Online Learning: Making it Interesting

April 30, 2001

‘Any organisation’s ability to learn and translate that learning intoaction is the ultimate competitive advantage.’

So says Jack Welch, CEO of GE, one of the most admired companies in America. Butthe same applies to law firms where time is money, hence the desire of trainingdepartments to harness the latest technology to the development of learningtools for lawyers, support staff and, potentially, clients. Providing highquality, relevant training to fee earners at a time that suits them without theconstraints of time zones, accommodation and travel costs is the Holy Grail forany one responsible for the training budget. The problem is however that onlinelearning offers so much in the way of new and complex technology that peoplebecome muddled as to what it can actually do: content becomes confused withtechnical issues as people equate delivery mechanisms with programme structure.

Over the last few months a number of companies have begun offering Web-basedtraining for lawyers but whilst they promise so much, they can be a realturn-off for any lawyer without the necessary downloads, ADSL line or patienceto watch juddery video. The idea of simply filming training lectures and puttingthem online fails also; that isn’t what these events were designed for and itshows. Anyone who has ever worked in a tv studio knows that 70% of a programmeends up on the cutting room floor and that it is the post-production editorsthat make a programme – why should e-learning be any different? Those siteswhich promise interactivity in the form of transcripts, audio andmultiple-choice questionnaires are also becoming prevalent; fine if you wantcheap CPD but not so compelling that you would want to visit very often. Theresult: hype and disappointment.

So what is available that is tried and tested, can be delivered to the feeearner’s desktop and offers quality training that is interesting, interactiveand genuinely useful? To gain real interest requires good production values.These days we are all used to seeing high quality programming and the MTVgeneration won’t suffer poor quality videos. The technology now availablemeans that material can be presented as text, graphics, animated graphics (iegraphics that move), audio, video and preferably a combination of all of these.This allows you to turn information that is currently available in linear forminto lateral based learning material – allowing the fee earner to decide, at aclick of a button, where to go with a programme. The result is learning toolsthat engage and highlight key issues whilst simultaneously offering theopportunity to study in depth and test understanding.

Surprisingly it is worth turning to the Law Society – a fairly traditionalinstitution by anyone’s reckoning – to see what can be done. Last year theSociety had a serious problem – complaints against solicitors were rising andaction was demanded. They needed to get a vital client care message out to theprofession and they chose the latest in new media technology to do so. That’snot to say they went to the bleeding edge; the platform they chose was CD-ROM asit is ideal for delivering presentation style content but, by utilising thelatest in new media software, they were able to be highly imaginative. Theresult gives firms some idea as to what is possible when an online learningproject is properly planned and combines the experience of legal trainers, newtechnologists and programme designers.

Having the right people on board meant that from the outset the designers knewhow to grab the viewer’s attention. Used wisely, video clips can be compelling- as you watch them you forget that you are sitting at your desk – and so theyadd an engaging element to any training tool. The Society knew, however, thatviewers would not want to hear from Law Society officials, so to make thiselement powerful they featured video interviews with successful lawyers fromwell-known firms explaining the secrets behind their success. To ensure that thevideo content was of the same quality as anything seen on TV, the BBC’s JulieEtchingam presented the programme and links were inter-cut with high qualitygraphics and footage.

The CD-ROM had to be a learning tool that viewers returned to time and again andso over 100 pages worth of written materials were incorporated. These could bedownloaded, cut and pasted as necessary and included Web links to signpostviewers to additional materials. To test understanding, interactive diagnosticquestionnaires were incorporated that could be completed online. These gaveautomatic feedback on the individual and firm’s strengths and weakness acrossall the management disciplines.

Highlighting the behavioural skills that made for excellent communication skillswas one of the most challenging aspects of the project and dramatic sequenceswere written for this. It was important that this was as realistic as possibleand finding the right actors to play the roles of solicitor and client wasvital; dozens were auditioned before the two were chosen.

The project was a large-scale one and it highlights what the existing technologycan create for those wanting to deliver online learning in-house. In addition tothe possibilities described, Powerpoint presentation and Excel spreadsheetscould have been incorporated providing an even richer multi media interactiveexperience.

The software used means that the final product can be placed on a firm’sserver for access firm-wide or via an intranet but what about the big question:when will it be possible to deliver such a tool over the Web without the sortsof problems explained earlier? Video is already being used on a number of sitesbut most designers are holding off until broadband makes better quality videopossible. The good news is that any material created in the format describedabove can be re-purposed for use on the Web when broadband is available. Thehighly sophisticated software allows for the material to be updated as and whennecessary. Each element – video, text, audio etc – is treated as a separateentity within the programme and can be removed and replaced without affectingthe overall content, allowing for constant refreshing of materials.

The possibilities for in-house learning are endless and the ability to offerthese materials on a stable platforms means that products can also be developedfor clients on any legal issue thereby opening up the potential for revenuestreams.

For non-fee-earning staff, the technology offers huge potential also. Forexample, induction programmes can be created that introduce staff and feeearners to a firm worldwide. Video interviews from overseas offices andinterviews with clients, as well as being informative, provide a way to reflectthe culture of the firm back to its people. The usual formalities such as humanresource and health and safety forms, appraisal documents, policies and thelike, can all be incorporated for reading, immediate completion or for referencepurposes. The technology is available now that can give a firm competitiveadvantage, provided they know how to use it.

Mitzi Wyman is a solicitor and consultant on new media to the professions. Shewas the Producer of the CD-ROM for the Law Society. She can be contacted at mw@wymanconsulting.comand on 020 7701 1331. The Law Society Practice Excellence CD-ROM is availablefrom the Law Society at £30.