LSE boosts equality and diversity through e-learning course

How the London School of Economics deployed an innovative e-learning course to deliver equality and diversity training to its workforce

Promoting behavioural change isn’t easy at the best of times. But when you’re dealing with a highly diverse group of 3,000 people, the term “challenging” starts to look like a polite euphemism.

It was something that Chris Watt, Head of Organisational Learning at the London School of Economics, wasn’t oblivious to: “We’re a global institution. Our staff come from all sorts of backgrounds and work in all sorts of roles: academic, professional services, catering, maintenance, you name it.”

The issue was equality and diversity at the LSE. As Watt explains: “Prior to 2014, we’d provided a range of policies, training and guidance to staff on equality and diversity and I think we felt we were doing OK. But we were still encountering issues and there was a growing sense that the time was right to push on and do more.”

The response at the LSE was swift and decisive. The Director’s Management Team initiated a full equality and diversity review and, as part of this, Watt was tasked with assessing the school’s current learning provision to identify gaps and formulate an integrated strategy for addressing these. As Watt says: “A number of things came out of the review, but a recurring theme was the lack of a concise equality and diversity learning resource that provided everyone with a baseline understanding of their rights and responsibilities, and the standards we expect of them.” 

Perhaps the obvious recommendation would have been workshops. Watt, however, had other ideas: “With so many staff at so many sites, workshops just wouldn’t have been viable from a time or cost perspective. And with staff turnover, it would have been a never-ending task.”

Watt felt that e- learning could be the ideal solution: “With e-learning, there aren’t any physical barriers to access, which means you can quickly deploy across the board and you can be sure everyone’s getting the same message. You can track take-up and usage of the course, too, which is great from a return on investment and audit perspective. And of course, given the staff numbers involved, the cost- effectiveness of e-learning was also compelling.” 

The DMT agreed and Watt’s recommendations were approved. The next challenge was finding a suitable e-learning supplier. “There’s plenty of equality and diversity e-learning around, but we wanted something that staff would really relate to and engage with.” explains Watt. Three potential suppliers were short-listed and assessed by a cross-section of staff. Watt feels that this was critical: “The course was going to deployed to every member of staff, so there needed to be a representative group involved in the decision-making process right from the outset, to make sure we were heading in the right direction.”

There’s plenty of equality and diversity e-learning around, but we wanted something that staff would really relate to and engage with

The suppliers were each assessed on three key criteria: the quality of their content, their track- record in the HE sector and their cost. Following the assessment, a clear front-runner emerged in the shape of Cylix, who specialise in equality & diversity training and offer a range of courses for the HE sector. As Watt explains: “We liked how Cylix presented the content, in particular how they used interactions and case studies to explore topics and ideas in interesting and engaging ways. The fact that a lot of their content was written specifically for the HE sector was also a big plus point. While they weren’t the cheapest option, we felt they were the best value.”

With the supplier in place, the next step was to put together a Working Group to define the content of the course. Again, Watt was keen to ensure the broadest possible range of input: “The group was made up of staff from different parts of the school, working in different roles and at different levels. While some of the group had specialist equality roles, many didn’t. This was deliberate: we wanted feedback from people with very few preconceptions about the subject, so that we could ensure the course would be meaningful and relevant for everyone.” 

As part of the selection process, an existing Cylix course had been identified as closely matching the school’s requirements. However, the first Working Group meeting highlighted that this was going to be no off-the-shelf package. As Watt recalls: “The group felt that if the course was going to be successful, it needed to be short and snappy, no more than 30 minutes at most. They also wanted to see more emphasis on positive behaviours and interactions between people, rather than what the law says. That meant adapting some of the existing case studies and scenarios.”

At this point Steven Price, Cylix’s Managing Director, picks up the narrative: “Working with a large review group can be a double-edged blade: on the one hand, it means you get lots of input and perspectives, which is great. But on the other, it can sometimes be a challenge to achieve consensus. If you’re not careful, development timescales and costs can quickly spiral. The key thing is to adopt an approach that enables you take advantage of all the benefits, while avoiding the potential pitfalls. 

“We develop our courses in small, incremental steps, each of which is subject to review and approval by the customer. The basic idea is that you make sure one foot is on firm ground before you put the next foot forward. That way, you can be sure you’re meeting the customer’s needs every step of the way.” 

Price highlights two vital elements in this process: 

• It’s essential to be able to work from a single set of collated comments at each review point, so that you don’t have to try and navigate through overlapping – and possibly contradictory – feedback from different people. 

• It’s easy to change words on paper, so focus on defining and agreeing the content before starting to build the online course. No-one would dream of trying to build a house without first having a set of blueprints; the same principle applies to e-learning. 

Watt agrees: “Having a clearly defined, incremental development process kept people focused and meant that we could track progress accurately and address issues before they escalated into real problems.” And this is borne out by results: with a development arc spanning over three months and dozens of people, the course was delivered on schedule and within budget. 

So, what have results been like? “The feedback from the initial pilot was excellent.” says Watt. “Everyone felt that the course was pitched at the right level and particularly liked the animated graphic novel approach Cylix implemented for the new case studies. They felt it was a really effective and contemporary way of illustrating behaviours and interactions between people.” 

Buoyed by the pilot, Watt has now launched the course across the school: “It’s early days, but in the first three months alone, nearly 1,000 staff completed the course and passed the mastery test. That’s a third of our entire workforce… in three months!” 

Having a clearly defined, incremental development process kept people focused and meant that we could track progress accurately and address issues before they escalated into real problems

But while Watt is pleased, he knows that statistics like this only prove so much: “The mastery test scores confirm that people have understood the content. But our objective with the course was to get people to reflect on their attitudes and behaviours, and deliver the standards we expect of them in their day-to-day working lives. That’s a more difficult thing to measure.”

Over the coming months, Watt will be undertaking a more in-depth evaluation of the training, with the aim of measuring the impact it’s had on people. Central to this will be a sophisticated online knowledge and behavioural questionnaire that’s designed to assess long-term understanding and application of the course. Watt’s looking forward to analysing the results: “I’m expecting the questionnaire to underline what we’ve already established through initial discussions with staff, but it will be great to confirm this. Watch this space!”

Chris’s top tips for e-learning success

• Involve a cross-section of the target group right from the outset to get their buy-in and ensure the content meets their needs.
• Make sure the e-learning is interactive and engaging – if staff actually enjoy using the course, that’s half the battle.
• Divide and conquer: involve managers and make them responsible for promoting the course and monitoring take-up within their teams.
• Create a pre-launch buzz: introductory emails from senior staff, previews at staff meetings and forums, and features in staff magazines can all help to build momentum.
• Don’t fall into the “Build it and they will come” trap: promote the course, monitor usage and be prepared to send friendly reminders when necessary! 



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