Effective communication was a key factor in the successful introduction of new IT training materials for staff and students by the London School of Economics. Helen Boddy reports on how the team approached the task and its subsequent investment in course customisation software.

Analysing numbers and drawing graphs are essential skills for economists and these days they are almost certainly going to be using software spreadsheet packages, such as Excel, in their work.

You'd expect today's students, armed with their own computers and often immersed in computer games or social networking, to find such mundane tasks a breeze. But the non-glamorous nature of such skills are their downfall, according to the IT training arm of the London School of Economics (LSE).

Although students are usually computer savvy, they often arrive at the school with no in-depth knowledge of packages such as Excel and need to be brought up to speed for both their coursework and when they start applying for jobs.

The IT Services Department at the LSE therefore runs IT training courses in Microsoft Office skills for its 1,800 staff and 9,000 students. The staff are offered instructor-led courses, while students have the chance to attend self-paced workshops - for more information on the structure of courses, see below.

Courseware is an important part of this IT training programme, as the staff courses and student workshops are built around the materials, which are also available for staff and students to refer to on the university's intranet.

So when LSE decided to move to Office 2003, the groundwork for introducing new course materials began early on in the project by the then IT training manager Amber Miro and her team.

They began by determining requirements for the courseware via brainstorming during early 2005 and consulting student advisors, who supervise the workshops, on what they felt was needed.

The key elements that emerged were that courseware should be:

  • suitable for both staff and students.
  • highly modular, so that the IT training team could create shorter and longer courses and be able to leave out less relevant elements.
  • in building blocks. One element must not depend on something previously mentioned, so that learners could dip in and out of the material.
  • attractive and modern. Previous materials were text heavy and unimaginatively presented.
  • easy to put together - over 30 courses had to be created in a short space of time by a small team.
  • include structured guiding, but also more challenging elements which would require learners to apply learning, for example consolidation exercises and quizzes.
  • accurate and logical.
  • suitable for a range of delivery options - instructor-led courses, supervised workshops and self-paced learning.

One other element that the team considered was whether examples should be UK-specific. 'Our research found that LSE students were very comfortable with an international context for learning materials, so we did not have to limit our options in that respect,' explained Miro.

'Once our requirements were defined, we did a web-based search to see what materials were available and researched what other universities were using. We did a first pass at anything we came across but pretty quickly ruled out many solutions. It came down to two products that met our requirements. Using evaluation materials from each supplier, we built two courses each addressing the same learning point, which were assessed by the team and by our workshop supervisors, based on a series of questions, such as "did you find the steps logical". At the end of the process there was an overwhelming bias in favour of Watsonia.'

The decision to award Watsonia the contract was taken in late spring 2005. Watsonia offered two possible formats of course materials. LSE picked the topic sheet approach as it appeared most modular, and was attractively designed and laid out.

'We also looked at Watsonia's courseware compilation tool, EngineRoom, at that point but decided in favour of building the courses ourselves using Excel to structure and record the course components,' said Miro.

Having awarded the contract, time was then of the essence. 'We had to decide what materials to build and test, and publish them with an absolute deadline of the start of the academic year,' explained Miro. 'They had to be ready two weeks before term, and we had to create the 37 courses from scratch.'

LSE worked closely with Watsonia to get the materials ready.

'Both LSE and Watsonia are very process oriented and the comprehensive specification roadmap drawn up by LSE really helped a lot,' said David Kelly, managing director, Watsonia Publishing.

'We bypassed a formal project management approach but nominated a single contact person to each team, sharing responsibility for all aspects of the project, which worked very well, alongside a version policy. It was a model of how to get it right.

'It worked because of the high level of communication between the teams. Everyone knew where they stood, and issues were dealt with immediately.'

The team succeeded in publishing the materials ready for the new term, and the courseware was also added to the intranet in September 2005.

'Since we introduced the new courseware, feedback has been generally excellent and course evaluations have rated the material at an average of 4.75 out of 5,' said Jeni Brown, who became IT training manager in January 2006 when Miro moved roles within LSE. 'The score for the new courseware is significantly higher than for the previous materials.'

What was the main ingredient of this success? 'We thought long and hard beforehand about what we wanted and we got the student training advisors engaged and asked students what they wanted,' said Miro. 'Also, the team from Watsonia was very enthusiastic, and gave us a lot of time.'

However, the team knew it couldn't take its eye off the ball as there would always be some room for improvement. Continual feedback led to the team making some minor adjustments to courseware in summer 2006, for instance correcting a few typos, but in spring 2007 they carried out more extensive research into whether, and how, courses needed to be adjusted.

'We found some were too long, and we decided that we wished to improve the most popular courses by restructuring them to provide more time for consolidation exercises,' said Brown.

The team analysed which courses were the most popular, which proved mainly to be those relating to Excel. As a result, one or two new courses were added and some names of existing courses changed to clarify their content and level.

While they were planning alterations, Brown thought it was a good time to re-visit whether to buy the course customisation software, EngineRoom, from Watstonia: 'Deciding to buy it was not about time savings, it was about its additional functionality. What sold us on it this time round was the add-ons - the fact that we could use it to create quizzes for student courses, for example Excel charts, and create supporting materials for staff training needs analysis.

'EngineRoom can do things that are difficult or time consuming to perform manually, such as creating summary review sheets, training needs analysis materials that map to our courses, or skills quizzes. For tailored courses, for example, we can use EngineRoom to create course materials easily, whereas before we generally did not do so because of the extra work generated.'

The quizzes that can be generated by EngineRoom are a particular benefit to LSE in certifying students’ IT user skills. The IT training team previously issued students with attendance certificates for the workshops (for free) but the quizzes can test what students have actually learnt.

'The quizzes are particularly useful because we don't have to test and invigilate a formal exam but they give some indication of skills,' said Brown. 'It's also easy to update the quiz questions with EngineRoom. If we didn't have this, we would have to write them ourselves.'

The team is now offering five different certificates using the quizzes - Word, Excel and so on - which students can take via the school's virtual learning environment (VLE).

Brown is also working on using EngineRoom to develop a pilot for learning needs analysis, which would match staff skills gaps with courses available and provide a roadmap for creating learning documents tailored to a department's specific needs.

Kelly said: 'EngineRoom will generate a wide range of useful resources for trainers, including questions for training needs analysis. So, for example, it takes the learning outcomes from each course and reverses them to make up questions.  For example, if a learning outcome is to learn how to create a pie chart, the question could be: "Do you know how to create a pie chart?"'

Brown said that they have found that EngineRoom is a straightforward product to use generally, although the learning curve was steep because they undertook to learn it themselves, without tuition from Watsonia.

'Even in teaching ourselves, we got fantastic support along the way from Watsonia,' said Brown. 'They would either help us immediately or always get back to us within the day.

'We did not find it quicker to build courseware with EngineRoom, compared to manually, mainly because our courses run as two-hour sessions and the material needs a lot of condensing for this length of course. That said, I think EngineRoom would be quick to build courses if you don't need to edit the raw materials much, for example if you were running day-long courses.'

The fact that the courseware needed editing is typical of what is on the market, observed Miro, who had not found any other courseware in her research that needed less adapting than that of Watsonia.

The evolution of IT training materials by the LSE team is an ongoing task, as courseware needs to keep up with technology developments. Brown and IT Services at LSE are now evaluating Office 2007 and the accompanying training materials. Their contract with Watsonia entitles them to the courseware to accompany the courses.

LSE may well not migrate to Office 2007 yet, but the team is considering posting the courseware on the intranet before that for those with new computers. More than 95 per cent of students have their own computers, as do the majority of staff, and new ones are likely to have Office 2007 installed. The timing of the upgrade of the university's software will be critical as it will be a tremendous amount of work for the training team.

Forward planning is key. 'We need nine months in terms of training the team because of what we deliver with only 1.6 trainers,' said Brown. 'We have to train student advisors and, as we recruit and induct some new ones each year. It's a lot of work.'

Pleased with the success of the courseware work to date, Watsonia and LSE entered the project for the Institute of IT Training Awards in the External Training Project of the Year category, where they made it to the finalists shortlist. 

IT training for users at the LSE

LSE's training year starts on 1 August to tie in with the academic year. Instructor-led staff courses in user IT training usually start in late September and run through July. Student self-paced workshops run from October through to February.

There are 37 different courses available. They are topic based, for example how to draw charts in Excel. There are also 400 online courses on different applications and programming languages, such as Photoshop and Java, available to staff and students via the intranet.

For staff, the length of courses was cut to two hours in 2005, down from three-hour sessions, which previous feedback suggested were too long. 'Some staff are in favour of one-hour courses but that does not give enough time for practice exercises,' said Brown, who delivers some courses herself to make sure she's aware of what is happening on the ground.

Staff are also offered one-to-one desk-side sessions and courses for specific groups. Tailored courses began to be offered in 2006-7.

Staff courses have a maximum of eight students with actual attendance around an average of four students in 2006-7. The number of staff attending courses in 2006-7 was 656.

All student courses are in form of one-hour, self-paced workshops, supervised by paid student advisor. 'The students' lecture cycle is one hour, so this fits in gaps in their university courses,' said Brown. 'We have found that self-paced learning suits students, as English is not the first language for many of our international students, which mean they sometimes need longer to finish one learning object.'

The number of students who attended workshops in 2006-7 was 1,908. At the start of year, workshops run back-to-back for students - 30 courses per week - and are usually have the maximum number of 15 students. In the second term, attendance drops off and student workshops come to an end by March.

The wider training picture at the LSE

The IT training team has also recently been involved in a wider university training project, which is making bookings more transparent for the user, by bringing together all user training offerings from across the school.

For example, the library runs courses on using the library, the Centre for Learning Technology runs courses for academics on how to make most of IT, and the HR department runs staff development training.

Until recently all of those courses were promoted in different places by different means by the various departments. But a project has now combined some of the areas' offerings by using RSS feeds to aggregate course information from the different sources.

This creates a list of all courses coming up in next six months. On the upcoming month it's even possible to filter content to show just certain types of courses, for example those for staff. The list is available on the VLE, displayed on on-site plasma screens, and via the different departments' own web areas.

A recent survey found that 50 per cent of staff and students now find out about courses from this.