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Fosway 20

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Better Blending

As often happens in L&D, after the emergence of ‘blended learning’ as a concept, a bandwagon rolled into town with many vendors and consultants jumping onto it. In 2002, CEO David Wilson was concerned about the various vested interests and whether blended learning could ever live up to the hype. Here he explores what’s right and what’s wrong with an area that many organisations still find challenging to deliver.

June 2002

When I wrote in Training Journal last August about blended learning, I did it with mixed feelings. As I said last time around, blended learning whilst representing a big shift in thinking on the structure of learning, was already being perceived as ‘bandwagon of the month’. As the main e-learning vendors jumped onto the blended learning story, and the mainstream traditional (read as non-e) learning vendors started to embrace the idea, it was obviously destined for stardom of some kind.

Many instructor-led providers have started to explore how they make their offering blended, introducing other forms of content and activities outside the classroom to support the learning process. Corporate training consumers, increasingly under pressure about cost and time out of the business, have also recognised the benefits of a blended approach, and are starting to demand these kinds of solutions from their suppliers.

So, if this is all so positive, why were my feelings mixed rather than just positive? After all, I have been advocating this kind of integrated approach for a long time and also advocating the step-change in thinking associated with it. Well, it was the cynic in me worrying about how the various vested interests would try and bend it to their own advantage, and what the likely outcomes would be in reality.

What’s right with it?

Let me reinforce my continued support for the concept of blended delivery. It seems clear, my experience backs this up, that a good blended solution is a much more powerful animal than straight classroom or e-learning. Some recent research by Thomson NETg confirms that learning through a blended approach resulted in significantly better performance – both in terms of accuracy of work and speed of work over straight e-learning or no learning.

Blending learning allows us to use the strengthens of the different components rather than being limited by the weaknesses of anyone of them. It is also by definition “programmatic” as it combines a sequence of learning interventions (of different forms) to make up the whole blended approach. I’m a big believer in this. Programmatic learning can significantly enhance the combination of knowledge acquisition and practical application over a typically longer elapsed time than a single intervention.

What’s wrong with it?

But blending can also be done badly. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations over the past month with have ended with the mantra ‘Blended learning doesn’t mean chopping a day off the front of the course and doing a CBT instead!’. It’s a bit scary how frequently this turns out to be the case in reality. Four-day courses become three-day courses with a bit of online pre-work. Sorry guys this doesn’t cut it. Surely if the design is blended, all of the components will be affected. Hacking a day off the front without changing the rest of it may be expedient but isn’t going to change the dynamics of learning.

The biggest challenge is injecting blended thinking throughout the whole design process. This undoubtedly involves touching some sacred cows. Classroom courses will need to be deconstructed into smaller components as well as e-learning content. This is a huge challenge for traditional classroom training providers, where the economics of delivery constrain the way they want to offer the classroom component. The concept of trashing their nice profitable three and four-day block courses and replacing them with a bunch of half-day day sessions without a fixed audience is unlikely to make their financial director sleep easier, even if the total classroom delivery time is less.

Also, the nicely controllable cost line for instructors goes haywire, as they become online mentors throughout the whole learning process. And by the way, email and chat rooms are not good ways of doing this. Email whilst a (nearly) universal method of communication, is a poor of maintaining the learning context across the discussion. It’s also almost impossible to trace back for future reflection. Chat rooms are also very limited. There are much better collaborative tools to do this.

Variety is key

Overall, blending means doing all these things, appropriate to the context and learning need. Classroom modules may or may not represent a significant part of the delivery, but they are unlikely to be used for what you are using them today – knowledge transfer. Collaborative learning tools can provide a better platform to support ongoing learning activities, instructional support and mentoring. Content will be in a variety of forms, and increasingly online. Whatever the specifics, it’s not going to look much like it does now in the long term.

Don’t forget the learner!

And finally, as I have said before, think of the learner. Much of the benefit around blended design is to provide more flexibility and options for the learner. But their unfamiliarity with the approach means they may not a) understand this and/or b) have the discipline to do it. One of the early learning experiences with most blended courses is that the learners really struggle to maintain the effort to complete it. Nobody said this was a bed of roses!

This article, written by Fosway’s CEO, David Wilson, first appeared in Training Journal in June 2002

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