17th Jun 2011

To ‘E’ or not to ‘E’, That is the question!

As Training Manager for the Heathcotes Group, I need to keep a close eye on what’s available in the market place in terms of providing training and education for our employees.  It’s important that we balance quality with cost effectiveness - getting that right is one of the keys to ensuring that we make the most out our training spend.  The ultimate aim of course, is to ensure effective employee development and the delivery of high quality services to the people we support.

Increasingly, e-learning solutions are being marketed to social care organisations, covering a wide range of topics from Health & Safety, Administration of Medication and even Challenging Behaviour Training. I guess the logic of this marketing activity is that our employees are based at multiple sites and working outside of normal office hours and as such, are a difficult cohort to match classroom based training with.

On the surface, e-learning may seem like a good solution and one very much in touch with what many of us have become increasingly comfortable with, and adept at using i.e personal computers and the internet.  Most people I come across have an email address, a Facebook or Twitter account, use Ebay, iTunes and so on.  Information technology is pretty much a permanent feature of our lives.  There can be little doubt that many of us also gain knowledge through our use of Google, Wikipaedia etc.  The internet has become the modern equivalent of the Encyclopaedia, although it is worth noting that much of the ‘information’ available is, by its very nature, unregulated and not always 100% accurate.

So what about e-learning?  It is true to say that many schools, colleges and universities use e-learning as part of their educational tool-kit.  The University of Nottingham for example is a great advocate of e-learning in academic settings and has played a role in developing open-source e-learning resources such as Moodle (a learning management system – LMS) and Xertes (a multi-media content development tool).  However, the point here is that these academic institutions use e-learning to enhance class-room learning and self-directed study, rather than replace it.  In many ways, something like Moodle can work a bit like a social network, with tutors giving feedback and answering questions as well as there being notice boards, discussion groups and scope for collaborative projects amongst many other things.  An article from 2009 - Essential or overrated: does e-learning work? from the The Chartered Institute for IT (CIIT) asserts that:

“The purpose of e-learning…should be to create real-time interaction between experts, learners, colleagues and peers; and LMS should be not just ‘e-learning vending machines’ (a term coined by Dr Marc Rosenberg, a leading expert in the world of e-learning), but actually allow for skill gaps analyses and help to find the right course to address the gap.”

The problem with many of the off-the-peg e-learning courses that I see targeted at social care staff is that they do very little to achieve this required interaction and yes, they do look a bit like e-learning vending machines.  That isn’t to say that the content isn’t sound, accurate or indeed comprehensive, but how effective is it in achieving a meaningful learning experience?  The article from the CIIT goes on to say:

“…the e-learning of today often ignores the reality of the workplace…(it’s) mostly about basic knowledge acquisition, and in many ways hasn’t moved on from the e-learning or computer-based teaching that has been around for the last 30-40 years.”

So, maybe these e-learning products aren’t quite as good as they make out!  Undoubtedly they are increasingly popular.  On the face of it, they seem to represent good value – as little as £2.99 per person for some courses - but let’s not forget the other associated costs, like access to broadband, access to a laptop or PC, the time and the training (yes, it’s likely we’d have to train employees to use it and managers to monitor learner’s progress etc).  On top of that, it would be unrealistic not to expect at least a few technophobes amongst our teams, which might mean additional training and support.  After all, we (should) employ support workers for their people skills, not their IT skills!

My other concern is that it’s all too easy to buy in these courses – it certainly ‘ticks a box’ as a potentially cost-effective solution but I also have to keep asking whether it can be a truly effective way of training people.

It does irk me somewhat to find myself dissatisfied with what current e-learning products have to offer.  Having computer geek tendencies, in many ways I’d like to think that it could be a way of meeting our training needs.  However, on balance, my person-centric side wins out - I don’t think you can ever substitute face to face learning.  Training for me isn’t just about reeling off a load of facts – it’s about engaging with people in a meaningful way, facilitating interaction between colleagues, being challenging and hoping to inspire positive values and attitudes as well as helping leaners to gain the knowledge they require.

Ultimately, when it comes to e-learning, I would never say never.  No doubt, in some situations what is available now is better than nothing and might in fact be the best solution for staff working in remote locations (e.g. some home care/domiciliary care workers) and who knows what technological improvements the future might bring.  However, I am glad to say, that at Heathcotes, for the foreseeable future, we are committed to face to face training.