Skills on your doorstep

As
learndirect advances across the country, it is receiving a warm reception from
most quarters. But it is also raising some concerns about its relationship with
employers and the qualifications bodies. Elaine Essery reports

Two
pints of lager and a basic skills course, please.” Is that how commonplace
learning has become? How many of us will shop until we drop – into the learning
centre in the retail park.

You
don’t even have to own a computer to log on to learning, because learndirect
has brought learning to the people with its nationwide network of e-learning
centres. You’ll find them in pubs, football and rugby clubs, sports and leisure
centres, shopping malls, railway stations and even as part of a travelling fun
fair.

Through
learndirect, the Ufi hopes to revolutionise the way people learn by using
information and communications technology. It is developing learning materials
that allow individuals to learn in “bite-sized chunks” on-line at a pace and at
times to suit them, wherever they have access to the Internet – at learning
centres, at work or at home. It aims to stimulate demand for learning, help
adults improve their employability by acquiring new skills and knowledge and
help businesses become more competitive.

Broadly
speaking, the initiative has been welcomed by key players, yet many sound a
note of caution. It also throws up a host of questions. Is it going to reach
those who can most benefit? Will everything just fall neatly into place, or
does something else need to happen to transfer the benefits of learning for its
own sake to improved performance in the workplace? Are we simply turning
learning into a hobby or a gimmick?

As
for the last point, Bill Lucas, chief executive of the Campaign for Learning,
thinks not. “I’ve got no problem whatsoever, assuming it’s sensitively managed,
in taking the opportunity to learn on-line to new venues. It’s all part of what
the campaign would see as forward progress in making learning normal and
accessible,” he says.

Common
sense

“One
person’s normality is another person’s gimmickry – especially if they’ve had an
expensive education themselves. For too many years we’ve made learning a kind
of coterie activity. It’s been education to many people rather than discovery
or learning. Taking learning to the places where people go seems common sense
to me.”

Lucas
is concerned, however, that we assume we have cracked the learning age simply
because people suddenly start having access to computers. What we need is a
whole new range of intermediaries who will play a key role in helping people
learn. They will be the people who staff learning centres, people in the
community, advisers and mentors.

“Yes,
it’s definitely a move in the right direction; yes, I welcome it; yes, even if
there are a few gimmicks we shouldn’t fuss about it because there’s a lot of
entrenched prejudice to overcome about making learning normal. But there’s a
caveat – don’t assume that learning equals computers. They are a valuable part,
but only a part.”

Computers
may not prove to be the right medium to reach one of the target groups for
learndirect – the 20 per cent of the adult population who have difficulties
with basic reading, writing and number skills. Many of them are people let down
at school several decades ago, points out Derek Wanless, chief executive of
Nacett, and they lack the confidence to access e-learning.

“The
problem is that it’s not something that lends itself to distance learning by
electronic means,” he says. “I think learndirect will find it hits some winning
formulae and some that don’t work at all.”

Basic
skills have been tackled at a very local level by the Basic Skills Agency
working with the Citizens Advice Bureaux and other local voluntary
organisations, many of which have been devising their own learning materials
and delivery systems.

Ideal
position

“learndirect
obviously provides another vehicle and has a great opportunity to produce some
really first-class materials which draw together what others have been doing,
standardise it and make it good quality. They’re in an ideal position to find
out what works and what doesn’t work,” says Wanless.

“Like
almost everything else in the world, the new technology is going to have an
impact, but nobody’s quite sure yet what that impact will be – although they
know it’s an opportunity.”

For
City & Guilds, learndirect is an opportunity to give people access to
learning that links to recognised qualifications. Director-general Dr Nick
Carey is delighted that the Ufi has decided to focus on learning materials
on-line, but is anxious about quality and consistency. “What concerns us is
that the quality of materials is such that the learner can use them with
confidence that what they’re learning can either assist them in taking an exam
or help them work towards an NVQ,” he says.

He
is worried that collating and preparing materials from all sorts of sources
calls for diligence on the part of the Ufi in ensuring consistency and a
meaningful tie-up with the national qualifications framework. “I’m not against
learning in pubs or in the high street, but we mustn’t diminish the value of
colleges or training providers and we mustn’t diminish the quality of the
materials or the assessments that are going to be used.”

Carey’s
biggest fear is that the Ufi should see itself as a qualifications body. “If
you’re sending learning materials down the wire, it’s not a giant step for
mankind to put in an assessment at the end of it and eureka – you’ve got
yourself a Ufi certificate in basic IT,” he says.

Consistent

“What
is really important is that the Ufi produces materials that are consistent with
the learning implied within the framework of national qualifications and that
it leaves the business of assessment to the national awarding bodies –
otherwise it will get into a muddle and devalue everything.”

It
will take some years for learndirect to become embedded, Carey believes, but
its impact could be profound, provided it is promoted properly. “It will need,
in my view, some quite clever, targeted marketing to reach the people who can
most benefit. That’s always the challenge. It probably means promoting it on TV
through a proper campaign – it’s going to be expensive and it needs to be
ongoing. But the Government has put a lot of money into the Ufi, so it ought to
have that,” Carey says.

Not
only does the initiative need marketing, but for learndirect to be a success it
also needs the involvement of employers, who so far don’t appear to have been
heavily engaged.

Tom
Bewick is policy director at the NTO National Council. Although it is early
days, he is encouraged by the number of sectors involved in learndirect hubs.

Yet
Bewick wants to see a much closer fit between local learning centres and
clusters of local employers – firms on an industrial estate, traders in a
retail park or groups of shopkeepers in a high street.

“We’ve
really got to get that link right because that’s what will improve the access
and relationship between small businesses and the people who work for them and
this new learning infrastructure that’s being put in place by the Ufi.”

Local
Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs) have a role to play here, according to
Bewick. They will have employer involvement and a duty to promote lifelong
learning and workforce development locally. One of their tasks will be to look
at the learndirect centres on their patch and work with NTO National Council
and the Ufi to ensure they are not just hobby centres.

“As
to whether the balance is right between these centres coming on stream
encouraging learning for its own sake and looking at the needs of the economy,
I think the jury is still out on that,” says Bewick.

Productivity
gap

A
large amount of public money has gone into learndirect and it needs to be
maximised by ensuring that Britain grows the skills of the workforce – particularly
the intermediate craft and technical skills that are in short supply – if we
are to begin to close the productivity gap.

But
it will not just happen as if by magic, says Bewick. “What those engaged in
learndirect have to realise is that they can’t achieve on their objectives
unless they build some very close bridges between that initiative and what
employer organisations like NTOs and others are trying to do to improve levels
of skills in their sectors.”

Joined-up
thinking at policy level needs to be translated into joined-up doing on the
ground. “People are saying, ‘Of course there will be a relationship between
learndirect centres and employers and between NTOs and LSCs, but we’ve got to
move beyond that rhetoric and say how we’re physically going to make it
happen.”

learndirect
is clearly a welcome new resource. Its strength will be the extent to which it
adds value by working in genuine partnership with organisations that provide
and promote learning and the full range of stakeholders.

Mobile
learning centres are next

Following
a successful national pilot, learndirect – the Ufi’s network of on-line
learning and information services – was rolled out across England, Wales and
Northern Ireland at the end of October.

As
of October, there were over 700 learndirect e-learning centres nationwide,
operated by local and national organisations known as Ufi hubs. These are
expected to grow steadily in number towards a target of 1,000 centres by April
2001. More than 600 organisations are working in partnership with the Ufi as
part of local, employer and sector-based hubs.

Over
400 learndirect courses are currently available – 87 per cent of them on-line
and delivered through the learndirect web site. The Ufi is planning to increase
the number of courses on offer to 800 by April. Priority topics are IT skills,
basic literacy and numeracy, retail and distribution, environmental services,
automotive components and multimedia. Some are free, others range in price from
£5 to over £100. Individual Learning Accounts were launched nationally in
September to offer discounts on some courses.

A
learndirect free helpline has handled over 2 million enquiries so far. Ufi aims
to provide information and advice to 2.5 million people a year by 2002 and
create demand for up to 1 million learning packages a year by 2003.

The
DfEE has allocated £74m to support Ufi’s development in 2001-02. A further £10m
will provide a fleet of mobile learning centres to take learning to small
businesses and rural areas, and help the Ufi extend its help and support
services.

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