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Three Years of E-Learning on a Shoestring

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Leonard Cheshire, the UK’s leading disability care charity, has found that the best approach to cost-effective skills development in the voluntary sector involves the consortium approach. Now, three years on, Craig Brown, Leonard Cheshire’s IT training manager, discusses what has been learned and achieved.


In 2002 Leonard Cheshire was approached to join a consortium of charities wishing to work together to get the most from the huge potential that e-learning had to offer the sector. As Leonard Cheshire had 8,000 employees spread across 150 sites in ten UK regions, a learning solution that could allow their busy staff to study inexpensively in the workplace was an extremely attractive proposition.

“We used to provide classroom-style training at off-site venues,” explains IT training manager Craig Brown. “Because our people are geographically dispersed, the cost of training was always swollen by travel and overnight accommodation expenses. An even bigger issue was the time that employees would spend away from providing care to our service users. We found that a growing number of people wanted to learn at their workplace, so we began to look at e-learning but it initially seemed a very expensive option.”

Overcoming the financial barriers
The consortium addressed the two key financial barriers that had previously impeded all but the largest voluntary sector organisations from benefiting from e-learning: Firstly the set-up costs, and secondly the ongoing content costs.

With regard to set-up costs, keeping track of who has studied what e-learning, and when, typically requires a learning management system. The problem is, these are costly and take months to set up. The consortium cleverly avoided this issue by using what is called a ‘hosted solution’. In other words, they shared the same piece of technology, and this is fully managed externally and on the internet. The staff and training managers at each charity could then securely access their own branded version of this ‘e-learning portal’. What is more, the platform doesn’t just deliver e-learning, it allows learners to chat online with each other, and crucially allows consortium members to monitor usage and generate reports.

Craig adds, “From an IT point of view we have been 100% behind the idea from the outset. The flexibility is fantastic. People can even learn from home if they want to.”

The second barrier was the cost of e-learning content. Typically content providers only offered big discounts to major corporate buyers. The consortium got around this by teaming up groups of six charities at a time, and combining their buying power. This means that, for a fraction of the list price, consortium members enjoy a wealth of leading edge material in both IT and ‘soft’ skills. Topics covered include Microsoft Office, European Computer Driving Licence, leadership, communication skills, budgeting, finance and customer service.

Getting started
After securing internal approval, Leonard Cheshire joined the first charity consortium with the Prince’s Trust, Scope, the Scout Association, VSO and WWF. This group went live with its first e-learning courses in January 2003.
“We began by offering the courses to our directors and managers and we held an open day for other staff at our central office in London, as they all had PCs with access to the internet,” explains Craig.

The response to the open day was very positive and the following month, Leonard Cheshire launched the courses to the regions.

Sharing best practice
One of other great benefits of this collaboration was the user group meetings: HR and IT representatives from the charities in the consortium meet quarterly to share experiences and best practice in e-learning. Topics covered include internal marketing, and measuring the impact of training.

Craig adds “Working closely with other charities has certainly helped us. It is very useful to discuss technical and training issues and to share experiences.”

Take-up
“The IT skills training courses in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have proved particularly popular” Craig explains, “especially with those in administration and office roles. Feedback has shown that people find the complete step-by-step tutorials in an interactive format very useful”. In fact Leonard Cheshire has completely replaced external classroom-style training for IT skills.
At the moment, 1,500 employees have access to IT. Of these people nearly half (600) have registered for e-learning, and nearly a quarter (350) have taken courses. For non-mandatory courses in the voluntary sector, this is a tremendous achievement.

Feedback
When Craig conducted a survey to gain feedback on how staff felt about e-learning, a theme emerged: Regardless of their roles, staff found e-learning ideally suited to their busy working lives:

  • 72% of learners responding to the survey thought that e-learning was the best way for them to have done their training.

  • 56% thought that they would not have had access to the training if it hadn't been available on
    e-learning.

  • 40% though that their productivity had improved as a direct result of applying the skills they had learnt on e?learning.

As one regional project manager put it: “I can undertake modules when I can factor in some time, and work it around other diary items.”

What advice would Craig offer?
There were two major challenges faced by Leonard Cheshire during the implementation.
The first was overcoming IT infrastructure issues. As Craig explains “e-learning is a very good training solution, but I would advise companies to get their infrastructure in place before announcing any launch.”

The second major learning was the importance of internal marketing. “You need to ensure people are continuously made aware that e-learning is available, what it is and ensure that they do not think it replaces other forms of training.”

Craig found that posters, features in ‘Choice’ (their internal magazine), and a roadshow were most effective. Even little things like mentioning the e?learning in e-mail auto-signatures helped.

Conclusion
As Leonard Cheshire strives to continuously improve its ability to help disabled people to live independently, Craig believes that the experiences gained in the past three years will prove invaluable in optimising the potential e-learning offers the organisation.

* For more information about the Charity Learning Consortium, please contact Wendy Maddison at [email protected]

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