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Internet-Based Professional Development


Internet-Based Professional Development
by Chris Senior


Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is of central importance to professional bodies and their members. A better understanding is needed of how professional staff can improve their learning and career development in today's fast-changing, competitive and knowledge-driven world. Increasing use of the internet in business and in e-learning is having a profound effect on the way individuals work and learn. This project focuses on the internet-based activities of professionals and of professional bodies. It shows how use of the internet can enhance learning by individuals, and how professional bodies can better contribute to this.

The project was managed by the Interprofessional CPD Forum, as part of the United Kingdom Interprofessional Group (UKIPG). Funding of £29,900 was provided by the DfEE Workplace Learning Division. There were valuable contributions in kind by individuals and professional bodies.

Following a review by Graham Guest of related national initiatives, the project consisted essentially of 3 research studies:

· Survey of how professionals use the internet; 376 individuals from 14 professions completed a questionnaire.

· Survey of how professional bodies use the internet in support of learning for their members; 68 bodies contributed through questionnaires and discussions.

· Case studies of 5 professional bodies; these highlighted good practice, innovations, and future plans.

These studies were carried out by consultants, Performance by Design, and integral to the project was a workshop, held at City University, at which the initial findings were examined.

Results and key findings

Individual professionals

· Across professions people are learning a lot via the internet. Most of this learning is informal. Internet technologies are enabling professionals to learn faster and more conveniently at the point of need.

· The majority of respondents in this project are internet users. 93% use e-mail and 91% use websites in their professional life. However, it is unlikely that the sample is representative of all professionals. Access to the internet is undoubtedly a problem for many.

· Activities most valued by professionals are downloading reference materials, exchanging e-mails on professional topics, and acquiring knowledge from browsing websites. Professionals with access to corporate intranet use rated it highly.

· A minority engaged in formal e-learning activities. On average these people felt it added least to their professional learning. A small number rated it highly.

· Most professionals believe that their employers benefit from their use of the internet in terms of greater efficiency and timeliness.

· The majority of professionals identified learning needs directly relevant to their jobs. Key needs were specialist technical knowledge and up-to-date information on regulations, legislation and new products.

· Many professionals believe that there is no mechanism in CPD schemes for recognition of their informal learning; where allowance was made this did not reflect the amount of learning achieved through internet-based activities.

· Most professionals said that they share professional knowledge 'most of the time' or 'quite a lot'; use of e-mail was the most frequently noted means.

· Professionals who use discussion groups indicate that focused specialist groups, or informal networks of specialists, are the most productive.

· There was a wide variation in the use by professionals of professional body websites. 24% said they never use them.

· Factors encouraging use of the internet are convenience/timeliness and breadth of information. Inhibiting factors are lack of time, pressure of work and difficulty in finding information wanted.

Professional bodies

Professional bodies surveyed devote significant efforts to support their members' learning. Most see professional learning primarily in terms of formal learning.

Professional body knowledge management strategies were described as consisting mainly of dissemination activities (via print, e-mail and websites). There were some reports of more interactive knowledge exchange activities.

Many respondents felt it was 'early days' in using the internet to support learning. Yet respondents reported extensive provision of internet-based activities. This included providing up-to-date news about professional activities and events, information on useful contacts and relevant knowledge resources viewable on their website. A small number reported providing formal e-learning activities. A few mentioned learning communities.

The factors encouraging use of the internet to support members' learning were efficiency and speed of delivery and convenience of access. The greatest inhibitors were said to be cost/limited resources; also difficulties of getting access to suitable technical and professional expertise.

Respondents reported that responsibility for managing their website content was distributed across divisions; there was little evidence of structured feedback from users of websites.

Professional bodies gave diverse views on additional services they felt members would find useful, including:

· full text publications; indexed publications; whole review papers; better organised content; regular updates; recent, relevant information

· more CPD content; support for career development; interactive CPD planning; interactive online learning/teaching material; accredited training modules

· more interaction for members; discussion; chat facilities; teleconferencing; virtual workshops; links to other organisations; links to distance learning

Most professional bodies said they envisaged using internet technologies more over the next two years to support their members’ professional learning. Plans range from the strategic to the specific. They include electronic CPD, online courses, tutorial support, discussion forums, and increasing the educational material on site.

Lessons include some caveats. Planning for use of the internet is neither easy nor accurate. It takes a lot of time and effort to prepare material for the web and keep it up to date. The work requires access to people with suitable technical and professional expertise. There are positive messages around recognising the need for better management of information, designing for ease of use, and the value of piloting.


This project highlighted that professionals see their use of the internet as an important part of professional learning. Most of this learning is ad hoc and informal, rather than structured and formal. The internet is enabling professional staff to learn faster and more conveniently at the point of need.

Professional bodies have extensive provision of internet-based activities. Increasingly they recognise the importance of the internet for their members’ learning, and plan to increase use of internet technologies.

Arising from these main findings are a number of issues and conclusions:

· There is a difference between the activities valued by professionals in support of their learning (generally this is informal learning) and the plans of the professional bodies which tend to focus on more formal e-learning activities.

· Professionals value learning activities which are focused on their specific work-related needs. Professional bodies need to recognise this in setting up networks and discussion groups; these should be focused, easy to access and use, and complement face-to-face contacts.

· The internet provides opportunities for professional bodies to interact more with their members; this may include proactively updating them with information focused on specific needs targeted to selected members; websites should be driven by the needs of members for their on-going learning

· The increasing importance of internet use, together with the cost of setting up and maintaining websites, points to the need for professional bodies to take a managed approach to evaluating their website services and facilities. Systematic feedback from users should be part of this.

· Employers have a major influence on the learning activities of their staff. They should recognise the potential value of intranets for supporting learning in their organisations; also for their websites to be used by outside staff (suppliers, sub-contractors, competitors). There may be valid reasons that employers limit access to the internet. However, they should recognise that staff need access in support of their on-going learning, which should contribute to business performance.

· Employees in larger companies appear to be at an advantage, compared with SMEs. This may provide an opportunity for internet services to be provided by trade associations and other organisations supporting SMEs.

· There are large differences in the use by professionals of their websites. Many are unaware of the internet-based facilities and services available. Professional bodies should publicise what they have to offer.

· Professionals have a range of learning needs; many of these are outside of their specialist disciplines. Professional bodies can help members to access other relevant sites and sources of information.

· Professional bodies' approach to CPD is perceived by many professionals to focus on formal learning. Systems for recording/planning and methods of assessing and measuring learning are seen to favour formal rather than informal learning activities. In fact most professional bodies recognise the importance of informal learning. They need positively to promote informal learning and refocus their approach away from traditional education and training based models towards one based on learning driven by individual members. Output and competence-based models are supporting this change of focus.

· Throughout this project the importance of informal work-related learning has been highlighted. This reflects the need for professional competence to be continuously enhanced. The internet is a key tool to support professionals, with its potential advantage for flexible, convenient and just-in-time learning.

· There are large differences between professional bodies in the approach taken and progress in using their websites. Some professional bodies show how it is possible to provide interesting and innovative web-based services linked with their professional development policies. There is a focus on supporting their members to access and share up-to-date information and knowledge. There are plans for further developments. They should be an example and inspiration to all professional bodies.

Chris Senior is Senior Executive - Professional Development with the Engineering Council and Project Manager of the Internet-Based Professional Development project.

An electronic version of the main report is available from Ann Lee of the Engineering Council and details of the research studies can be found on the website of Performance by Design.

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