Making learning stick

by 22 Jan 2008

Learning and development is a vital part of many organisations attraction, retention and career development strategies. Teresa Russell looks at how to implement effective workplace learning initiatives that wont break the bank

What do the Motor Traders Association of NSW (MTA NSW) and the well-known telephone counselling service, Lifeline Australia have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out. They were two of 14 organisations that received a grant in 2006 from the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, set up under the then Department of Education, Science and Training.

The framework is a national strategy that was collaboratively funded by the Federal Government and all states and territories at $15 million annually. Its role was to meet the e-learning needs of students and communities, business and industry, Indigenous learners and people with disabilities. (Although the framework is still operating in the same manner, this has been written in the past tense because the new Federal Government will undoubtedly be reviewing its scope and function in 2008.)

The similarities do not end with the grant, however. MTA NSW is an industrial body and registered training organisation (RTO) that provides advice and services, including training, to around 6,000 automotive businesses (sales, panel beating, mechanical, etc) across NSW. Its team of six trainers delivers on-the-job training to 400 people, including light vehicle mechanic apprenticeships and vehicle sales trainees. “We needed to find a way to reduce the high turnover rate among vehicle sales trainees,” says Danielle Andrews, MTA NSW’s training manager, who says that completion rates were less than 40 per cent.

Lifeline is also an RTO, with about 4,000 volunteer telephone counsellors who provide support for the emotional health and wellbeing of its clients via 60 locations nationwide. Its 131 114 telephone counselling service answers 500,000 calls per year. “Volunteer recruitment and retention is both an important part and an expensive part of what we do,” says Fay Mound, policy officer and leader of the 2006–07 supervisor-on-call training initiative.

The business need

In 2005, Lifeline undertook an external review of its national supervision policy and practice, identifying the need for change, as well as the need for a standardised national training program for its supervisors on call. These people provide debriefing and support on-call for all Lifeline’s 5,000 telephone counsellors. “Our supervisors on-call used to get ‘as needs’ training, while our counsellors all got on average a 16-week training program,” says Mound. One of the drivers for the timing of this training was the imminent deployment of a national telephony system that highlighted the need for consistency of service throughout the organisation.

Vehicle sales trainees work in dealerships across NSW. The MTA NSW starts 150 trainees each year under the NSW User Choice scheme, which pays the RTO at progression points across the traineeship, so not all funding for the training is received up-front. “There is high pressure on these sales consultants because of the hours they work and their commission structures. We wanted to find a way to keep them in their traineeship, not only for the sake of the dealership they worked for, but to also get the funding for the training we delivered,” says Andrews.

Choosing the delivery mode

Both Lifeline and MTA NSW felt that the key to the success of their training programs was understanding the target audience and creating training programs that had sharply-focused content and a delivery mode that suited the lifestyles of its users.

Mound says that the ideal telephone supervisor-on-call training resource needed to be cost-effective, have self-paced components, be nationally available but with the opportunity for local input, delivered flexibly and have a comprehensive assessment process. The grant for $50,000 (partially matched by Lifeline) funded the e-learning part of the project that included online reading material, audio, multiple-choice questions, long-answer questions and assignments, combined with a face-to-face interview with the centre trainer and a locally-tailored knowledge component.

“The framework encourages the sharing of information and resources, so we chose Moodle (see box) as our course management system,” says Mound, who made a demonstration version of Lifeline’s training program and left it online for others to use and adapt.

“The scope of our project would not have been benefited by more money,” says Andrews about the project’s relatively small budget. MTA NSW’s funding of $25,000 (plus matched industry funding) went towards creating podcasts and a CD-ROM. The CD was the workbook, using content from the existing paper-based resources, which had easily manageable chapters on the basic, fundamental skills needed to at least keep vehicle sales trainees in the industry. The podcasts provided additional learning that supported and extended topics on the CD. The podcasts included a range of interviews that provided answers to a set of questions or a role-play. Andrews says that the ideal podcast is the “walk around” of a vehicle, showing the trainee what they must demonstrate, highlight and point out to a customer.

“We chose podcasting because it was an emerging technology that would suit the needs of our sales trainees. They all had mobile phones already (which are MP3 players), so they had that technology. We provided the pilot participants each with an iPod Shuffle, which created quite a positive buzz,” says Andrews who describes podcasting as cheap, easy to set up, record, edit and control because there is both free software and free websites that host podcasts. “Setting up the podcasting was the biggest learning experience for us. We took pre-existing knowledge and resources and put them in a new delivery mode.”

Program outcomes

After piloting the podcasts, Andrews says she didn’t get one negative comment from the group or any of their supervisors. “They loved the 5–10 minute windows of training we gave, because that’s the amount of time they often have between customers and other tasks,” she says. After rolling it out across all trainees, Andrews says that everyone – even those older than 60 – has worked well with the technology. There has only been anecdotal evidence that retention rates have improved – a figure that will be confirmed after 12 full months from implementation. “We’ve also had an amazing amount of feedback within the industry for being innovative and great feedback from our members,” reports Andrews.

Mound says the end of course questionnaire shows that the blended-learning Lifeline has piloted has been well received. “It made them feel valued and showed them how important their role was. They enjoyed the flexibility of doing training in their free time and were pleased it had been developed for them personally,” she says. With 65 people completed and another 110 enrolled, Mound says they have already achieved the goals set out in the business case.

Lifeline has also just started trialling a domestic family violence course, leveraging the knowledge gained from the first project and has just completed a scoping paper for a third course, utilising the same technology and principles. The only cost has been the time from IT, the webmaster, the writer and the University of Wollongong– Lifeline’s project partner.

Tips for making learning stick

Mound and Andrews agree that the key to a successful project is to know the learners and clients well. “We could have created a product that was completely ineffective if we didn’t know exactly how vehicle sales trainees work on a day-to-day basis,” says Andrews, who adds that the podcasting ended up being much easier to do than they expected.

Mound says it is important to remember that e-learning is just a part of a blended-learning approach. “Make sure management is behind you, be patient and be prepared to learn and use new skills,” she advises.

Moodle

Moodle is one of dozens of free, open-source software packages available online. It has been designed to help educators create effective online learning communities. It can be downloaded and used on any computer (including webhosts) and can be scaled from a single-teacher site to a university with 200,000 students.