With training budgets being squeezed, e-learning should be coming into its own. Online training enables organisations to eliminate travel and accommodation costs and keep staff in the office, and employees benefit by learning at any pace and at any time. But how widely are charities embracing online learning and what options are available?
Elaine Smethurst, head of workforce development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says it hasn't researched usage, but she expects uptake to increase as learners become more comfortable with technology and more concerned about traditional training costs.
Smethurst says most charity online training consists of short courses on subjects staff are required to learn, such as diversity and health and safety. The NCVO runs a £695, seven-month, online course in effective voluntary sector management, accredited by Roehampton University. She says the course is attracting more people because there is a shortage of accredited courses.
Availability is a problem. A survey published last December by KnowHow NonProfit, a National Lottery-funded project in the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness, discovered that four out of 10 people find it difficult to get training on topics they need. Cost, time and location are the main barriers.
Respondents rated bite-sized training as more important than certified learning. KHNP is developing the study zone of its website to reflect this by offering more informal training through 'screencasts' - recordings of computer screens with narration by trainers.
Last year, the Cass centre piloted an online module on 'personal development as a strategic manager', which awards credits towards a Chartered Management Institute qualification. The module will run again this year.
A free wiki platform allows anyone in the sector to publish step-by-step guides. Submissions include "how to use the internet for fundraising" and "how to write an application to a charitable trust".
In January, the public sector learning organisation Learning Pool launched an online resource for voluntary organisations called My Learning Pool. The site, set up to cater for charities' enhanced role in the big society, offers more than 20 short courses on issues such as best practice procurement and social media. They cost £25 per person per year.
More than 80 charities, including Cancer Research UK and the RNLI, are members of the Charity Learning Consortium, which, in return for an annual fee, provides access to more than 150 online training courses covering IT skills, 'soft skills', personal development, leadership and management, and workplace legislation.
The consortium was formed by six charities in 2001 to share learning resources. Martin Baker, its managing director, admits budget cuts are affecting the market. "But in other cases, some of the charities are saying 'we don't have budgets now to run our own training in-house or send people out, so we need to do everything online'," he says.
Charity Learning Consortium courses, like much online training, are accessed through the e-learning software platform Moodle. Users log on to a page tailored to their charity and communicate with other learners on a discussion forum.
Victim Support has used Charity Learning Consortium training for its 1,200 staff for two years and will soon make it available to its 7,000 volunteers. Chris Wade, the charity's head of learning and volunteer development, says e-learning is ideal for topics that are "heavy on information, content and process", such as health and safety training.
The charity's volunteer induction currently involves at least five days of face-to-face learning. It is investigating ways of taking some factual parts of that training, such as law, away from the classroom and onto the internet.
The Institute of Fundraising's new learning academy includes online options, such as the Introductory Certificate in Fundraising, which costs £75. Qualifications in tax-effective giving and trustee fundraising will follow, along with 10 £49 'personal effectiveness' courses covering topics such as negotiation, communication and presentation skills.
Katharine Nice, learning and development officer at the housing charity Shelter, says online training is the easiest and most cost-effective way of delivering core training to its 900 staff nationwide.
The organisation started using online training in 2008, but last summer it expanded its offering to about 30 courses, from off-the-shelf packages to modules developed in-house.
Shelter uses webinars - online seminars - through the web conferencing site GoToMeetings for some training. Its web team is also developing an internal wiki, which will allow designers to make handover notes easily available to colleagues.
Although demand for e-learning is expected to increase, Graham Leigh, director of strategic partnerships at the skills charity Skills - Third Sector, says it should complement rather than replace traditional forms of learning.
"It should be treated only as part of a mix, because different people have different learning styles, and different organisations have different learning requirements," he says.