Your desk may overlook the desolate edge-of-town business park and the only lunch venue is the canteen, but look on the bright side: you could spend your meal break browsing a book from the New York public library, absorbing an Oxford University lecture on the fall of the Roman empire or taking a short course to enhance your mastery of Excel. Immobilised office workers can nowadays roam the intellectual world courtesy of the internet and can foster passions or update skills in brief, instant gobbets when their in-tray allows, instead of committing themselves to a strict academic timetable. Now the economic downturn has forced firms to reduce staff training and the newly redundant have to rethink their skills to impress potential employers, online resources are likely to become crucial. \"This is the time when people are thinking about their skills sets, either because they want to get a better job or because they want to learn more about, say, Renaissance art,,\" says Adrian Beddow of Learndirect, which offers a range of downloadable e-courses covering corporate skills from IT to employment law. \"Our courses get you to learn a concept or understand a technique and reflect on how to implement it at work and they\'re designed so that workers can dip in and out from their desks.\" The business world has long since learned to harness the advantages of online tuition. However, according to Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies, companies try to force courses to fit the traditional educational mould. \"There is a heavy focus on designing formal content-rich courses, pushed down to end-users, and managed, tracked and monitored in command and control systems,\" she says. Gradually, though, many firms are waking up to the advantages of informal training managed by individuals around their own timetables. Some have developed their own e-learning systems from brief tutorials to four-hour programmes. Cable & Wireless, for instance, allows staff to access an online library, web-based seminars known as webinars and a personal development programme. \"We provide time for colleagues to develop themselves,\" says C&W\'s learning technologies manager Mike Booth. \"We map out an online career path so they can see what roles they might aspire to and what skills and attributes they\'ll need, then we point them to suitable training. It takes a third of the time of a classroom-based course do it online and the information is always on hand as a point of reference.\" • Know what\'s out there. Many of the world\'s best universities upload free lectures on iTunes and YouTube, Open University offers free modules from beginner to postgraduate level on its OpenLearn site and at Learndirect, where courses in business and management start from £17.50, you can do tasters for free. You can also search YouTube for quick how-to demonstrations in specific skills. • Share the pain. The problem with e-learning is that it can be a lonely journey without the physical presence of tutor and classmates. Booth suggests enlisting support from a sympathetic manager who can help set targets and timetables. You could recruit an informal group of colleagues to learn with you or tout for learning companions through social networking sites to help keep you motivated. • Stay focused. \"The most common trap people fall into is not giving themselves enough time,\" says Booth. \"If you book a day course you clear a day in your calendar, but e-learning tends to be low priority.\" Beddow suggests organising frequent, short periods of learning. \"Try 15 minutes when you get into work early, 15 minutes at lunch and perhaps 15 minutes in the evening,\" he says. • Know your goals. \"Understand why you are doing it and what benefits you hope to get out of it,\" says Beddow. \"That way you\'re more likely to stay committed.\"