Modern learning for new discoveries

Source: NHE March/April 2018

Susan Hamer, director of nursing, learning and organisational development at the National Institute for Health Research Clinical Research Network (NIHR CRN), outlines the activities that are helping her team keep up to speed with the quick pace of change in today’s workplace.

When thinking about the NIHR, the research we fund or the facilities we provide might spring to mind. Perhaps what is less obvious is the range of education and development opportunities we make available to the health and social care system. We have a strong commitment to ensuring that the next generation of researchers are supported to develop their skills and that we meet the needs of an internationally competitive research workforce.

Our Trainees Coordinating Centre provides training awards to researchers whose work focuses on people and patient-based applied health research. We fund this research training in order to build a leading NHS and social care research faculty, and develop research careers, research leaders and collaborators.

However, perhaps less well-known is the work of our CRN in learning and development. This part of the NIHR funds over 11,000 staff employed within trusts and other organisations to support research delivery. Connecting and developing the skills of this workforce is very important so that individuals can actively contribute to the advancement of science and the discovery of new treatment pathways.

Moreover, the NIHR recruits more than 600,000 patients to studies annually. How do we ensure that the public feel informed about research opportunities and understand how research is carried out in the NHS? This is a large and diverse community of learners.

Rapid changes in learning technology and the move of the NIHR onto a cloud-based platform has helped to make the practicalities of connecting large, geographically-dispersed learning communities much more feasible. Digitisation offers a significant opportunity to transform learning. The game changer is that content is now accessible across multiple devices and teaching environments and often is being generated, shared and updated by users themselves. However, making more learning materials accessible is only part of the challenge. Perhaps the bigger need is for us all to have a better understanding of how to develop and support workplace learning for ourselves and for the teams we lead.

We never stop learning, nor should we. ‘Lifelong learning’ is essential to keep up to speed with the pace of change in today’s workplace. New jobs will exist in the next few years that we cannot imagine today; new technology will change the way we do things. This is where ‘Modern Workplace Learning’ comes in. Several models have been developed to help make sense of this. Perhaps the most popular of these is the framework provided by Jane Hart (2015) and the 70:20:10 model, promoted by Charles Jennings among others.

What these approaches emphasise is that most of our learning is from our experiences, from working with others and from trying out new things. In the workplace and indeed in life, we learn from a mix of structured programmes (formal learning or curriculums), learning resources (ranging from books, to movies, to podcasts and apps) and interactions with others. Yet, despite this ‘common sense’ view of how learning happens, the support offered in the workplace doesn’t always back it up. Too often, taking time to read online blogs, view YouTube clips and network with colleagues is frowned upon if done ‘in work time,’ while attending the traditional training course is seen as a good thing to do.

So as a funder, we have also had to reflect on our response: how do we provide a range of opportunities for the learners we support to design the learning pathway they would wish? In relation to our structured programmes we already run a number of large programmes, and one of these is Good Clinical Practice (GCP). This is the international ethical, scientific and practical standard to which all clinical research is conducted. Compliance with GCP provides public assurance that the rights, safety and wellbeing of research participants are protected and that research data are reliable.

The GCP programme is offered in multiple formats, putting the learner in control of how they study. It can be completed face-to-face, and it also has a range of online versions which are available for different communities (primary care, hospital staff, dentistry, etc.). Online access 24/7 ensures learners control where and when they study. In 2017 over 24,000 clinical researchers enhanced their GCP knowledge using this approach. Five individuals did their course on Christmas Day.

To help the public understand how research is carried out, the CRN has developed a Massive Open Online Course called ‘Improving Healthcare Through Clinical Research.’ Using this free online course, anyone can find out how medical treatments are discovered, tested and evaluated to improve healthcare for all. The large global audience it can reach typically attracts over 500 learners per course and enables learners to connect with each other for peer support, as well as subject matter experts.

Across the NIHR we are also keen to support our patient and clinical professional communities to connect, learn and support each other. The popularity of social media means we can rapidly connect through the use of tools such as Twitter. This can be a great source of links to bite-sized learning resources, curated through peer recommendation. We have invested in encouraging the development of digital confidence in the key leadership communities we connect with. This culture of social learning enhances sharing and networking.

The Google platform we use in the NIHR also enables online communities to set up rapidly (either in a private or public domain) to connect and develop. We have groups of nurses, midwives, pharmacists and research management professionals working on real-time problems and developing solutions throughout the business day. This is a space where everyone can have a voice, appreciate a diversity of views and where hierarchies are replaced by personal learning.

Equally, let us not forget that there still remains a space for high-impact off-site learning experiences. Sometimes it really is important to “get away” to think and learn. We have a number of leadership programmes that do just that. The future really relies in getting the blend right for the learning needs of the communities we are supporting.

In summary, the rapidly changing clinical research landscape is both an asset and a challenge. It has generated the need for many more practitioners and patients throughout the health and social care system to have a better understanding of new types of science, new innovations in application of technologies, and new methodologies associated with research. This demand, coupled with a tight economic environment in the NHS, public health and social care setting, has seen a significant reduction in investment in skills development through continuing professional development. Hence the NIHR is taking a more assertive approach to the upskilling of frontline staff and the investigator community.

Our aim is to ensure time-poor frontline staff are clearly supported to use their learning time to best effect. Using digital learning resources will support the development of understanding and confidence in the NIHR-funded workforce to deliver new, novel and innovative clinical research.




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