Case Study: free e-learning for start-ups
January 5, 2012 Leave a comment
http://www.businesslink.gov.uk hired me to manage the design, development and delivery of their new online learning services for start-up businesses, which went live at the end of 2011. I wrote this case study about the project for E-learning Age magazine.
Starting a business can be one of life’s most exciting, liberating and rewarding experiences. But working for yourself can also be nerve-wracking, as you need to learn quickly how to promote your business, manage your finances, keep customers happy and meet your tax obligations.
My New Business provides start-ups with the core educational support they’ll need to succeed in the first 18 months of trading. With over 200 specially commissioned videos and e-learning courses on a wide range of start-up topics (including business planning, finance, marketing and tax), My New Business is one of the biggest government-backed online learning initiatives of the last 10 years. In this article I’ll outline the high-level project objectives and describe how the videos and e-learning were designed to meet the needs of the target audience.
Business Link produced the content for the My New Business site in partnership with two of the UK’s bespoke educational video and e-learning specialists, Thomson Reuters and Epic. The high-level objectives for the content development teams were to:
- Provide educational support in a variety of formats to meet the learning and media preferences of a diverse audience
- Attract and retain new users to http://www.businesslink.gov.uk and encourage registration
- Encourage early adoption of good business and compliance habits, with potential benefits for users and government
- Increase effective use of business tools and government online services e.g. Online Incorporation, Self Assessment and VAT
- Syndicate to partner sites to maximise content views and reach the target audience via multiple channels
- Provide clear and relevant links to deeper content on http://www.businesslink.gov.uk for those that need further information
My New Business has an extremely diverse target audience – all UK-based pre-starts and start-ups – and the Business Link site as a whole receives over 20 million visits each year, so the potential audience for the new online learning content is huge. To ensure the content was tailored to user needs, we took the following action:
- Data analysis. We identified the most popular start-up topics on the site by analysing existing http://www.businesslink.gov.uk usage data, including page views, search terms, common queries to the helpline and suggestions for improvements.
- User testing. We conducted four rounds of user testing at key stages of project development to gain feedback on e-learning and video prototypes and refined the content in light of customer requirements. A focus group (with a representative mix of Business Link users, including trades people, shop owners, hairdressers, child minders and freelance professionals) was used to select video presenters and narrators to ensure the ‘faces and voices’ of My New Business are appealing and engaging.
- Content workshops. We facilitated content workshops with key stakeholders from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC). At these sessions, sample user personas were used to prioritise learning content and keep government stakeholders focused on customer needs.
After reviewing the data, user feedback and workshop materials, Epic and Thomson Reuters produced a detailed consultancy report which scoped the overall learning requirements and made recommendations for change. The report also provided a comprehensive description of the project lifecycle, including programme governance, project structure for each content area, standardised development/approval processes across all content areas, and change control procedures.
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are the most important people in any online learning project team. There’s no point creating a course with the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster if the core content isn’t focussed on delivering learning objectives, crammed full of valuable information and factually accurate. As SMEs can make or break an online learning project, it’s vital to select the right people and manage them carefully. Business Link’s Web Content Managers worked closely with over 90 business and tax experts from across the UK to gather relevant source materials and provide Epic and Thomson Reuters with detailed feedback on video and e-learning scripts and prototypes. In order to share work-in-progress e-learning materials with our geographically dispersed SMEs quickly, we used a cloud-based file sharing service, Huddle, to host videos and e-learning prior to site launch.
http://www.businesslink.gov.uk has long been recognised as a comprehensive and trusted knowledge base for all things business-related and has a large and loyal audience in the UK and abroad. However, during our initial customer engagement sessions, we found that many users felt that the site was too ‘text-heavy’ and key start-up information was difficult to find. We took this feedback onboard and made the decision to present start-up information in a variety of formats, including a range of video and e-learning object types, as well as plain text, in order to broaden the appeal of the website. All start-up content on Business Link is now accessible fast, via three main access points – the Starting Up Theme page, the personalised ‘Recommended Start-up Tasks’ tool, and the Learning Directory.
Video and e-learning treatments on the revamped Business Link site include:
- Presenter and expert-led videos that humanise the online learning experience. This was an important consideration when helping start-ups transition from face-to-face support to online services
- Case study videos which are designed to inspire, build confidence and communicate ‘lessons learned’ from successful entrepreneurs
- High-impact animations which introduce topics in an attention-grabbing and memorable way
- Self-paced e-learning tutorials which guide users through key start-up activities
- Myth Buster activities which challenge common business myths
- Diagnostic tools which prompt users to reflect on what they know already and identify gaps in their knowledge
- Useful start-up documents and templates (e.g. Business Plan) so that users can put newly acquired knowledge into action
- Text-only versions of all videos and e-learning, which meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 3.0) and are optimised for assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnifiers
A robust technical infrastructure is critical to the delivery of high volumes of media-rich learning content over the Internet. All videos on the My New Business are distributed through Brightcove, the world’s leading cloud-based video platform. Brightcove smart players automatically detect the user’s device and bandwidth, and then output video in the most appropriate file size and format. This means that videos on the My New Business site are truly cross-platform compatible and can be played on PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone and Android mobile devices by users with both high and low bandwidth connections. All Flash-based e-learning objects on the site are launched and tracked through the Xtensis SCORM content management system, which has previously been used by the National Learning Network (NLN) to successfully deliver one of the most substantial and wide-ranging collections of e-learning materials in the UK to over 10,000 registered users in the higher education sector. Both Brightcove and Xtensis provide powerful reporting tools which will allow Business Link to closely monitor video and e-learning usage on a daily basis.
So how will the overall impact of My New Business be measured? Ultimately the site will be judged on its ability to provide effective and practical educational support to new businesses which helps them to succeed. While it’s far too early to draw any firm conclusions, the initial usage reports from Brightcove and Xtensis are encouraging and show a strong uptake of e-learning and video materials by Business Link customers, with content on generating business ideas, choosing the right legal structure and business planning proving to be especially popular. Feedback via Business Link’s social media channels in the first few weeks since launch has also been very positive, with users praising the engaging and easy to use nature of the new content. Business Link will conduct a detailed user engagement survey in 2012 which will capture customers’ reactions to the My New Business site, including questions on how the new learning content has helped change behaviours, in terms of fostering good business and compliance habits. Syndication of content through partner sites will extend the reach of the materials and provide additional sources of feedback. HMRC is also intending to commission an independent evaluation of all its education channels in 2012, including My New Business videos and e-learning tutorials.
My New Business is one of the biggest free repositories of online learning content in the UK, so the results of these evaluation activities will be instructive for the e-learning industry as a whole. Wide-scale and free-to-access online learning initiatives are rare in our industry so it will be fascinating to see how the general public responds to this kind of resource.