The challenge

The delivery of cost-effective training is essential for Samaritans with over 18,000 volunteers throughout UK, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Republic of Ireland. Elearning offers great value for money and can be organised to fit in with volunteers’ personal schedules as it can be carried out from any internet-enabled PC, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Nigel Ross, Training and Development Officer for Samaritans, says,

“Elearning is a relatively new initiative for Samaritans, as it does not easily lend itself to the listening skills training that is such a significant part of our role. However, it is ideal for delivering training to the specialist roles within our branches and we saw the potential for introducing online learning for our trustees and specialist roles, such as branch treasurers and marketing officers.”

The solution

Nigel explains: “We extensively researched the industry standard for elearning platforms and chose the open source learning management system Moodle because we were impressed by the robust and continually evolving platform that it offers as well as its large user base, including the Open University, NHS, local government and defence..”

“Ray Lawrence of HowToMoodle was an invaluable resource. I don’t claim to be particularly tecchie but I can now do alot myself on the Moodle administration side. Following the training I felt able to leap in and create courses myself. We purchased some technical support time as a follow-up to help me through the initial learning curve. Whenever I ring Ray he’s brilliant – he knows Moodle inside out and if he can’t find a way to do it, he’s sure to know a ‘work around’ solution.  He also gets back to us very quickly which is invaluable in our high pressure environment. Ray knows everything there is to know about Moodle but doesn’t make us feel inadequate – he takes us through the process and tells us how he resolved it so that we can do it ourselves next time.”  Ray set up an online forum which is accessed purely by himself and Nigel, which includes videos showing how to solve problems as well as a library of Q&As of areas Nigel has previously asked about.

The elearning site has been branded with a subtle bespoke variation on the themes used in Samaritans website so that it complements and echoes the branding whilst having its own distinctive flavour. View HowToMoodle’s theme design for Samaritans Moodle site here.

 

Moodle allows users to build and administer courses themselves and offers cost-savings on licence fees, which would have been payable for a proprietary software solution. Nigel attended a two-day Course Creator workshop from specialist consultants HowToMoodle which equipped him with the skills to initiate courses, upload existing content and design quizzes and wikis

“We had no budget for an elearning or IT administrator for the online courses so I needed to be able to set them all up and administer them myself,” adds Nigel, “so I also completed Administrator training with HowToMoodle.”  On the Administrator Course Nigel was able to explore different ways of designing courses.

Beta phase

Nigel says, “The Moodle site is a huge improvement on our previous elearning platform in terms of access, features and look and feel. However, there were some inevitable initial technical challenges included the automated account confirmation emails which were being viewed as spam by certain spam filters, meaning that around 10% of emails were failing to make it through to recipients.”

Nigel has now changed the system so that when users register for the first time they see a message saying ‘your account activation email should arrive within ten minutes, if it fails to arrive, contact me on xx’ – this ensures that if necessary Nigel can step in and complete the registration process manually to avoid trainees having to re-enter their self-registration details. Volunteers can choose their own user name and password to make it as easy as possible for them to remember, and part of a number known only to Samaritans’ volunteers and employees is used as the security PIN.

“We spent a long time considering authentication methods and bouncing ideas off HowToMoodle, but this seems to be cost effective and relatively bullet proof. Ray helped us customise the log-on process and, as well as being simple and cost effective, we’ve come up with a method which allows us to easily identify users by their branches so that we can also review usage and results by branch. And when users log on they get straight into the elearning area,” adds Nigel.

The volunteers access the courses from home which initially led to some challenges due to the many different hardware and software settings that were in use across their computers.  Nigel has now set up a test page that links to all the software applications required and checks, for example, that Word and Flash are installed and links to a free download area for applications such as a PDF reader if these are not already available. They have also developed a clear specification so that volunteers can see which browsers are those optimally configured for use with Moodle.

We wanted the courses to be as easy as possible to navigate for the volunteers, many of whom are not overly confident with technology.

Elearning in action

Samaritans’ new elearning platform went live in September 2009, after nine months of customisation and extensive development and testing. HowToMoodle set up a sandbox site for Nigel to work on and to carry out proof of concept work. This was subsequently ported to the production site. HowToMoodle is hosting the site to ensure continuous ‘up time’.

13 Regional Training Officers carried out pre-testing on the courses to ‘try and do anything they could to break them’.  Nigel continues, “We wanted the courses to be as easy as possible to navigate for the volunteers, many of whom are not overly confident with technology.”

There are now 360 registered users on the site, 160 on the CRB course and 200 on the trustee course. The Trustee Course is very specific for branch trustees and covers a full induction into essential areas such as charity law, guidance on best practice and constitutional matters. All our trustees are encouraged to complete the course, as it is important that they have the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out their role. They can work through the modules at whatever pace suits them, but typically it seems to be taking about 4-5 hours. The course uses assessment modules around the Moodle quiz module and delegates receive feedback if they answer the questions incorrectly. They receive a certificate they can print off which HowToMoodle helped customise, from the standard Moodle certificates, to include Samaritans’ branding along with the course title and date completed etc.  They also receive a certificate through the post as Nigel is aware that some users do not have ready access to a colour printer and wants to be sure that they have a professional-looking certificate to recognise their achievement.

The Trustee Course was chosen as one of the first to be adapted to elearning as it was previously carried out face-to-face at locations around the country, making it very expensive and time-consuming for trustees. In addition, as some of the material is very complex, the organisation sought a course that would enable trustees to revisit any areas of it to refresh their memories when a complicated situation arises. As the Charity Commission notes, “Lack of knowledge about the duties and responsibilities of charity trusteeship may not just affect the way in which the charity is run, but can also have personal consequences for the trustees themselves.” Trustees serve a maximum three-year term so there are constantly new trainees coming on board and ensuring that they received training in a timely manner had previously been difficult with scheduling face-to-face training.

The CRB Administration Course shows volunteers how to complete CRB forms and how to check identities, check documents and covers a myriad of ‘what ifs’. CRB Officers are required to complete a course within a certain timeframe and to achieve a minimum pass mark of 75 per cent after which the system will allow them to print off a certificate of achievement.

We spent a long time considering authentication methods and bouncing ideas off HowToMoodle, but this seems to be cost effective and relatively bullet proof.

Next steps

There is considerable enthusiasm for online training resources and users find it particularly useful being able to log-on anytime. Users say: “I did the trustee induction course online today. I thought it was excellent.”  “The CRB Course was excellent – an interesting way to present what I need to know.”

The next module Samaritans will be tackling is Finance for branch trustees and treasurers in Spring 2010.  In the future Nigel plans to gain accreditation for its Moodle courses and to use Moodle to supplement in-house face-to-face training with revision elements, online assessments and to demonstrate evidence of learning.  This could lead to volunteers gaining a qualification which is certified by a body such as the National Open College Network.

Top Tips

•    In the assessment module keep the questions very clear and simple so that they can’t be misinterpreted
•    Devise a method to check technical specification of users’ PCs to avoid any incompatibility issues
•    Make sure you have a strategy for dealing with authentication emails being blocked by spam filters