Distance Learning: Companies cash in as employees sharpen skills in the workplace

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The Independent Online
AS REVOLUTION in information technology transforms the spread of knowledge, distance learning is growing apace. But when the history books are written, a snapshot of 1994 will show a trend in its infancy.

Today, more and more companies are looking to distance learning to enhance the skills of their workforces. Banks, building societies and government departments are also awakening to the potential cost savings it offers.

At Ford UK, all employees receive a grant for non-job- related education and training; Nissan provides staff with an Open Learning Centre; and at Rolls-Royce, distance learning is spreading through the company culture from shopfloor to senior managment tiers.

Distance learning makes economic sense and is here to stay, said John Crouch, managing consultant at the Rolls- Royce Corporate Training Unit. He added that it is still at the developmental stage at Rolls - but he joined many others in the field in predicting exponential growth.

'We would eventually like to get into total open learning, where anybody could go at any time to learn anything. But obviously, in the current climate, people have to be nominated to go on programmes.

'Distance learning opens up the possibility of providing the knowledge element of training - to a standard and at a cheap price - across the company. That then gives us considerable savings in time and money. It means we can concentrate on other elements - skills and behaviour - which are much better communicated in the classroom.'

The spread started when the company's aerospace group installed a new computer system and wanted to train its 20,000 employees to use it. 'The only was to opt for distance learning. The more we looked at it, the more we realised that distance learning yielded tremendous spin-offs for general training.'

Thirteen distance learning centres have been set up since late 1991. By the end of the year, 25 should be in place. There is even a mobile centre.

Mr Crouch expanded on the advantages: 'With distance learning, people can go at their own pace, and they will probably learn as much by spending three hours a week in a learning centre next door as they would in attending a daylong course out of town.'

Rolls has even branched out into satellite broadcasting, producing its own programmes, taping proceedings and discussions and transmitting them to work sites.

Videotapes, laser disks, audio tapes, and, of course books, are being used to teach everything from work practices to management development and health and safety.

Managers at Rolls are using computer-based courses from Maxim Training Systems that are cross-referenced to the standards which are enshrined in the Management Charter Initiative. The emphasis is on recognition and assessment of competence.

Tracy Drewitt, Maxim's sales director, said corporate clients were increasingly keen on open access agreements that allow them to test materials as soon as they are approved. 'They can also try out a range of titles and get the training mix right to match the core competences they have identified as being critical.'

The Open University, set up in 1969, pioneered open learning at degree level in the UK and has become Britain's largest single teaching institution. Last year 210,000 people were studying with the OU with 'continuing education' courses outstripping degree work.

The OU transmits on BBC airtime, but it is not the only venture using TV to spread specialist knowledge.

BBC Select, a subsidiary that generates money to enhance services funded by the TV licence fee, is helping to boost distance learning. Using traditional broadcast media in the hours between 2am and 6am, it simplifies the delivery of training and education materials. For example, the RCN Nursing Update, television service of the Royal College of Nursing, provides an education method flexible enough to meet the varied working patterns of nurses. It is linked to printed supplements and assessment modules, and nurses are able to earn continuing education points by following the course.

BBC Select programmes are funded by the organisations or companies transmitting them. Most are open to any viewer but some are broadcast in a scrambled format. Companies, institutions or individuals subscribe to receive an unscrambled version.

TV Edits offers French and German for advanced or intermediate language students. It ditches the studio-based programme format, launching viewers into contemporary scenes or clips from magazine programmes. More than 130 institutions subscribe.

The Executive Business Club combines programmes on BBC Select with flexible learning workbooks. This year, topics range from performance evaluation to computers in the workplace. Other series look at such subjects as investing in people, team-building and customer care. EBC programmes are said to be much in demand from senior officers at the Police Staff College at Bramshill who feel they can learn from professional managers operating in a variety of businesses.

The National Extension College doesn't target high- flyers but provides a chance to catch up for people who missed out on education the first time round. Since it was founded in 1963, more than 350,000 people have enrolled. The NEC has an added incentive for those who want to take, or retake, A-levels: the college offers free tuition until you pass. Its 150 courses range from basic education to University of London external degrees.

Roger Merritt, the NEC's assistant director, believes the recession has fuelled the drive toward qualifications. In the week before Christmas, when people usually are preoccupied with celebrating, 60 people enrolled in NEC courses, he said. Mr Merritt added that over 50 per cent of enrolments come through referrals.

Libraries have always helped people keen to educate and improve themselves, so it is not suprising that many are embracing multi-media distance learning. The Open for Learning scheme, launched last year by the Government, has earmarked funds to enable public libraries to develop such programmes. The Department of Employment will put in a minimum of pounds 9,000 if matched by pounds 3,000 in cash or kind from participating libararies. There are already 25 schemes up and running, and the network could be nationwide by 1995.

David Hough, national programme manager, says Training and Enterprise Councils are supplying help and support. The hope is that the programme will attract jobless adults and those keen to enhance their skills.

'Libraries are open to everyone and it is easy to go along, see what's on offer, and get involved,' he said.

Once appetites are whetted, computer-based training programmes, audio and video cassettes and, of course, books will be there to satisfy the hunger for skills. And if a previously unskilled person can find a job with an organisation that embraces distance learning, there could be more in store.

Distance learning is bringing closer the day when the need to update skills throughout a working career is an accepted fact of life.

(Photograph omitted)