Gold blend

Blended learning promises much but is often no more than online and classroom-based elements slapped together. Vodafone, however, shows what can be achieved when it is built from the ground up

The butt of many an office joke, the IT helpdesk can be a source of frustration or a lifesaver. Its staff can be the faceless people who appear to talk in binary code at the end of a phone line or the heroes who come to your rescue at 7.30pm to retrieve your 96-page presentation from digital oblivion.

Just as the reputation of many of today’s organisations stands or falls by the quality and knowledge of their call centre staff, then so too do their internal systems and brands by the quality of their IT helpdesks. At telecommunications giant Vodafone, the service its helpdesk delivers cannot afford to be anything other than top-notch.

In common with many organisations, Vodafone’s helpdesk performance is measured against calls received and actioned. The company needed to bring 58 busy technical support staff, based at four UK sites, up to Microsoft Certified System Administrator (MCSA) level en masse. But the company wanted to do so without causing disruption to the daily running of the department.

E-learning seemed to be the solution, and was already in use at Vodafone for desktop applications and introductory training courses. But Simon Ball, consultant in technology learning and development at Vodafone, wanted to provide employees with a full range of learning options. This led him to investigate a blended solution.

Training company QA’s blended MCSA course, which has Microsoft’s newly released MCSA e-learning material as its basic online content, was the first coherent blended solution that Vodafone had seen, says Ball.

“We’d come across a number of supposedly blended solutions that didn’t come up to scratch, usually because they lacked a useable learning management system or were simply standard e-learning packages by another name,” he says. “The QA blended MCSA was the first comprehensive and fully coherent solution that we’d seen.”

To arrive at the blended solution, known as Learning Integration Management (LIM), QA first reviewed the Microsoft e-learning content to identify areas in which delegates might benefit from additional training support.

Applying the principles of how people learn, a team of eight QA instructors and technologists then identified appropriate additional means of learning, such as virtual classrooms (called eLabs), that were integrated to build the final method.

Finally, the LIM framework and interface was developed and it was important that learners were given a single point of access and single log-in into the LIM.

“We had a significant technical challenge to integrate all the components. But we overcame this by taking a holistic approach and building from the ground,” says Brian Sutton, chief educator at QA, who comments that it’s rare these days for a major solution not to be blended and that as far as he is concerned, blended learning is just the latest term for what is “essentially best practice”.

QA built a robust framework for the LIM, which can be adapted for use on other projects, including Microsoft’s MCAD certification. The good news for customers is that because the structural work is now done, content can effectively be dropped inside of it, including any materials that already exist within the client organisation (the MCSA course has also earned plaudits from Microsoft, with the software giant naming QA Global CTEC (Certified Technical Education Centre of the Year 2003).

There are also cultural challenges to be aware of when designing blended solutions, says Sutton, not least that learners will need to take greater responsibility for their learning, managing their own time and undertaking self-study. “Learners also need to adapt to training in chunks, apportioning their time in different ways – ie, an hour of reading three afternoons a week, 30 minutes of e-learning twice a week, an hour in a virtual classroom, and so on,” Sutton explains.

“It is vital to address this challenge at the outset, preparing learners and their managers for a new approach.”

The final MCSA blended solution was broken down into several modules, comprising the following:

  • Classroom days: six hands-on sessions, including two days’ spent introducing learners to the instructors and the technologies
  • Microsoft e-learning material
  • eLabs: a type of virtual classroom where 10-12 learners can interact with each other and the tutor
  • Testing: online simulated exams and testing environment to assess progress
  • Discussion groups: online interaction with mentors and peers
  • Books 24×7: access to the online library
  • Mentoring via phone or e-mails.

So far feedback has been positive, reports Ball, who says the main advantage is the flexibility of delivery methods. “One person’s learning style may favour reading text from the online library while another likes the social involvement of a discussion forum or the feedback from an interactive virtual classroom session,” he says.

“With this programme all of these things are possible and which to use depends purely on the individual’s preferences.

“The programme has been a great success for most delegates, but it is important to note the approach won’t suit everyone. There will always be some people who find that the rigour and discipline of the classroom environment is the only way that they can become engaged with the subject.”

Vodafone has a number of e-learning initiatives under way including the Vodafone Academy, being implemented by Vodafone UK, and the Global Campus, a worldwide initiative providing access to e-learning and other media-based developments.

“The goal is to end up with a single unified portal providing access to all Vodafone online learning solutions for all staff in the Vodafone group of companies,” says Ball. “The hope is that this will form part of a drive towards consolidating the unified Vodafone feel with our various companies worldwide.”

Ball cites cost-savings as a secondary advantage of the LIM, but admits that this helps when justifying it. Accurate measurement of the ROI (return on investment) from any training scheme is difficult, he says, but adds the organisation has already seen significant improvements in users’ perception of the quality of service from the IT helpdesk.

“This is clearly the start of a valuable return on the investment that can only be expected to increase over time,” he says.

In summary

Maximum results, minimum disruption

Aim To bring 58 technical support people up to Microsoft Certified System Administrator (MCSA) en masse, without causing disruption to the helpdesk’s daily running

Why? Helpdesk performance is measured by calls received and actioned; accreditation and certification is vital in the IT world

Is blended learning delivering? Feedback has been good and Vodafone has seen significant improvements in the the quality of service from the IT helpdesk

Successful blending tips

  • “In three words, it’s commitment, time and space,” says Simon Ball, consultant in technology learning and development at Vodafone
  • “Commitment is required from both the delegate and local line management. As this style of learning is largely self-paced it requires considerably more self-motivation on the part of the delegate than the instructor-led equivalent.Commitment is also required from line managers. There is almost a cultural shift required as managers in all industries traditionally see training as a fire-and-forget activity that ends for them with a line in a calendar telling them when a member of staff is away on a course
  • Blended learning is very different as it depends on managers assigning dedicated time and space during the working day for staff to read texts, complete exercises, attend virtual classrooms etc without the risk of being interrupted by customers or colleagues
  • If these three conditions are fulfilled, blended learning becomes an efficient and extremely cost effective development tool

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