend to change this by using short eLearning courses which will be supplemented by coaching, mentoring and webinars. 

The role of the ELFs will then be to support learners through these mandatory courses, help make it a pleasurable experience and then encourage learners to take other courses that are available. The NAS is really pleased with the way the programme is now looking and intend to set targets on a regular basis, send out newsletters to the facilitators, keep their eLearning site vibrant and interesting and - most importantly - report on and celebrate success.
Whilst still fairly near the beginning of their eLearning journey, the NAS has learned a lot during a short time and have some top tips to share:

Dos and don’ts for establishing a local eLearning champion network

  • Don’t underestimate how long it takes to embed eLearning. It’s not something that happens overnight but local support can accelerate uptake
  • Do engage potential champions in a fun and meaningful way to build enthusiasm and commitment
  • Don’t assume that when you make eLearning resources available that people will know about them, know how to use them and then use them. Help your champions to create awareness of the material and make sure that people have the skill sets to be able to use them.
  • Do make sure your champions can provide admin support and know how to answer simple questions, like "how do I reset my password" and also know how to upload information, freeing up time for project leaders to focus on higher level deliverables that will give you impact.
  • Do allow your champions to have time to play; it gives confidence when setting up a new system.
  • Don’t keep all your knowledge about what you are doing to yourself - what happens when that person leaves or you need somebody else to do something when you can’t? Regular sharing makes all the difference.
  • Do refer to your champions as that (or facilitators) rather than by acronyms. The NAS has decided to drop the term ELF  - an acronym means nothing to anybody else and even fun ones like ELF can take the focus away from the real issue if you’re not careful, and possibly even dumb down the role.
  • Don't make eLearning a fix for everything….use it when it really is the best option and blend as appropriate .

About the National Autistic Society

The National Autistic Society (NAS) is the UK’s leading charity for people affected by autism. It has more than 19,000 members and 100 local branches providing specialist services to around 100,000 people. The NAS has a 3,000 strong workforce.
This article was written - in coordination with The National Autistic Society - by Towards Maturity - the not-for-profit research organisation which aims to improve the impact of learning technologies at work. The Charity Learning Consortium is the largest group of UK charities which collaborate to make eLearning affordable


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