The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Axia NetMedia Corporation of Canada announced a $6.5m deal this week to create an online professional development application for the college’s 340,000 members.

The project will run over seven years and cover both the development and maintenance of the application.

RCN Learning Zone is the title chosen for the new development which promises to bring together learning and information that can be accessed quickly and easily from a PC. The planned features include: an electronic portfolio to help nurses comply with continuing professional development requirements; online access to RCN clinical guidance and online access to information and knowledge for professional development.

The service will be launched officially at the RCN’s annual congress on 22 April. The college’s head of distance learning, Dr Liz Clark said, “It harnesses the power of technology to make online resources readily available wherever our members happen to live or work. It creates a consolidated area on the RCN website where members can access a range of quality learning and bite-sized chunks of learning. And it creates an online community where nurses can discuss healthcare issues with each other.”

She emphasised that the Learning Zone would not be a “repository of resources” but a much more dynamic service designed to help college members use information to improve patient care. For example, she said the RCN had already invested in clinical guidelines and disseminated them: the Learning Zone would aim to create learning resources to help members use the guidelines to change and improve care.

The zone will also have a portal-style role drawing together information from other sources. For example, the BBC learning journeys covering health topics like first aid and genetics were excellent,said Dr Clark, but few people knew about them. Featuring them on the site – with due attribution to the BBC – will bring them to a wider audience that is highly committed to lifelong learning, but very short of time to seek out good resources.

The initial launch will aim to convey the concept of the Learning Zone with some content and then members will be consulted about the ways in which they would like it to develop.

”We’ve had focus groups and set this up, but once it’s launched we’re really going to consult the membership on what they would really like to see,“ said Dr Clark.

One of the anticipated problems is bandwidth. Research suggests that, while 65% of nurses are connected to the Internet, many gain access from their homes with modems running at 28-56Kbps. This restriction means that early content will omit features that are slow to download. The college is also pressing for better, faster Internet access for nurses at work.