Throughout my book The New Learning Architect I take time out to look at real-life examples of learning architects in action. In this final profile, we look at the work of a learning architect who has worked within what is very much a top-down learning environment and on a very large scale. Dick’s work at learndirect helped to ensure 2.8 million people across the UK were able to make a start on their learning journey.
Delivering the UK’s largest online learning service
Dick Moore was Director of Technology at learndirect over nine years. Operated by Ufi Ltd, learndirect’s mission is to transform skills, productivity and individual lives by providing the best of online learning. As an adult learning provider delivering widespread access to online training, learndirect has become one of the leading contributors to the UK government’s skills agenda. Since 2000 it has used technology to enable more than 2.8 million adults to gain the skills they, their employers and the economy need, helping them on their way into further training or employment.
Over Dick’s nine years at learndirect, he had to completely re-engineer the offer. With 500K enrolments per year, a significant number of whom have a relatively low educational level, Dick had the task of developing a technological architecture that was not just functional, but scalable, reliable and capable of providing a positive user experience.
In addition to rebuilding the learning platform Dick was asked to reduce his budget by 50% and to deliver twice as many releases per year. Dick achieved this by bringing much of the work in-house (insourcing) and creating a user panel involving all key stakeholders. They consulted and listened to the advice of usability experts, and employed an agile approach which involved a great deal of prototyping. Dick believes that involving users throughout the systems design rather than just at the end during testing is advice that is often given but seldom taken.
The basis of learndirect’s offer
At the core of learndirect’s provision is a ‘supportive triangle’ which includes the learning content itself, the system and the support staff at the 1000s of learning centres where many students take the first steps back onto a new learning journey. Many of the courses provided by learndirect lead to National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), which require evidence rather than test-based assessment. The system, therefore, has to accommodate the storage and management of hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence stored as an ‘e-portfolio’.
The learndirect offer is essentially one of formal learning with assessment, with an emphasis on vocational and skills-based training leading to nationally-recognised qualifications. While formal, the process is essentially bottom-up, in that the courses are typically chosen by learners (‘pulled’) rather than imposed by employers (‘pushed’).
The measure of learndirect’s success is the unit cost per enrolled, completed and successful student. Retention is key, so a high emphasis is placed within learning centres on ensuring that customers (learners) have appropriate threshold skills. Students are assessed to see whether they really have the time and the motivation to complete a course. This is particularly important because the courses are low cost to the learner and therefore not always highly valued. Another technique is to use entry-level taster courses, which give local tutors on the ground a chance to check out a student’s propensity to learn.
Once students are enrolled the next priority is to keep them on track. With no formal teacher to engage students, the content and the system have to deliver the learning experience supported often by learning centre staff and on-line tutors. Importantly, learners need a way to chart their own progress across time and tutors need to be able to keep an eye on this as well.
Dick was particularly concerned that the system was all very simple and accessible: “Learning is not always fun; however it is rewarding, like the gym. When you’re learning, you’re trying to rearrange your mental model. And with assessments to complete as well, there’s going to be an element of fear. In a situation like this, you need to avoid all extraneous noise.”
The system was re-designed so that the interface persisted while the student was working with content, so they could send messages at any point. And because a typical learning episode was a whole morning or afternoon, it was absolutely critical that the student didn’t lose their work through a connection problem. Any incident of this sort would be remembered by the student for a long time and would cause them to lose confidence in both the system and often in themselves.
Harnessing informal learning
There was an assumption that students would jump at the chance to use chat rooms and forums, however without active support and guidance such chat rooms were often ‘like the Marie Celeste’. Dick believes that they would have been more successful if tightly integrated with individual courses, but as optional extras they didn’t work. Whereas, these sorts of communication technologies can be highly successful in tutor-driven courses that are delivered in cohorts, for learndirect students the informal learning element came in the learning centre or at home, person-to-person. In Dick’s view “it is almost an oxymoron to try and control informal learning.”
Still, customer satisfaction was 94% and has since improved beyond that. This rating reflects students satisfaction with their experience and he believes also reflects an increase in students’ self-esteem. As Dick explains, “If you can give people an experience that makes them feel good about themselves, they’ll feel good about you!”
Providing tutor support
An important element of the learndirect experience is that students know they have a tutor and someone to ask for help. Tutors have their own interface to the system, organised according to their workflow. This requires them to validate student outcomes by looking at scores, reviewing any free text responses and messages, and then writing a note to the student. As this process became regulated by the system, it improved retention and success. Before, this was largely dependent on a particular tutor.
The tutors received online training in using the new system, primarily with the aid of short screencasts which allowed them to watch and practise at the same time. The screencasts also constituted a valuable on-demand learning resource. Again Dick placed a high emphasis on simplicity: “It seems the glossier something is the more we tune out. Perhaps we are conditioned by adverts.”
What learndirect has achieved
Dick’s success in creating a scalable and highly accessible learning platform can be demonstrated by some of the numbers:
- 8,200 people log on and learn with learndirect every day;
- more than 2.8 million learners have taken a learndirect course;
- 90 per cent of learndirect learners are qualified below level two or are assessed as having a basic skills need;
- 433,000 Skills for Life test passes have been achieved with learndirect;
- altogether, more than 467,000 online tests in literacy and numeracy have been taken with learndirect;
- 23,396 people have achieved an NVQ through learndirect;
- learndirect has worked with over 5,000 businesses through Train to Gain, resulting in more than 10,000 qualifications;
- learner satisfaction with learndirect currently stands at 96%.
Technology should be architected to deliver a service not a solution, having the audience at the centre of your design and architecture and ensuring that your systems are instrumented such that you have a measure of the client satisfaction rather than relying on ‘happy sheets’, completed by those for whom the experience was a success, is an architectural imperative.
Dick Moore has worked as an educational technologist for 30 years and now runs his own company Moore Answers Ltd, an IT interim/consultancy and change management house that is particularly keen on charities, education systems and infrastructure. Dick was until May 2010 Director of Technology at learndirect, one of the largest e-learning organisations in the world with some 3 million learners on the system and delivering 500,000 enrolments annually.
Previously Dick was Vice-President for Systems and Information at a Los Angeles-based dot.com company thedock.com, an industrial auction site, and before that was Director of ICT at both Sheffield College and Doncaster College, two of Europe’s largest Further Education institutions. During the 80s, he was Director of a new media company Interactive Media Resources, working with interactive video and educational software, where he wrote educational software and simulations for The Stock Exchange, Shell and Tandy Corporation, amongst others.
Dick has a BSc in Botany, specialising in Taxonomy, and is a trustee of the Association for Learning Technology and chair of their publications committee.