H.O.T. interview: Mary Benwell, University for Industry

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H.O.T.Training Solutions: The H.O.T. Conference - featured interview

It's now almost a year since the University for Industry launched learndirect. With its aims to provide information and advice to 2.5 million people a year by 2002, and create demand for up to one million courses and learning packages a year by 2004, Ufi's plans are very much on a large scale.

Mary Benwell, Director of Learning, Ufi Ltd will be highlighting some of the issues Ufi are facing in trying to establish a UK-wide success of learndirect in a presentation entitled 'The Challenge of Going Online to Deliver Lifelong Learning' at next week's H.O.T. conference. We spoke to Mary to catch up on Ufi's progress since our online interview with Director of Distributed Learning Helen Milner in December.

TrainingZONE: We can see that a fair amount of marketing of learndirect is taking place - last winter on This Morning, for example. Do you think the message is getting through to those who traditionally wouldn't think about attending some sort of training?

MB: Yes, we do have clear evidence from monitoring of users. Going by the samples available so far, at least 40 per cent of people using learndirect are people who have not undertaken formal learning in the last three years, and over 20 per cent are people who've taken no formal learning since they left the formal education system - which could have been leaving school at 16 for some.

We do ask everyone who logs on two simple questions, and it's looking as though we are exceeding the targets we set. We do however need to look at the longer-term position as well.

TrainingZONE: How do you address the issue of drop-out rates, which seem to be a common problem for all e-learning?

MB: You have to remember that these are not long courses - most are half an hour or so. It's also early days to talk about this - we're looking at what equates to completion and drop out, because when people are registering each week you can measure their attendance, but it's different when they're online. We can measure how long they're spending on line, but we won't have a good picture of this until the audit takes place later this year. We're also working with the Learning and Skills Council to look at what can be measured.

TrainingZONE: How are you tracking learners progress?

MB: Although it's too early to know this, we do know that almost 50 per cent of users are registering and taking up more than one course.

TrainingZONE: We understand work is underway to map learndirect courses to existing units of qualifications - are people following this through by going on to complete a whole qualification?

MB: What we've done is actually 'look through the opposite end of the telescope' - we have identified within the learndirect materials which elements map onto existing qualifications. We're also in discussion with awarding bodies, who can choose to incorporate learndirect courses into their qualifications, subject to QCA agreement and accreditation.

There's also an online search and diagnostic device, called SEQUIN, which enables the user to track the relationships between learndirect materials and qualifications. The database will be updated regularly.

TrainingZONE: Are there any special technological considerations, given the size of the scheme?

MB: Yes. One of things I'll be talking about in my presentation is that whole question of national infrastructure is one of challenges. For example, there are different pieces of computer 'kit' in different local hubs. We are going to use the JANET system in place in colleges and universities for access, but then, local area networks have different levels of connectivity. What we don't have nationally is an equally good infrastructure, so we have to adapt our strategy where we need to. We're working closely with BECTA and National Grid for Learning to ensure common standards.

TrainingZONE: In our workshop, noted some frustrations coming from learning providers ref the documentation and processes involved with registering course details and tracking learners - is the system now in place working well?

MB: Yes. We released version 3 (of the system for this) after Christmas. All of materials already on it as well as new ones which have been added work differently - for example, when a learner logs off, they can go back to point where they left next time - we didn't have this before. Version 4 will be released early autumn this year - we're constantly upgrading our systems.

TrainingZONE: We understand that most popular courses in early stages of learndirect have been beginner ICT courses and internet. What about the delivery of soft skills training online?

One of issues affecting soft skills delivery is that the commercial team within Ufi primarily working with employers is just getting going. We have done some analysis of take-up patterns; Whereas take-up in colleges tends to be biased towards IT, we are seeing soft skills materials being used by a higher proportion of users in industry sectors. We can't yet see a big take-up with these skill areas though.

TrainingZONE: Your presentation will address the need for those supporting e-learners to work in new ways. How do you see trainers as adapting their role to help this along?

MB: We're currently looking at what is happening in what appear to be the best practice examples of work going on. We intend to present these findings to the relevant NTOs in the Autumn.

Ultimately, NTOs will be responsible for the standards, but we acknowledge it may take some time to put them in place - with the Open University, for instance, it took some time to understand how to work with open learners.

TrainingZONE: Our members are clearly interested in Ufi - 1400 have followed progress through the Ufi watch page so far. With a new Chief Executive due to come on board, what are the plans for learndirect over the next year?

MB: The big thrust will be getting involved in workforce development, working with NTOs and employers.

Mary Benwell spoke at the Changing Face of Learning day of the H.O.T. conference on June 27 2001.

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