A healthy e-volution

May 16, 2003

The NHS, the third largest employer in the world, plans to offer all staff, from consultant to porter, online training. Claire Sanders writes.

It is a major prize in the e-learning world and three as yet unnamed companies must wait until the autumn to see which of them has won it. The contract to provide the UK's National Health Service University with an e-learning platform and services is worth £30 million over five to ten years.

The NHSU, one of the Labour government's highest profile commitments, plans to become the UK's first corporate university. With an annual budget of £80 million, it aims to give all health service staff - from porters to consultants - the chance to learn online. This is no mean task. The NHS workforce is the third largest in the world: it comprises 2.7 million people, one-tenth of the entire UK workforce.

BT, Capita, EDS, IBM, Logica and Oracle were the big six contenders - whittled down from a list of 33 - in the running for the contract. The shortlist of three has yet to be named. The NHSU has set out a number of roles for the e-learning platform. It must provide high-quality services for learning, including self-assessment tools, so that students can work out which learning methods suit them best; directories of learning programmes; online registration, and delivery of learning modules.

Phil Candy, NHSU director of learning strategy, says: "Alongside our learning-support staff, this platform will provide the support and structure to enable those who work for and with the NHS to gain the most out of their learning through the NHSU."

Bob Fryer, NHSU chief executive, has made it clear that e-learning must be part of a "blended" approach that includes "bricks and clicks".

The plan is for every learner to have a mentor or "learning facilitator". "We will use e-learning where that works best and face-to-face learning where that works best," Candy says. "What we will not be doing is e-mimicking, where e-learning simply reproduces the dynamics of the lecture hall and note-taking. We will be more innovative."

The NHSU development plan, published last November, says: "It is widely agreed that computers, digital television and other electronic methods are effective only when they form part of an overall mix."

Candy says: "E-learning will become increasingly embedded in everyday life and seamlessly woven into work. In that way, it will become both more and less prominent."

Huge changes in the health service's information technology infrastructure will help the new learning platform. For example, NHSnet is being updated and will have greater bandwith, which will enhance connectivity among the workforce. The NHS has also introduced email addresses for staff to keep throughout their careers.

"We are not the architects of these changes, but we will certainly be the beneficiaries," he says.

Electronic staff records are also being introduced to include personal development plan information. But there will be issues about how individual records are linked.

The development plan acknowledges, however, that not all learners have easy access to computers. "We will ensure that those who do not will still be able to access NHSU learning, and we will work with NHS organisations and other local partners to improve access to online services and information technology facilities for learning," the plan says.

The university will start rolling out courses this autumn. It should have the hardware and software in place to do this later in the summer. "The big contract for the e-learning platform will take longer to come into force," Candy says. "In the meantime, we are developing the systems needed to take these courses forward."

Candy has been with the NHSU just three months, having moved from Australia to take the post. The NHSU has also advertised for a director of e-learning. However, it has signed strategic alliances with the Open University, the University for Industry/learndirect and UK eUniversities Worldwide.

"I see these alliances working on three levels," Candy says. "To begin with, there is the pro bono level, where they offer advice; then there are strategic agreements, where they may offer management systems; and finally we may have a straight commercial relationship, where we pay these organisations for consultancy services. The exact roles are yet to be decided."

What is clear is that the university plans "flexible student-centred learning" that will be based on healthcare priorities and what NHSU learners want to learn. "There is much good practice already in the NHS," Candy says. "We will build on that."

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