Online learning: Brent Council turns on, tunes in, and learns

Brent Council staff who have a skills gap in the morning could be on a course to plug it in the afternoon – if not sooner.

Since the end of January, the council’s 2,500 employees have had access to an e-learning system that provides a targeted and responsive training facility as and when they need it. When necessary, Brent staff will create courses.

“It is a powerful tool and will become more powerful as authoring takes off,” says Tracey Connage, deputy director of HR and diversity. “Potentially, if a unit has a particular need, you’ve got someone who can turn that into a course and deliver it instantly.”

Bidding for excellence

Among the main drivers for implementing the e-learning system are the Gershon Review, which demands local government saves 6.45bn in 2005-06 through ‘smarter working’, and Brent’s plan to implement best practice learning and development. It believes this will help its bid for ‘excellent’ status in its comprehensive performance assessment next year.

The e-learning system won’t replace conventional training within the council: it will be used as part of a blended approach. But in areas where it does eliminate the need for classroom-based training, the potential savings are considerable. For instance, if e-learning was used for health and safety training, it could save 116,600.

The system was set up by organisational developments projects officer Dalia Davis, who says she was new to e-learning. “Many people make the mistake of thinking e-learning is an IT project whereas it’s more to do with change management,” she says. “But it is vital to get buy-in from IT at the start.”

She spent a lot of time researching the market and was also able to call on the expertise of the government’s Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA). Brent bought the IDeA Learning Pool package, which comprises a range of services offered to local authorities to support the introduction of e-learning.

These include authoring and file sharing tools, as well as 40 e-learning titles developed in line with local authority requirements. These cover areas such as equality and diversity, health and safety, IT and management skills. The cost of the IDeA system varies according to the number of people in the local authority, but Brent is paying 8,000 for a two-year period.

Access and tracking

The challenges for Davis and her team were deciding how to provide access to the learning and how to track it. The learning management system, provided through the IDeA package from e-learning specialist Course-Source, helped to tackle both of these issues.

The system can be hosted by Course-Source on its servers. This allows staff to access the e-learning programmes via the internet wherever there is a connection. It also tracks who has logged on and completed courses and what scores have been awarded.

“At the end of a course, learners complete an electronic evaluation, which is kept in a spreadsheet so we can analyse results,” says Davis. “Staff are sent an e-certificate when a course is completed.”

In control

Connage hopes that providing employees with individual accounts to help them to track and plan learning will encourage them to take some responsibility for their own training and development. “We want the learner to have more control over their learning and to be able to identify what learning they need.”

Fifteen staff, from Brent’s service areas, have become e-learning authors in addition to their day jobs. They were trained in an intensive two-day course.

“The IDeA tool is definitely designed for people with minimal experience,” says Davis. “Authors find it relatively easy to use but must have a basic level of IT skills. The learning curve when you start creating courses can take many days but it really depends on the length of the course and the amount of information you have readily available.

HR can veto courses produced by the in-house authors before they are made available. Also, a steering group from the council’s Disability Liaison Group goes through every new course to assess its accessibility for those with disabilities.

Brent says feedback so far on the system has been good.

Brent’s top tips for successful e-learning

  1. Plan properly
    It is important to think through every strand from IT-literacy levels to accessibility for disabled users.
  2. Get support from all levels
    Dalia Davis, organisational developments projects officer at Brent Council, made 40 courses available to different service areas and departments of the organisation “to play with” so they could find out more about e-learning. She performed the same exercise with senior management to secure their interest in the project.
  3. Make a friend in IT
    E-learning is not an IT project, says Davis, but it is vital to get the support of your IT department early on as you will need it throughout the process.

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