Local affiliates of Big Brothers Big Sisters, or BBBS, may have the benefit of a national organization to provide them with resources, help them lobby and grant them some exposure, but each individual agency is responsible for its own budget. Jenna Harkins, vice president of programs for the San Antonio chapter, says that her office has the same financial pressures as any other community-based organization, and the pinch is especially strong when it comes to staff training. “We don’t have a training director, so you just rely on your supervisor and peers for on-the-job training,” she says. Any opportunities beyond that have to come from a program’s budget.
BBBS’ national administration has responded with an increased emphasis on distance learning programs for local affiliates, which they offer through a web-based learning center. Harkins, whose office mainly facilitates mentoring children of prisoners, says the San Antonio staff has used e-learning courses for general BBBS job training, and for more specific courses like one on strengthening relationships with youth. They’ve saved money by cutting back on travel costs, and by relieving experienced staff of the responsibility to fully train every new hire. The BBBS course offerings also help with continued staff development.
Whether your organization is struggling with a decreased training budget, looking to expand your services through staff education, or trying to learn more about a growing issue among your clients, online e-learning courses could help you find the help you need. Improved technology and faster Internet connections have made distance learning options like live webinars and tutorials more useful and approachable than ever. Here are a few tips for making your staff’s e-learning experience as successful as possible:
As director of training for the Southeastern Network, a Florida-based organization that supports youth- and family-focused nonprofits in the region, John Robertson has provided e-learning courses to hundreds of community-based organizations. He says that the ever-increasing number of course options can make it hard to determine which courses are worth the time and money.
Since the e-learning industry is growing so quickly and new courses are created so often, there is no real comprehensive database of available opportunities. So Robertson’s staff stays apprised of new courses through old-fashioned research and networking. They find the truly worthwhile ones extend beyond the classes themselves.
Supplement your learning
More so than traditional classes, e-learning courses lend themselves to a wide-ranging, multimedia approach that can deepen participants’ understanding. “It isn't enough [for a provider] to offer the courses,” Robertson says. “You have to support that learning with many outlets that provoke the learner to provide feedback, demonstrate knowledge, and receive reinforcement for learning the material, otherwise it’s just one more click of the mouse during the day.”
To that end, Robertson says SENetwork uses “blogs, e-zines, and occasional face-to-face contact to support the material we offer electronically. One webinar does not automatically qualify someone to care for youth in crisis, but it does establish a standard of care which we can build on in other ways.”
Use it for everyone, not just new staff
The new technology can help both new and existing employees meet their training needs. “Many of our member organizations now use e-learning courses as a part of their new hire orientation and continuing education program,” says Robertson, who recommends finding a range of courses for the novice to the veteran youth worker, so even those with lots of experience can continue to learn and stay current with the expectations of funders and the field in general. (See the resources NCFY recommends below.)
Take it as seriously as 'real' courses
As with any educational opportunity, the effectiveness of e-learning courses depends on your staff’s approach to them. “If participants and staff view e-learning as merely an alternative to on-site training, they value it less,” Robertson concludes. “There is less sacrifice made to participate, less trouble and expense to facilitate, so you are always fighting that notion that e-learning is less important than on-site training.”
However, Robertson has noticed the best results come from organizations that make room, figuratively and literally, for the courses in their budget and office space. “Our best practice agencies have dedicated spaces where multiple staff can participate together around a speaker phone with a monitor mounted on the wall to view the training. You can hear them laughing, brainstorming, and engaging the material. This is a direct result of executive leadership making e-learning a priority and communicating its value by committing resources to an e-learning plan.”