Valerie Maddock is Head of IT Learning and User Support at The Salvation Army UK Territory and IT Industry Award Finalist 2009. She spoke to Jutta Mackwell about her job and how she introduced e-learning to train staff of one of the UK’s largest providers of social care.

Valerie MaddockSo what is your job about?

My specific responsibilities are IT learning and user support. I’ve got a team of six people in user support and two in IT learning. I’m also involved in IT strategy, policy and procedures. It’s a very diverse role really. It’s also quite unusual: when I talk to other charities, learning is usually part of HR and then there’s IT and user support. Having both in one role is not very common.

We don’t have an IT department as such; it’s called the Strategic Information Department. We’re only around 20 people, but we look after all our staff in the UK and Ireland - around 5,000 users.

How did you get to where you are now?

I started in computing in 1970 - it was very different then, with big machines and punch cards! I worked with computer systems as a senior statistical assistant at Leeds University. I then became a computer officer, which wasn’t just about analysing medical research data, but also about teaching students about medical statistics. This is really how I got into support and teaching.

I originally wanted to be a scientist and studied applied biology on a part-time basis. I then got into medical statistics and eventually moved from science to IT and information management. I started working with The Salvation Army 15 years ago as a training consultant.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a degree in computer science, and later did a Postgraduate Certificate of Education at the University of Greenwich, both on a part-time basis. The latter gave me the confidence to know that I was doing things right in my approach to teaching IT.

After that I took on e-learning and did a Certificate of Online Training Design and Development Skills at IITT, a Certificate in E-learning Management Skills and a Diploma in E-learning. In 2008 I completed an MA in Education, specialising in e-learning, again at the University of Greenwich.

It’s been really good to do the courses part-time as it meant I could apply everything straight away. I’m not a great believer in fast-track learning - if you do something over years, you can take it back into your environment and have a much richer learning experience. I’m definitely a long-term learner.

Tell me a bit more about your interest in e-learning.

I’m very passionate about e-learning. Whenever technology comes up with something that reaches people I’m interested, and I love to take any opportunity to try out something that will make a difference.

For example, we found that people weren’t able to get their heads around mail merging and it’s quite a difficult thing to describe. So we created a seven-minute demo with Adobe Captivate that went through the various steps, and people were surprised that it was really quick and easy to do. It was hugely popular.

In the early stages of my time here, there was no e-learning, everything was done face-to-face, which was very time- and resource-intensive as we have a large user base. So I tried out e-learning with them. The first time it wasn’t terribly successful. I think many people found it daunting and very different to turning up at a classroom. They weren’t ready for independent learning. I think the lack of marketing didn’t help.

So how did you make it work?

We’ve now moved to just-in-time material rather than hours and hours of online learning that doesn’t fit and we also create our own online training. I developed a SharePoint site that the whole organisation can access. It’s full of learning resources, from just a PDF explaining how to do something to short flash-based tutorials.

We try to manage everything from headquarters through remote assistance, by email or by phone. However it’s not e-learning or nothing - we will always also facilitate and provide support, and we still do classroom-based training.

We’re looking at delivering these courses online, especially as we’re short of resources in terms of people, and we now have a network that will allow us to do that.

For some time we have been delivering 45-minute Quick Byte seminars on a monthly basis, on an IT-specific topic that will make a difference, and we hope to deliver these in a webinar format before too long.

You also developed an IT induction and information security course...

One of the reasons for this was that we have a lot of new users all over the UK and Ireland, but early on we couldn’t insist on IT induction training being mandatory as it was done face-to-face. There were big inconsistencies of delivery, and there were also the logistics and the cost.

I was getting a wee bit frustrated with it, to be honest. I thought there must be a better way of doing this. So I started putting together an online course.

The system was built so that our user support team could put in a process that meant whenever a new user applied for an account, they would automatically get access to the IT induction course, and only once completed would they get access to the network - basically a ‘walled garden approach’.

And out of this came a book on IT induction and information security

Yes, that’s right. It really came about after I was featured in an article about starters and leavers in the Info Security magazine. IT Governance Publishing read this article and contacted me about writing a pocket guide on IT induction.

All the external positive feedback it got has also helped to get approval to do version 2 of the IT Induction course - it needs updating, to make it look a lot more modern, more intuitive and professional, really to give it a sexier look and feel and meet the needs of our growing and diverse user base.

Then you were nominated for the BCS Industry Awards 2009...

I was absolutely thrilled - getting into the Top 10 to me felt almost like winning the award. To start with, I thought ‘what have I done that’s worth an award?’ But then I thought ‘why not?’ So I applied, and was invited for an interview. I was terrified at first, but it was actually great fun. And then I found out that I’d made it into the Top 10.

The whole publicity was also great for our organisation - it helped to take the blinkers off and look at what we actually do. It meant I could say to others ‘there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing something like this’. It was a very positive experience, not just for me, but for the whole department. It makes you realise that you’ve got something to share.

So what’s the next step?

Personally, I’d actually like to learn a musical instrument. I spent all my time on my career, but have always wanted to learn to play the saxophone so I’ve decided to do that. It’ll be the first hobby in my life! Well, apart from learning to fly when I was younger. That was great - it certainly puts things into perspective when you're 3,000 feet up; it helps you to see the bigger picture.