Making every penny count

An
initial learners’ meeting, set target of a module a month, and contract of
commitment between learner and line manager for time to study all contributed to
charity Barnardo’s online take-up. Sue Weekes reports

It
is difficult to make IT training a priority when your core business is the
welfare of vulnerable children and your workforce comprises a high percentage
of social workers. But the UK’s largest children’s charity, Barnardo’s, knows
investment in computer systems is essential for the efficient running of any
modern organisation, and over the past few years it has ensured it has a solid
and scaleable IT infrastructure in place.

So
far, so good, except that IT training manager Lisa Johnson found it was
increasingly difficult to keep up with the demand for IT training that such
investment was bringing.

"We
needed to raise competency in IT skills to improve efficiency and ensure staff
are prepared for future system upgrades and new implementations," says
Johnson, also a regional training account manager, and who explains that IT
training strategy comes under the responsibility of the IT department at
Barnardo’s.

"We
had a portfolio of class-based courses, but the increased demand for IT skills
meant we needed to look at alternative methods of training. This led us to
e-learning and implementing a European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) pilot
scheme," she adds.

Barnardo’s
had the advantage of having a potential e-learning partner already on hand,
because it had been using a range of IT courses from NETg – now part of the
Thomson Group – for several years to train staff in Oracle and Novell
applications. NETg has an ECDL course which met Barnardo’s criteria of allowing
staff to work at their own pace and be able to cater for a geographically
dispersed workforce – as the charity has 6,000 staff spread across eight
regional and one head office.

"This
was a huge advantage for those with busy schedules and those working
remotely," says Johnson. "We recognised that we had to put mechanisms
in place to support learning and cater for different learning styles, which is
why we adopted a blended approach."

Barnardo’s
decided to run a tightly-timed pilot over seven months to evaluate the training
programme. It put a great deal of thought into the structure of the training,
so that it could properly support all learners, especially as they were of
mixed abilities when it came to IT literacy.

It
was also important no learners felt isolated during their training. The pilot
programme comprised an introductory session, ECDL courseware, an assigned
tutor, learner packs and online discussion boards, chatrooms and workshops.

Team
effort

Thirty-four
people were chosen to take part in the scheme, which began in January 2002, and
these included all levels of the company, from director to social worker
administrative assistant.

The
programme began with a face-to-face session so all learners could meet up.
"The introduction day proved to be a key factor in the project’s eventual
success. Learners met each other and were also introduced to the syllabus,
e-learning, trainers and so forth," says Johnson, who sits on an
e-learning sub-group at Barnardo’s. "Certainly one of my tips for blended
learning would be to make it a team effort right from the start."

Following
this, the learners embarked on the NETg ECDL course designed to teach students
all the basic skills they need to use a computer competently, from word
processing to using the internet. Learners accessed the seven modules of the
training via the corporate intranet, which is called BART (Barnardo’s Resource
Technology), at a rate of one module a month.

They
could turn to their assigned tutor whenever they needed and use the online
boards and chatrooms to post queries or generally discuss aspects of the
course. The team effort ethos that ran throughout the project particularly
helped to build momentum over post-course discussions.

"A
good example of how well this worked was that sometimes a learner would post a
query, and it would be answered by one of their peers on the course before a
tutor had time to see it," says Johnson, who explains that a response to
any query would be posted within 48 hours as a matter of course.

Aware
that it can be difficult to encourage line managers to allow employees the
necessary time and space for training in any organisation, Barnardo’s came up
with the idea of asking the learner and their line manager to sign a contract
to commit to the training involved and ensure both sides were comfortable about
taking time out from their working schedule to learn online. "We asked for
a minimum commitment of two hours a week, and participation in chat sessions
once every fortnight," says Johnson.

Only
four people withdrew from the pilot, and this was either because they left the
organisation or through unavoidable pressures of work. There was an instance
where the contract did help a learner continue with their studies when work pressures
encroached. They went back to the line manager, who agreed to help them release
the necessary time for training.

Positive
feedback

With
drop-out rates for e-learning often high, a learning contract could prove to be
an effective way of gaining commitment.

Karina
Ward, marketing communications manager at NETg, believes it could be a step in
the right direction. "The way Barnardo’s is trying to mandate learning and
get buy-in from line managers at the beginning is certainly a way
forward," she says. "There’s no such thing as a textbook e-learning
pilot, because it depends on what your most important business drivers are, but
Barnando’s certainly has all the tests in place to help measure and ensure
success."

The
pilot was deemed a success, with 30 learners gaining the ECDL certificate. Most
gratifying was the fact that the pilot group was so positive about the learning
programme.

"We
didn’t know how they would adapt to it, but some said it had been a fantastic
experience," says Johnson, who adds that a live training programme based
on the pilot has been running since December.

"The
support mechanisms were important, and we have kept these in place," she
says. "Learners are now given the choice of three levels of support – full
tutor support, partial tutor support or the opportunity to work on their own.
We would predict that many people will be cautious at the beginning and go for
full tutor support, then move towards partial support."

The
aim is to train all 6,000 staff within the organisation in key IT skills.

While
it is too early to predict when the charity may see a return on investment,
Johnson – who says every penny must count – explains that it is already
noticing increased productivity in how staff use the IT systems.

One
of her priorities is to increase her and fellow trainers’ productivity when it
comes to marking. Up until now, the ECDL exams have been marked manually, she
explains, which has slowed things down, especially because all exams were being
cross-marked to double check things.

"We
have just signed an online testing contract, which means that learners will be
able to sit an exam and, 45 minutes after finishing, a result is sent to them.
That means 30 people will be able to sit their exam and get their results in a
day, which is a big improvement."

In
summary
Barnardo’s tips for e-learning


Make it a team effort from the start


Start small – don’t aim too high


Tap into all of your resources and expertise – it’ll save you time and money

Aims
and success

Aim:
Improve IT literacy levels at the UK’s biggest children’s charity to increase
productivity and reduce the number of queries aimed at the helpdesk

Why:
Considerable investment has been made in IT in recent years and staff need to
have the necessary levels of IT expertise to reap the benefits of the investment

Is
e-learning delivering? Barnardo’s completed a successful pilot with high pass
rates and a live training programme started running in December

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