The NHS has outlined a project to deliver IT training to all its employees - up to 1.2 million people - in what is believed to be one of the biggest e-learning contracts in the public sector.
The deal means that all NHS staff will be offered free training and testing for the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) by March next year, in a move to improve IT literacy and make sure staff are equipped with the IT skills they need.
George Davies, project manager at the NHS Information Authority, said that he expected the project to be used as a trial run for other e-learning roll outs across other public sector departments.
"ECDL will be a standard for the NHS," he explained. "We also recognise that a considerable number of staff - about 50 per cent - can't do e-learning because they don't have the necessary skills."
The project also involves bringing individuals up to speed with basic IT literacy. "This underpins the NHS' move towards [becoming] a lifelong learning organisation. In the long term it should benefit patient care," said Davies.
The NHS Information Authority was set up in 1999 with responsibility for a national infrastructure for an online NHS, including electronic health records and an electronic library of knowledge.
Training courses will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to employees, either via the private NHS Net or via the web.
The project will also link to NHS University, a one-stop shop for lifelong learning for NHS staff due to go live in 2003.
The Working Together, Learning Together framework, published by the NHS in November last year, stressed that learning and development are key to delivering the government's vision of patient-centred care in the NHS.
"Lifelong learning is about growth and opportunity; about making sure that our staff, the teams and organisations they relate to and work in can acquire new knowledge and skills, both to realise their potential and to help shape and change things for the better," the report said.
Nine consortia are being considered to run the project for the NHS, and Davies said that a shortlist of up to four would be announced over the next few weeks.
These include a combination of training providers, testers, integrators and hosting companies which will work together to provide the online learning experience to a potential audience of over one million NHS employees.
Training vendors are champing at the bit to get a slice of the deal, which is likely to open up opportunities across other public sector departments, driven by e-government and Tony Blair's focus on lifelong learning.
The Ministry of Defence, for example, is undergoing a Defence Training Review, the objective of which is to convert 20 per cent of traditional face-to-face training to e-learning.
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