Case study: Online learning for SMEs

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This case study looks at the process of working within a partnership, setting and achieving desired learning outcomes by focusing on the learning process, and the balance of responding to the needs of both learners and clients.

To encourage small and medium enterprises (SMEs) within the photo imaging industry to grow and develop, the Design Council, the Photo Imaging National Training Organisation (NTO) and online learning resources developers Nelson Croom formed a partnership to create an online e-business resource - now being jointly promoted by The NTO and the Design Council - that enables SMEs within the photo imaging industry to implement the potential opportunities that e-business has to offer. The Design Council funded and sponsored the project; the NTO provided insight into the photo imaging industry; Nelson Croom led the building and development of the resource, and the process was facilitated by Kevin Gavaghan of Choreographics - a small company that believes that businesses often ignore the potential of graphics to explain concepts.

Kevin Gavaghan, through his connections within The Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI) and the Business Links, knew of small business’ learning needs. The Design Council asked Kevin to help define a project to meet these needs and he suggested creating an online tool for one industry sector, to ensure end-user focus.

Kevin’s contact with SFEDI put him in touch with the photo imaging NTO. John Stacey, its CEO, explained: "Web design and web trading is a natural step, for those who trade in images. A revolution is currently happening that transcends the colour photography revolution and, maybe, even the introduction of photography itself." Kevin then approached Alan Nelson, managing director of Nelson Croom, which had recently completed a similar project for Business Link Kent.

SFEDI lists a lack of skills as being one of the top six problems faced by SMEs – which account for 99.5 per cent of the business population in the UK and over 2.3 million of those are sole traders or partners. As Roger Staton, director of photo imaging NTO Hub and manager of the West Midlands Digital-Imaging Centre said: "Ninety per cent of those in the photo imaging industry are one-man bands who have no choice but to use the 'any time, any place' approach that online learning provides."

Having identified the concerns and experiences of SMEs from the photo imaging industry, the group focused on highlighting thes issues – to engage the interest of learners. This is key to a successful online programme, as the Internet doesn't provide the control over learners that traditional methods, such as classroom tuition, involve. People’s thirst for easily accessible knowledge can be used to motivate and drive their learning, but only if the information and learning activities are highly relevant. Otherwise, learners will soon lose interest.

Nelson Croom developed the content by taking generic e-business advice and information and focusing the context of its delivery to make it relevant for the SMEs in the photo imaging industry. The NTO provided material including links and case studies. These have been used to illustrate how e-business concepts can be applied to the photo imaging industry, and how issues raised could affect SMEs. The Design Council focused on the programme content and ensured that as much industry specific information as possible was put into the resource.

The success of an online learning resource depends not only on fulfilling the needs of the clients, but also those of the learner. This relies heavily on the process of clarifying and setting the desired learning outcomes, which should be carried out in the initial stages of a project. It is possible to build a program that fulfils most of the aims of the clients but does not consider the needs and interests of the end users. This approach will inevitably lead to failure because the desired learning outcomes can never be achieved without engaging the interest and cooperation of the learner.

Kevin Gavaghan explains: "There are two parts to the design process, a 'macro' design process and then a 'micro' one. The partners all agreed on the macro process, which involves market identification, segment need clarification, industry focus, identification of the gap between the original and the final product, deciding on the channels to bridge that gap and then measuring the success of the product for the people it was intended. The micro design process is more to do with the work that goes into bridging the gap between the concept of an online course, incorporating different learning styles and lots of industry information, and the page design, layout and navigation of the programme."

During the project development, the partners explored how to best combine a depth of content and simplicity of navigation. Their solution involved establishing a balance between information and the skills learners need in order to use that information. Developing the page design, layout and navigation of the program proved to be time-consuming. While many people assess systems based on a linear assumption - because of their previous experiences of learning design - Nelson Croom believes it's important, when developing effective online learning, to incorporate everything that learners have learnt about learning, as well as everything that is best about the Internet.

Alan Nelson comments: "The new found freedom that people have enjoyed on the web and expect to see in an online program, must be effectively supported by the structure of good instructional design, but must also not be compromised by assuming a learner's approach to the programme will be linear." He adds, "This project profited from the involvement of a group of people with different things to offer. Nonetheless, we realised that the project management cost of the micro process is always going to be high when the project team is diverse. As is so often the case, the strength of a project also provides its challenges. It was a great project to be involved in for these very reasons and rewarding because of the results it will deliver in the photographic industry."

In the end, all the partners' objectives were fulfilled. As Ellie Runcie of the Design Council said: "We have an e-tool, which was launched when we wanted it to be and built online within the time frame. It was a balanced team effort. The extra achievement of the incorporation of the learning process into an online resource was an added bonus."

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