Martin Baker: Coronavirus has been the catalyst for unprecedented digital change

Over 30 years I have heard every conceivable reason as to why e-learning won’t work, but Covid-19 has turbocharged the sector through challenges it previously considered insurmountable

Martin Baker
Martin Baker

Charities have been browbeaten by the need for digital transformation over the past few years. It’s been a mantra, an increasingly loud clarion call, with entire conferences dedicated to the sector becoming more digital. Without digital transformation, we’ve been told, staff might leave and charities would fall behind, and those deemed to be leading the way would have a competitive advantage.

Despite this there has been huge fear, confusion and challenges around digital transformation. Even the words themselves can mean totally different things to different people. To cash-strapped charities that have traditionally relied on a mish-mash of second-hand donated hardware, digital transformation has often seemed a step too far.

Factor in the fact that volunteers – heavily relied upon by the sector – are likely to be more than 65 years old, and the digital challenges can seem insurmountable, even if they’re not. It’s a complete fallacy that just because you are older you are technically inept, but the myth persists.

There have always been trailblazers, and charity learning and development professionals have been quietly leading the way for years using a wide range of technology to support skills development. And yet a combination of lack of time, budget, skills and vision was often holding real digital transformation back. At the Shaw Trust, for example, virtual recruitment was deemed impossible. When St John Ambulance surveyed its customers in 2017, they weren’t in favour of shifting first-aid training online. And then, of course, coronavirus came along.

Charities are still reeling from the tragic impact of Covid-19 and, sadly, many could go under. But in the darkness there are some amazing examples of digital transformation that many thought too difficult, too impractical and even impossible. Ironically, as charities shifted their focus to deal with the fall-out from coronavirus, long-term strategies for digital transformation have been turbo-charged.

Put simply, coronavirus has been the catalyst for unprecedented digital change.

Charity learning practitioners have long adopted the agile ethos of “fail fast and move on”, and it has stood them in good stead as they have got to grips with new, urgent needs. Paul Hodgkinson at saha, the Salvation Army Housing Association, created a virtual induction, including a radio-style podcast interview with the chief executive to greet new staff. At the Shaw Trust, recruiting virtually has been a success, as has moving face-to-face training online. Hillcrest, in Scotland, had been planning to transition to virtual “smart” working over a period of 18 months, but, like a lot of organisations, it managed that phenomenal change in just over a week.

Perhaps most strikingly, Andrew New at St John Ambulance discovered that using e-learning to help deliver vital, life-saving skills works so well and has such huge benefits that he’s transforming the charity’s training portfolio.

Some charities will have undoubtedly struggled with the overnight transition to virtual working. But once past the “pain point”, staff and volunteers are often enthusiastic about new ways of learning and working. Usage of e-learning at St John Ambulance throughout coronavirus has soared. At the end of March 2020 there were 1,700 registered first-aiders using its e-learning platform. This had shot up to almost 30,000 by early May, with an extra 4,000 registrations each week.

Similarly in Wales, at St John Ambulance Cymru, there has been a 2,000 per cent increase in e-learning course completions. My technology team worked around the clock to support this sudden surge in usage – in the first week of lockdown, well over a million learners were accessing our platforms – but I couldn’t be happier to see it. Digital learning tools have helped train staff and volunteers to support the NHS throughout England and Wales, including at the temporary Nightingale Hospital in London. I’m not sure that I can claim e-learning saves lives, but it can certainly help to teach life-saving skills.

Over almost 30 years I have heard every conceivable reason as to why e-learning won’t or can’t work. But although technology is just a tool, and people will always need people, coronavirus has shown us that it really can be transformational.

Martin Baker is the founder and chief executive of the Charity Learning Consortium, a group of almost 200 charities collaborating to make e-learning affordable and effective

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