Dan JellinekEditorThursday 3 November 2011

E-learning savings: coming soon to a PlayStation near you

E-learning can save the public sector huge sums - and can even be offered through mobile gaming consoles, according to the findings of a pioneering Scottish local government project.

Keith Quinn of the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) told last week's ITU Live panel discussion "e-learning in the age of austerity" there are two major costs associated with traditional forms of staff training. First, there is the cost of bringing people together physically - hugely expensive with front-line social workers dispersed across an area as large as Scotland - and second, of replacing them in the workplace when they're away at a course.

The average cost to a council of training is around £200 per staff member per day, adding up to around £198 million a year in Scotland for routine training like health and safety, Quinn said: "the repetitive stuff".

In a pilot run earlier this year by the SSSC in Glasgow, PlayStation Portable mobile game consoles were loaded up with interactive learning courses and given to social workers to use in their own time, he said. The devices were easier and more intuitive to use than home computers and, at £100, up to five times cheaper than smartphones, meaning that a full kit of equipment and software to train 20 staff cost around £3,500 - £500 cheaper than a single day's training for the same number of staff and able to support training over a long period, Quinn said. Overall, if 20% of training moves to mobile or e-learning the sector could save around £40m a year. "I have had comments like 'What? A PlayStation? Are you joking?' [But] actually the device is use-agnostic, it just plays media," he said.

All learning materials are created with industry standard technologies and would be easy to repurpose for other devices, he said. "The key thing was that when we did video, we made sure that it was in a format that ran on a whole range of devices. It wasn't like it was a proprietary Sony video codec, it was MP4. So you could put it anywhere." Two further pilots are now planned, Quinn said.

Mike Brook, manager of online business education at HMRC, is set to launch an e-learning project later this month, 'My New Business', which is aimed outwards at the organisation's customers - in this case, helping people starting up small businesses to interact with government. The key to generating savings through e-learning is to target those areas of customer interaction where most errors are currently made, Brook said.

"We have plotted it out like bus stops, showing what you need to do in what sequence... and we looked at where the pressure points are, how much money will we spend on those particular bits to try and help. We've looked for instance at the number of calls we get on particular topics, we've looked at the numbers in terms of how much error we think we're losing through a particular issue, mistakes that require reworking."

Paul McElvaney, director of Learning Pool, an e-learning provider and platform allowing public sector bodies to share courses, said councils can generate a tenfold return on their investment in a hosted e-learning system. "Face to face training is constrained by physical factors - there aren't enough training rooms, there aren't enough hours in the day."

Using e-learning, Rotherham Council was able to train 1,500 front line social care workers in around three months, McElvaney said. "There was a cash saving in that project but actually the real win was that it would not have been possible to get those 1,500 people into a room."

E-learning, the public sector and the age of austerity