Industry Perspective

Hannah Brindle and Alistair Gladstone

Hannah Brindle and Alistair Gladstone, Virtual College

Hannah Brindle is the Divisional Director of the Business and Education Division of Virtual College, one of the leading providers of e-learning in the UK. It was founded in 1995 and has over 1.7M online learners. Virtual College recently hosted a visit for Learning Futures project teams so that they could experience, first-hand, the instructional design processes that the business adopts to create effective online content. They were able to question instructional and graphic designers and to pick up models and tips to apply to the CPD resources they are developing for staff.

Hannah says that Virtual College is essentially a technology business operating in the learning and development field. It was one of the very early online learning providers in the UK and was a finalist in Edtech’s 20 top most innovative e-learning businesses in Europe. It has developed its own proprietary learning management systems (LMS) called Enable; has created over 300 generic vocational staff training courses; and works with organisations to develop bespoke courses and e-learning solutions. It has a strong philosophy of partnering with organisations to tailor solutions to meet individual needs and budgets.

Virtual College supplies both the private and public sector and Hannah says that those markets can be quite different: “In terms of learning and development, they can often have different drivers and different needs. In education right now, particularly in colleges, there are core requirements for them to shift some of their face-to-face delivery online. Their budgets are decreasing, Government is recommending the increased use of technology in learning, and learners are part of a digital native generation that demand more creative and innovative blended learning approaches. In the private sector, however, online learning tends to be driven by compliance and by cost and productivity issues; for example, an organisation may need to train large volumes of employees to meet a legal or contractual requirement. They want to meet this need in the most cost-effective way with as little disruption to the business operation as possible.”

Designing effective e-learning

Hannah finds that there is still a degree of naivety around the skills required to put effective and engaging learning online, and sometimes that can undermine the quality of the content:

“What you have in the education sector, for example, are really fantastic subject matter experts who know their subject inside out. They are also highly experienced in pedagogy and really understand the learning process. The problem is that to build a highly engaging and effective online course requires additional skills such as strong instructional design, graphic and visual design, and programming skills to maximise the efficient use of the different online authoring solutions.”

Virtual College was pleased to host an event for Learning Futures to share their expertise in creating highly interactive and effective e-learning. While it was impossible to cover everything in a day, it was effective in raising awareness of the processes involved in learning design and the difference it can make to the end results. During the course of the workshop, Virtual College managed to convey to the project teams the different skillsets involved in building effective online learning, and to highlight how these skills need to be identified and nurtured within organisations.

Building e-learning teams and expertise

Hannah is aware that the education sector is approaching the acquisition of these skills in different ways. Some invest heavily in e-learning teams, instructional designers and graphic designers, etc., and are doing a good job, albeit with substantial investment. Others rely on the enthusiasm of tutors and other staff to combine their expertise in their subject area with an interest in online learning. The latter can, however, have mixed results. Virtual College is currently exploring partnership arrangements that will involve working collaboratively with in-house teams to share expertise, drive forward the online agenda and improve the quality of learning experiences. They are also establishing a collaborative network of UK colleges (UKVC) to jointly commission and build online content and learning solutions that can be shared. Regardless of the approach, however, Hannah says that successful implementation starts with leaders and governors and a clear strategy:

“Organisations need to decide where they want their organisation to be in five years’ time. They need to have a vision of what they want the student experience to be. It’s not easy with so many developments in technology and learning; but they need a vision and a plan and to recognise that a significant move towards a more blended approach still requires investment. It’s not just about cost savings.”

In addition, she says, they need to consider the skills of staff and tutors to use and maximise new blended approaches and understand how this differs from more traditional teaching and learning—something Virtual College has been working on recently through the development of iteacher bite-size learning courses specifically designed to support teachers to exploit technology in learning.

Creating successful CPD

Learning Futures at Virtual College

Learning Futures workshop at Virtual College

Another element of successful blended learning, and relevant to the final dissemination of the Learning Futures CPD materials, is to recognise different learning styles and that people can be at very different places in their learning journey. Hannah has helpfully provided this table outlining the different levels of interactivity in e-learning together with some examples from their portfolio. You need, she says, to build in a range of elements to support all learning styles: “You have to think about the way people learn, but also have to select media appropriate to the subject matter. Some subject matter really lends itself to high-level interactive learning and some doesn’t. You have to understand that and mix it up as appropriate. If we’re building a Level 3 course using scenarios and user-control, we also include some less interactive elements from Levels 1 and 2 to give people a range of experiences.”

Some organisations, she says, still transfer existing learning materials online with little thought to instructional or graphic design or how to get learners to interact and engage with the content:

“You have to ask why you’re moving learning online; and if the answer is that you want to enhance the learning experience then you need to invest in instructional and graphic design to support your strategy.”

Another issue related to moving learning online is around the choice of devices. Which devices do people want to learn on? This is an interesting area for Hannah because it’s less intuitive than one may think. Previously, Virtual College relied on responsive web design as the answer; but now they’re rethinking their strategy: “We’ve looked at studies around comprehension rates and how learners comprehend information using different devices. What we’ve found is that comprehension rates are much lower on smart phones because, while it may be responsive, content is not designed for a small screen.” They are now looking at device-specific content such as top tips, hints and refreshers and apps for smart phones with the full learning experience designed for the computer or tablet.

Horizon-scanning

The task for organisations like Virtual College is similar to that of any organisation working with blended learning: identifying what’s coming next and planning how to make the best use of it. They have established an innovation board to actively explore the future of learning and technology, accreditation and high-stakes assessment. The technology and learning world, she says, is ever-changing:

“Technology is advancing with new innovative solutions launched all the time. Learners’ demands and expectations for online learning are increasing and the adoption and use of technology is becoming more sophisticated. Organisations need to be skilled observers of technological change and not be afraid to explore what’s coming next.”