Bob Little



The influence of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) is growing, with its Government-given remit to take a lead role in fulfilling the UK’s new e-strategy. Bob Little reports.

Strategy for success

Increasingly, Government, employers and training providers are recognising that e-learning has an important role to play in developing and maintaining the skills required by the UK workforce. Nonetheless, while many large corporate organisations have been developing and using e-learning applications for a number of years, the use of e-learning is more embryonic when it comes to supporting public-funded skills provision, skills development in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and filling specific skills gaps in the workforce.

These are the key findings of research into the use and effectiveness of work-based e-learning, along with its integration with more traditional learning methods. This research was commissioned by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and carried out earlier this year.

The rationale for the research is that Becta’s influence is growing. Although its core activities are still focused on strategy and projects within schools and post-16 education, Becta’s role is changing in the light of the recently published Government e-strategy paper, ‘Harnessing Technology: Transforming learning and children's services’.

This paper, published by the DfES earlier this year, deals with the UK’s e-strategy for the next five years. It supersedes the paper, ‘Towards a Unified E-Learning Strategy’, published in July 2003, and increases Becta’s remit for, and influence over, the corporate learning world.

The e-strategy’s objectives are to: 

  • Transform teaching, learning and child development, enabling children and learners of all ages to meet their highest expectations.

  • Connect with hard-to-reach groups in new ways.

  • Open up education to partnerships with other organisations.

  • Move to a new level of efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of learning.

The e-strategy aims to establish:

  • An integrated online information service for everyone.

  • Integrated online personal support for children and learners.

  • A collaborative approach to transforming teaching and learning.

  • A good quality training and support package for practitioners.

  • A leadership and development package for organisational capability in information and communications technology (ICT).

  • A common digital infrastructure to support transformation and reform.

Among the work-based e-learning initiatives arising from this e-strategy is the Work based e-learning Action Plan (Wbel), jointly administered by e-Skills UK and Becta, which is looking at the supply and demand sides of work-based e-learning.

“The e-strategy intends that, by 2008, everyone in the UK will have access to ‘learning space’ and Becta is taking a lead helping to bring this about,” said Stuart Jones, Becta’s assistant director of learning and teaching. “Our main functions – aligned to the objectives of the e-strategy – are to develop a route map to institutional development capability within the four layer architecture of learning and teaching; content; community, and data interoperability. In particular, Becta has been given responsibility for ensuring that learning content is ‘fit for purpose’ and matches the needs of both the learner and the learner’s organisation. 

“Achieving these objectives will involve Becta in working with various communities of practice – especially within the corporate learning world.

“Our key policy themes, apart from initial teacher training, are creating an ‘institution to home’ community of learning process; establishing continuous professional development (CPD) for all; encouraging communities of practice; the development of e-assessment, and the development of e-portfolios,” he added.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the eLearning Network (ELN), the UK’s foremost community of practice for those involved in e-learning, Lesley Price, Becta’s assistant director of institutional development, explained the concept of the ‘route map’ that aims to help learning providers to become effective, e-enabled organisations. The concept is based on maturity modelling and aims to show how ‘e-mature’ the organisation is, based on key processes and practices employed by the organisation. A supporting online toolkit will direct users how to access appropriate support to help them on their journey.

Price explained: “You need to use e-learning to create a personalised learning experience – and that means increasing flexibility and reducing bureaucracy for the workforce. It’s important to remember that, from the start of the education process, children are ‘streamed’ educationally. So by the time they reach the ‘post-16’ stage, they are not all the same – and can’t be treated as such by the learning materials they encounter. This is an argument for providing greater flexibility in learning materials - and that is an argument in support of e-learning, which should be able to provide that flexibility.”

Price explained that Becta’s proposed route map offers a way through the e-learning maze because it is about establishing:

  • Consistency (of support – removing mixed messages about what e-learning is)

  •  Clarity

  •  Flexibility

Becta’s route map is being influenced by the results of research into the use of ICT and e-learning by Learning and Skills Council (LSC)-funded work-based learning providers. 

According to Neil McLean, Becta’s executive director responsible for e-strategy and institutional development: ”Our research has identified that 96 per cent of these LSC-funded work-based learning providers are using ICT or e-learning to support work-based learning in some way. However, the study reveals that these providers are using ICT and e-learning in different ways across all occupational areas and to varying extents. Nonetheless, the survey shows that most providers expect to use a ‘blended’ approach, combining ICT and traditional methods to deliver work-based learning.

“The key message coming from this research is that ICT and e-learning are changing people’s ability to manage their own and their environmental change,” he said.

Becta’s survey shows that there are considerable differences between providers in relation to their approach to, and knowledge of, ICT and e-learning. For example:
· A third of respondents have either not considered e-learning yet (seven per cent) or have considered but not implemented it (26 per cent).
· Nearly a third of providers (31 per cent) are either piloting e-learning (16 per cent) or putting in place plans to implement e-learning (15 per cent).
· Some 27 per cent of providers are either currently embedding e-learning activities (20 per cent) or have been using e-learning for some time (seven per cent).

In McLean’s view, this suggests that any support activities targeted at work-based learning providers that have either not considered or implemented e-learning should be different from support activities for providers that are embedding e-learning or have been using it for some time.

Becta’s research reveals that a number of work-based learning providers have invested heavily in their own ICT equipment to complement learning in the workplace. The majority of providers (90 per cent) have computers on their premises for learners to access, and 80 per cent of these computers have fast internet access. Some 49 per cent of the providers also have laptops that they take to learners’ workplaces. This helps to overcome computer access problems in the workplace.

Although only 22 per cent of the LSC-funded work-based learning providers currently use ICT as a collaborative learning tool, 92 per cent of the LSC-funded work-based learning providers expect their learners to use the internet for research purposes. In addition, learning resources such as CD-ROMs (84 per cent) and web-based resources (64 per cent) are increasingly used. Anecdotally, it appears that this material is primarily focused on generic learning, such as health and safety or induction, but the research points to examples of occupation- and industry-specific learning materials. 

Eighty one per cent of these providers use commercially developed e-learning resources but 53 per cent of them are now developing their own e-learning materials. Despite issues identified by providers such as the costs involved in developing their own e-learning materials, as well as their lack of knowledge and skills in developing e-learning programmes, only a fifth of providers have developed resources in partnership with other organisations. 

“Given the lack of knowledge among these LSC-funded work-based learning providers about the impact and effectiveness of e-learning, there is clearly scope for greater collaboration,” said McLean. “This includes greater linkages with private-sector developers and employers.

”Providers report that the major benefits associated with using ICT and e-learning are related to increased learner satisfaction and improved learning outcomes,” he added. “This supports our anecdotal evidence that many providers are implementing e-learning to provide a better quality learning experience for learners and to respond to learner expectations. However, only a quarter of providers report cost benefits from using ICT and e-learning – and this has significant implications for its sustainability. In addition, 30 per cent of providers are unsure of the effectiveness of the e-learning they are delivering.”

”The overwhelming message coming from this research is that providers are enthusiastic about developing a better understanding of how to use ICT and e-learning in the most effective way,” said McLean. “Providers feel isolated and want to know if they are doing things in the best way and they want to know what they can learn from other providers that have implemented e-learning. A number of providers pointed out that they are not just after examples but, rather, want to increase their knowledge and skills to understand what works, why and how they can transfer these lessons to their own activities. 

“Identifying what works and in what circumstances will not be easy as fewer than a quarter of providers implementing e-learning have any evidence to show its effectiveness. The level of robust monitoring and evaluation of e-learning activities needs to be increased so that effectiveness can be demonstrated not only to providers that are keen to develop e-learning, but also to those that are more sceptical,” he added.

By Bob Little



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