posted 28 Aug 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 1
Case study: Back to school with e-learning
Following extensive research into the learning market, Bronwen Clifton concluded that e-learning was the best option for upskilling staff and enhancing knowledge-management initiatives at New Zealand’s Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Here she outlines how the e-learning business case was prepared and highlights the project’s successes.
In August 2001, the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology in Wellington, New Zealand decided to implement an e-learning project for its staff. At that time the ministry comprised 45 people. The ministry is a government department with a mission to, “Inspire and assist New Zealanders to create a better future through research and innovation.” The ministry is the principal adviser to the government on research and innovation. It also manages contracts, on behalf of the minister, with agencies such as the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the Health Research Council and the Royal Society of New Zealand, which directly invest in research and innovation. Supporting the development of the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board is another of our main services to the New Zealand Government. Finally the ministry manages and reports on the government’s NZ$100m interest in the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund.
The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology’s core activity of delivering quality policy advice relies heavily on competent word-processing and communications skills. Managers expect their staff to be able users of the technology available on their desktops. But this begs the question, is just being ‘competency’ really enough in today’s climate of working smarter and producing more with less?
The 2001 report of the Advisory Group on the Review of the Centre, from the State Services Commission, made several recommendations relating to enhancing people and culture in the New Zealand Public Service. The report proposed that in five years’ time there would be more innovative solutions dealing with long-standing problems. It also identified the need to address the overall means of improving the effectiveness of the sector and departments, and their ability to provide quality services.
In order for these changes to occur, public sector staff will have to become ‘smarter’ in the way they operate. The report also endorsed investigating training options that would improve service delivery.
The Knowledge Goal is one of this government’s key areas of focus. Its aim is to accelerate knowledge creation and to develop people, learning systems and networks to enhance New Zealand’s capacity to innovate. As our ministry concentrates on meeting this goal, it is critical for us to lead by example in this particular area. Ministry staff should use knowledge-management good practice, in this case increasing their skill base and competencies around software applications, so they can operate astutely and effectively in the public sector.
The challenge for us as a ministry was to locate and trial a method of upskilling staff that would be flexible and cost effective, but wouldn’t add to already heavy workloads.
I read widely, talked with colleagues both internally and externally, and joined a number of list serves to bring myself up to speed with what the ‘learning market’ of 2001 looked like. I discovered that the fastest growing learning methodology that addressed enterprise-wide training needs was e-learning.
I then focused on some of the fundamentals that distinguish e-learning from more traditional learning methodologies. E-learning can be undertaken from the desktop on site and can be broken down into small modules. This is characterised by such positive attributes as:
- The modules can be worked through as and when it suits the student;
- Students can quickly assess their own ability levels and select modules and levels of ability accordingly;
- The student can pick and choose areas to work on.
At the same time there are some less-than-positive aspects, such as:
- The student has to apply a degree of self-discipline in order to work through the course;
- The student can be interrupted by work demands and colleagues.
Aims and objectives
In my role as project manager I designed, directed, delivered and evaluated the learning project. There were four main issues that the project aimed to address:
- Would e-learning be a good fit with the ministry’s staff, culture and capability needs?
- Could it be adopted by the ministry as a viable addition to more traditional learning and training methodologies?
- Would staff actually enjoy using e-learning as a tool to improve their skills?
- Would e-learning be good value for the ministry in terms of return on investment?
Against this background the e-learning trial was initiated.
The aim of the e-learning initiative was to increase and improve the word-processing skills of ministry staff. At the time the ministry had also identified the need for increased productivity as a key business driver given the rapid growth of the ministry coupled with its distributed nature (the first off site working team had been established in Auckland).
The ministry operates in a Microsoft Office environment. The main tools used are Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Specialist database, web-based and financial software applications were not addressed in the scope of this project.
Preparing the business case
I prepared a business case to support the project based on our business needs, current environment and strategic goals. I identified the prime objective as being the smarter and more effective use of desktop applications by staff in order to produce high-quality policy advice in the most effective and efficient way. I recommended using a product with 45 user licences. These licences would give the ministry access to a suite of web-based, interactive e-learning training packages. Staff would be able to log on to the database and select from a range of 23 training courses (at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels) relating to Microsoft software applications.
In August 2001 the project was announced to all 45 staff members at a meeting. The online trial was promoted as an opportunity for staff to upskill, at their own pace and at a time that suited them. Staff would be able to select the application and the appropriate level that best suited their needs. A plan to support users was developed together with a communications plan that was designed to interest, inform and attract staff to join the trial. All staff members were given a one-page handout explaining the scope and nature of the project.
A total of 33 staff (73 per cent) asked to join the trial. This included the chief executive and a number of senior staff members. The large amount of interest shown by staff reflects a culture where there is a genuine interest in learning and a commitment to exploring the potentials of new technologies.
I made individual appointments with all interested staff. These appointments served to:
- Acquaint staff with the technology. Together we worked through a sample course map to understand the concept, layout, composition and terminology;
- Demonstrate the range and levels of courses;
- Help finalise their course choices;
- Explain that the unit and course tests were not compulsory but rather tools to determine what a student already knew, and therefore did not have to go over again;
- Show students how to view their own progress in terms of tests under-taken and percentage of the course completed;
- Give staff a ‘Ministry guide to e-learning’; complete with screenshots they could expect to see. I developed this in house to address frequently asked questions, our particular server set up and the log-on process. It demonstrated a typical navigation path through the various units make up a course, explained button functionality and generally outlined the way the courses worked;
- Answer any questions.
Behind the scenes
The e-learning suite was delivered to staff via an in-house server. Its front-end interface offered a relatively intuitive and user-friendly method of learning.
Administration access was only available to IT support and myself. I allocated passwords and generated a variety of reports reflecting the number and type of courses started and completed as well as students’ progress through the courses.
At the end of October a feedback sheet was given to each staff member who had participated in the trial. All students rated the subject content, design and module size as strongly positive features. All respondents also believed that the courses had helped them to do their job better. Thirty-seven per cent felt they would rather take an external course given the choice while 41 per cent preferred the e-learning option. It was interesting to note that the 41 per cent that preferred the e-learning option were all under 25 years of age.
Fifty-eight per cent of the respondents commented that finding the time to do the courses was the most significant issue. They mentioned being too busy, not being disciplined enough to make the necessary time available and commented that the courses themselves were time consuming. One user noted, “The best part is that you can pick it up, leave it and come back to it easily during the course of a day.”
ROI and the bottom line
It is very difficult to calculate e-learning’s ROI. This is because it is hard to assign a dollar figure to many of the softer benefits associated with the initiative. Some of these may include improved communication, skill improvement, time savings and staff development.
Overseas research supports what we have found at the ministry. The one thing
e-learners, as a group, have problems with is the issue of finding or making time for the learning without interruptions and distractions, or feeling guilty about doing training instead of their usual work. 
It has also been shown that while e-learning is not an effective tool for acquiring softer skills, it is a particularly good method for providing computer-application training.4
Ministry staff members were keen to try e-learning, and the feedback re received demonstrates a largely positive reaction to this method of learning.
The four objectives for the project were addressed in the following ways:
- Would e-learning be a good fit with the ministry’s staff, culture and capability needs? Feedback showed that e-learning was warmly embraced by the organisation. This was particularly true of those under25 who showed the greatest commitment to finishing the courses they had started, and also showed the greatest satisfaction with the learning method;
- Could it be adopted by the ministry as a viable addition to more traditional learning and training methodologies?
- E-learning is not for everyone. There were some staff members who, after the trial, felt that going off site to an external course where they could interact with other students would better suit their learning needs. E-learning can be viewed as complementary to more traditional learning methods. It can form part of a range of learning options;
- Would staff actually enjoy using e-learning as a tool to improve their skills? As noted earlier e-learning suited some people but not others. Its strengths lie in teaching computer applications but it is not as good at developing softer skills, such as communications;
- Would e-learning be good value for the ministry in terms of ROI? If e-learning were to be built into staff professional-development agreements then measurable training results could be obtained. Potentially there could be a maximum payoff on IT investment by ensuring employees have the computer skills necessary to use applications more effectively. Increased productivity should follow through staff members’ enhanced ability to complete tasks more promptly and accurately. There could also be cost savings with reduced travel costs and instructors’ fees. For any e-learning programme to be completely successful it would have to be incorporated into the professional-development agreement process and supported by managers.
E-learning forms one part of our staff training and learning strategy. The ministry is currently investigating other packages for their potential to further enhance staff IT skills and capabilities. E-learning has proved to be the ideal tool that has turned the ministry into a learning organisation.
Bronwen Clifton works for the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Report of the Advisory Group on the Review of the Centre (State Services Commission, 2001)
2. Igniting the Future, Statement of Intent 2003-2006 (Ministry of Research, Science & Technology, 2002)
3. Chapnick, S., ‘E-learning? Show me the money!’ in T+D Journal (ASTD, June 2001)