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On Line and In Time


On Line and In Time
by Gareth Jones

The need

The BBC employs 23,000 people who work from a variety of locations throughout the UK. Being committed to their long-term development and helping them to learn both personally and professionally is crucial to our success as well as theirs.

Increasingly, many BBC areas are producing content for radio, television and online, so those working within them need to have a solid understanding of all three media in order to produce the best results.

Additionally, new technology inevitably results in peaks in demand for popular courses – which alter depending on the latest equipment and developments. For example, a couple of years ago there was a massive demand for website maintenance and digital video camera training. And last year broadcast convergence, digital and high definition courses were being filled up almost as soon as they were announced. A solution to meeting these expectations - with training delivered when and where staff needed it - had to be found.


The training we offer is driven by those we deliver it to. The results of our research showed us that: employing more trainers was expensive; sub-contracting training wasn’t an option as nobody could offer the required level of knowledge, skills or equipment; CD-ROM wasn’t suitable because not everyone in the BBC has a CD-ROM drive and content becomes outdated very quickly; and satellite was dismissed both in terms of costs and accessibility - due to the necessity to book specific time slots for transmission.

It made sense, economically and time-wise, to incorporate web-based training as part of a training solution. Creating a system that gives people the information they need, when they need it. We realised that not only could online learning enable a greater number of staff to be reached as quickly as possible, but trainers who might normally be running such courses could then be freed up to deliver other training.

The development process

We spent the following months creating the infrastructure and content from scratch. The project was entitled Learning 2000 and we piloted it between July 1999 and April 2000. In terms of challenges, apart from the obvious geographical spread of learners we needed to reach, the biggest task was making sure that the programme contained a strong audio and visual content. We couldn’t lose sight of the fact that our audience consisted of sophisticated users of audio and visual communication media.

To achieve this we combined web-delivery with rich media stored in specially built Video Learning Terminals. The 20 learning terminals were loaded with 45-50 hours of material at MPEG1 encoding quality – i.e. the same quality as VHS.

The feedback

The pilot received really positive feedback, but also identified some further issues that we needed to address. Firstly, we found that not everybody in the BBC had general IT skills. This needed to be addressed so that people could make the most out of Learning Online. Secondly, people found that learning online could be a lonely experience so we needed to incorporate ways that they could interact. And thirdly, for convenience, learners were keen to have more content directly available at their desktops rather than at the Video Learning Terminals

What we did about it

To ensure that our online training retained a human element we recruited a team of coaches to help people gain a confident level of IT skills to use the system effectively –and to point them towards the courses most relevant to their jobs. As well as redesigning the underlying system architecture, we reworked the interface, taking into account usability and accessibility issues. We increased the number of Video Learning Terminals to 200 to improve accessibility and added a substantial amount of new rich media content.

Blended approach

In parallel to this we ran a programme for experienced face-to-face trainers which covered both the psychology of learning and how it can be applied to online delivery. Eight trainers went through the first programme and three further programmes are planned. Each participant developed an e-learning idea which they then presented at the end of the programmes. Additionally, projects initiated by the development programme will be moved forward via secondments to the Learning Online production team from other parts of the BBC.

Phase two - the pre-launch of Learning Online - went live on 13 November 2000. The response was fantastic; we didn’t make a song and dance about it at the time as we wanted to see how quickly news of its existence would spread by word of mouth (it also gave us some breathing space to make sure that there were no small technical hitches).

Where we are now

Learning Online currently consists of nine categories of learning materials: BBC editorial policy, induction, IT office skills, journalism, management, new media, radio, safety and television.

Within each category trainees can access online courses - broken down into 10 minute modules for quick easy completion - and Masterclasses, which are broadband video packages featuring industry names such as Michael Parkinson - who give tips on interviewing techniques, Michael Caine - who talks about his acting experiences, and Jane Root - who outlines what she’s looking for in terms of commissioning for BBC 2.

The majority of the online courses are available at people’s desktops via the BBC’s intranet, Gateway. The Masterclasses and some of the other courses need to be viewed at a Video Learning Terminal.

Investing in human capital

I see future training provision as having two major drivers - people and the business. The people element involves long term development of individuals on an on-going basis, while the business-driven element gives people rapid access to relevant information, case studies and examples of best practice.

This new approach to learning requires different types of thinking as well as technological support. The BBC is a multi-talented community and we need to be managing that as effectively as we can. Every individual is potentially a teacher, a coach, or a creator of business knowledge. The potential to make a significant impact throughout the BBC is massive. Having created a learning community we could then sub-divide this into specific job areas.

Learning Online has created a base from which we can continually develop ways of harnessing and sharing all types of knowledge and information. The next stage is to use the structure as a live tool, building exploratory scenarios relevant to people’s needs and giving them access to real life experiences - both good and bad. After all, understanding mistakes that have been made can be every bit as valuable as examining the successes.

As funding is progressively made available it will enable us to develop a world-class training system that fully integrates different channels of delivery. In effect, to borrow language from the world of further education, we are creating a virtual college to support the needs of all staff, regardless of their role. For anybody seeking a career in broadcasting, there won’t be anything to touch it.

Gareth Jones is Head of Learning and Innovation at BBC Training & Development.

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