The BBC is expanding its informal online learning activities to include use of social networking and materials which will enable its departments to build their own courses. Nick Shackleton-Jones, who heads up the area at the BBC, outlined these activities at the World of learning Conference, as Helen Boddy reports.

The explosion in the number of reference tools on the market has given informal learning a boost, according to Nick Shackleton-Jones, manager, online & informal learning at the BBC. He believes that learning and development managers should not see informal learning as a threat to their role, and consider adding it to their mix of learning options. He is doing just that at the BBC.

'Traditionally, online training at the BBC was for high end subjects such as governance, child protection, and risk awareness,' said Shackleton-Jones in a presentation at the World of learning Conference in November. 'It was about creating large courses top-down, and pushing these large courses out to departments, which, once created, were read only for them [as opposed to them contributing to them]. It's still our bread and butter at the BBC.'

However, Shackleton-Jones believes that the content of such courses should move away from containing lots of detail to making people aware of the importance of a topic via more emotional material.

'Don't put all your policy in the course,' he advised. 'Build emotional scenarios, and make sure that staff know where the documentation is when they need it.'

He demonstrated his point by showing a video clip of someone being set alight by drinking a B52. The outcome of not following procedures can make a point memorable, where dry material is not.

As well as creating top-down courses, Shackleton-Jones' team is now rolling out tools so that departments can create their own online courses. He's trying to make it easy for them to contribute.

'We have developed templates for rapid development of courses. We get buy in from managers to build courses because training managers would have to liaise with subject matter experts anyway to build traditional courses, so it's not any more work for them.'

Shackleton-Jones is also keen to use social networking to entice staff into more informal learning.

The BBC already has an active blogging culture. Although there are only 250 bloggers (out of 25,000 employees), their musings are read by a lot of staff regularly.

When the BBC started up blogs and wikis, there was an initial suggestion that they needed to be moderated. In actual fact, there was no need because people are very careful what they say in public.

Nick suggested blogging is ideal for personalising what could otherwise be dry material.

'For example, no one likes reading a medical dictionary but they often turn to the back page of a magazine to read the personal medical questions. In terms of corporate use, for a new HR policy, for example, the HR director could explain in a blog about the decisions behind the policy, rather than just sending out the dry detail.'

He's found that lots of people look at wikis and blogs, but don't contribute to them. He's trying to make that easier and the BBC is therefore introducing SharePoint - a Microsoft website that provides a central storage and collaboration space for documents, information, and ideas). SharePoint will also help measure the outcomes of informal learning activities.

Shackleton -Jones has also been experimenting with FaceBook to see how it could be used in the learning and development arena. An incredible 14,000 BBC employees are registered with it. He started up a group for e-learning professionals and has used it to recruit staff and ask quick questions of fellow members of the profession.

FaceBook is the sort of new tool that, he believes, organisations need to seriously consider them, especially as they can work to the corporate advantage. 'Sometimes the information needed by managers is lower down the chain than the top level, and, allowing self-expression in this way, can be one way of them actually getting at the information,' he said.

Shackleton-Jones has also started exploring how the BBC could use the virtual world, Second Life, for online learning. 'Some people don't want to go down this route because of a belief that they will be here and gone tomorrow,' he said. 'That may well be the case, but we have to get used to new environments and then be able to move on and transfer them to the next stage.'