Startup stories

“We were real pioneers” – 23 years of international e-learning from a Yorkshire Moor

Northern Tech 100, Talent & Skills, Edtech

Jennifer O'BrienJennifer O'Brien, June 6, 2018

Virtual College, based in Ilkley, feature in the Northern Tech 100 League Table 2018 as one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the North.

When Rod Knox established Virtual College in 1995, e-learning didn’t exist. We met him at Virtual College’s headquarters in Ilkley to talk about how his company is helping to change the world.

Ilkley is known for many things, like a brewery and a Betty’s Tea Room. And also, a Moor, which rises 1,319 feet above sea level, and upon which was there was once (apparently) an alien, and also two rock formations known as the Cow and Calf. And every morning, when Rod Knox, Chief Executive of Virtual College, heads to work he thinks about the Moor and the Cow and Calf, and how throughout the day there will be enough virtual learners coming through his website to form a queue all the way up. And he thinks: How can we make their lives better? How can we get them to learn, for life?

“We’re up to 577 learners so far today,” says Rod, at our interview at the Virtual College headquarters, which spans two offices in Ilkley. “A couple of weeks ago we celebrated our 3 millionth learner. We’ve gone from 1.5m in 2014, to 3m in 2017. We’ve got an ambition to get to 25m learners by 2025.”

When Rod Knox established Virtual College in 1995, he couldn’t have imagined those 25m learners queuing virtually on the Moor, as he does now. The internet was hardly conceivable; online learning simply did not exist.

“My background is as a production engineer,” says Rod. “I joined a company back in 1980 which was involved in making colour monitors to support the BBC.” “Eventually we got into other areas. We installed the UK’s first laserdisc cutting facility. Yorkshire TV used to film the TV news every day, and they’d come there to cut it onto this laserdisc, take the laserdisc back to Yorkshire TV and do a rapid editing of that laserdisc.”

The company was Bradford-based Microvitec. The businesses evolved, and so did Rod. He became a quality director, and was responsible for staff development and training. He began to come up with ideas of how laserdiscs could be used for training and recruitment. When he left the company it was to take these ideas into practice. In 1995, he set up Virtual College with Dr. Robert Gomersall — an expert in assessment systems and founder of BTL Learning & Assessment.

“We were real pioneers,” he says. “If you imagine the internet was taking off, the concept of putting learning online was a bit bizarre to most people; it was a hard sell. Now, the whole environment has changed. Everyone who does their driving test, for example, does it online.”

They began by working with electronics manufacturers and local schools, providing training through CDs and video footage. As the internet grew, so did Rod’s ambition; in 2000, the company created an online learning solution for NHS Bradford, one of the first learning management systems to use the internet. Since then, Rod has introduced countless new markets to the benefits of e-learning, partnering with both businesses and public-sector organisations. In 2002 Virtual College produced the first online course for the Food Hygiene and Safety Certificate. The company has grown to employ more than 150 people with over 300 online courses, covering everything from Equality and Diversity training to Business courses as well as Safeguarding.

“It’s been an exciting journey,” he says. “As a business we’ve grown organically. We started off in Bradford and came to Ilkley to expand.

“While we’re an online learning business, the core of it is the people,” he adds. “Our team are first class individuals; if you meet any of them, it’s the passion that really comes through. We all want to make a difference in the world.”

Part of that difference is Rod’s commitment to the community. Over the years, Virtual College has donated over £200,000 to support small charities and fund local projects. His vision, he says, is to continue to disrupt the sector and create new technologies and courses to integrate learning into all aspects of a person’s life.

“I’ve got four boys,” says Rod. “Two went to college, the other two to university. None of those colleges or universities have been back in touch with my sons about how they’re progressing. One of my sons is a plumber; he’s got to do his VAT returns. The college could have provided a short course on how to do that.

“I want to come up with personalised learning that meets an individual where they are on their life’s journey. Maybe they’re looking for another job; maybe they want to progress in their career; maybe they’re thinking about starting a family. We can provide tools and courses for whatever they need for wherever they’re at in their journey. Part of our ambition is to capture a learner for life.”

By the end of our interview, more than 1000 people have accessed the Virtual College website. By the end of the day, it will have doubled. To Rod, they’re more than numbers. On the Moor, across the world — wherever they are, whatever they’re experiencing — Rod wants his company to be there to help them.