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L&D plus TLC: Elearning at the Samaritans


Nigel Ross, training and development officer for Samaritans, explains how the charity has moved away from traditional training for its volunteers.    

Delivering accessible training to a diverse volunteer group in a third sector organisation can be a challenge. However the Samaritans, which is recognised throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland for its dedication to offering 24-hour confidential emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, understands the importance of its volunteers being equipped with the necessary skills to operate in a high-pressure environment. With this in mind, it looked into bringing elearning into the organisation.
"As a charity, keeping training as cost effective as possible is essential," explains Nigel Ross, training and development officer. However, he explains that the traditional listening skills training that is very much at the heart of the Samaritans has been a challenge when it comes to adopting applications. "Elearning does not easily lend itself to the listening skills training that is such a significant part of our role. However, it is ideal for delivering training to the specialist roles within our branches for example for our trustees, branch treasurers and marketing officers," he says. "Elearning offers great value for money and can be organised to fit in with our volunteers' personal schedules as it can be carried out from any internet-enabled PC, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
In fact, Ross adds, last year the charity explored and extensively researched the industry standard for elearning platforms and chose the open source learning management system Moodle because it was impressed by the robust and continually evolving platform that it offers as well as its large user base, including the Open University, NHS, local government and defence. "Moodle allows users to build and administer courses themselves and offers cost savings on licence fees, which would have been payable if using a proprietary software solution.
"I don't claim to be a technical wizard, but with no budget for an elearning administrator, I needed to become an expert fast," enthuses Ross. After completing the HowToMoodle Administrator training he felt confident to leap in and create his own courses and began working with a consultant to brand the elearning site with a subtle, bespoke variation on the themes used on the Samaritans website in order to complement and echo the branding whilst having its own distinctive flavour.

Going live

The new elearning platform went live in September 2009, after nine months of extensive development and testing. The Trustee Course was chosen as one of the first to be adapted to elearning as it was previously carried out face to face at locations around the country, making it very expensive for the organisation and time consuming for trustees. In addition, as some of the material is very complex, the organisation sought a course that enables trustees to revisit any areas of it to refresh their memories when a complicated situation arises. As the Charity Commission notes: "Lack of knowledge about the duties and responsibilities of charity trusteeship may not just affect the way in which the charity is run, but can also have personal consequences for the trustees themselves."
In addition to the Moodle training Ross has developed another module: The CRB Administration Course which shows volunteers how to complete CRB forms, check identities and documents and covers a myriad of 'what ifs'. Before they take up their role, CRB administrators are required to complete the course and to achieve a minimum pass mark of 75% after which the system will allow them to print off a certificate of achievement.
"The volunteers access the courses from home, which initially led to some challenges due to the many different hardware and software settings that were in use across their computers," says Ross. "We have now set up a test page that links to all the software applications required and checks, for example, that Word and Flash are installed and links to a free download area for applications such as a PDF reader if these are not already available. We have also developed a clear specification so that volunteers can see which browsers are those optimally configured for use with Moodle."
There are already 530 registered users on the site, 210 on the CRB course and 320 on the trustee course. The next module Samaritans will be tackling is 'finance' for branch trustees and treasurers and that is due to go live in the spring. There has already been considerable enthusiasm for online training resources and users find it particularly useful being able to log-on at any time.
"In the future I plan to investigate accreditation and to use Moodle to supplement in-house face-to-face training with revision elements, online assessments and to demonstrate evidence of learning," concludes Ross. "This could lead to volunteers gaining a qualification which is certified by a body such as the National Open College Network."

Nigel Ross’ top tips for elearning:

  • In the assessment module keep the questions very clear and simple so that they can't be misinterpreted
  • Devise a method to check technical specification of users' PCs to avoid any incompatibility issues
  • Make sure you have a strategy for dealing with authentication emails being blocked by spam filters
For more information on the Samaritans training visit the website: and for information on the charity itself go to

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