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Fosway 20

Blended or Integrated E-learning?

In the third article in the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series, Fosway analysts interrogate the trend of ‘blended learning’ which became popular in the year 2000. Blending implies the seamless use of all modes all of the time, all as one. Fosway felt at the time that this might not be a good description of the reality of how these things are delivered in practice. And with many organisations still battling to create the perfect blend, this paper remains useful reading.

January 2001

The e-learning environment is no different from any other new technology area, with new ideas and phrases appearing on an increasingly rapid basis. The term ‘blended learning’ became popular in the year 2000. Blended learning is the mixing and integration of different learning delivery approaches including classroom and e-learning to create a single learning programme. Unlike earlier concepts where e-learning and classroom were seen as mutually exclusive, blended learning is seen as the AND model rather than the OR model. It is about using the best of all worlds to create the strongest integrated offering. It combines the power and effectiveness of the classroom with the flexibility and any-time nature of e-learning and allows learning to be more tailored and more individual, whilst at the same time allowing greater reach and distributed delivery.

Integrated vs. blended

But perhaps ‘blended’ learning is not the right terminology, particularly for the current state of the market. At Fosway we prefer to talk about most approaches of this type as ‘integrated’ rather than ‘blended’. Clearly there is significant potential to integrate different modes of delivery, designing something that uses the best of all and marginalises the weaknesses of each. But blending implies the seamless use of all modes all of the time, all as one. This may not be a good description of the reality of how these things are delivered in practice.

At Fosway, we’ve been focusing for the last couple of years on integrated e-learning design, creating learning programmes consisting of integrated components. The learning objectives are the same as for blended learning, but the pieces are possibly more discrete. Thus a management development programme that used to consist of a sequence of classroom-based sessions over time, gets restructured with less classroom time. It now includes a virtual learning centre to provide learning materials and resources, facilitated online discussions and collaborative assignments, live guest sessions across the internet and so on. It is all integrated into one coherent programme, but uses different modes of delivery to maximise value delivered, ease and flexibility of access, quality of learning and workplace relevance.

It is important to analyse the learning objectives first and then design a coherent integrated programme. Too many organisations claim to have blended learning programmes, which in reality are ‘click next’ content with a discussion forum tacked on the back end, or a classroom session to train users how to navigate the software bolted on the front. It is also easy to become distracted by the possibilities of visually rich, interactive content, at the expense of basic learner needs.

Best practice

At Fosway, we have developed an integrated learning design methodology and best practice approach to enable more rigorous analysis of learning needs and e-learning design. It explores the learning dynamics, which can then determine specific requirements for learning structure, resources, and activities such as collaboration, debate, instruction and assessment. These in turn can help to define the structural components including delivery mechanisms such as face-to-face sessions, live virtual classrooms, and asynchronous collaborative discussion or simulation tools. (For more information on our approach to integrated e-learning design see the article ‘Design Dynamics for E-learning’).

While each learning programme will probably have specific requirements and dynamics, when aggregated, integrated e-learning tends to develop a pattern of common delivery requirements, which therefore demands a common infrastructure to support those needs and common access points for all who need it. And here lies a major challenge for companies taking up integrated e-learning. Unless this underlying trend is recognised, and organisations start to develop some corporate standards for e-learning delivery, they will be driven by content and technology vendors into using many different platforms for many different needs, or even worse, using similar solutions for the same need.

Quality models of integrated learning and e-learning are relevant to most organisations and will increasingly be adopted over time. It is however, a cultural change for both the training industry and individual training organisations to move towards this integrated model, both from a learning design and a tool perspective. The conversion may not happen overnight, but those responsible for high quality e-learning will start to plan for the future to maximise value and minimise wasted resources.

In conclusion, if integrated e-learning is becoming a compelling model of how learning needs will be met in the future, we need to:

a) Develop coherent models of designing integrated programmes
b) Develop a coherent infrastructure to support multiple requirements and programmes
c) Develop common access points to them.

Summary

Success in e-learning involves three key areas. Firstly, a broad understanding of all the various components – from Learning Management Systems to content development techniques, from IT infrastructure to learning design and management of organisational change. Next, since e-learning programmes are rarely inexpensive, it is critical to get a high return on your initial investment, so making use of the most experienced resources possible is vital for success. The value of those who have ‘done it before’ cannot be underestimated. And finally, it is essential to co-ordinate and manage these components, business functions and resources. E-learning crosses many boundaries and should be viewed as a strategic endeavour, and managed as a truly cross-functional programme.

We hope that the articles in the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series help you to understand some of the current issues surrounding this topic and have stimulated you to review your ideas on e-learning. Fosway is continually researching and developing e-learning best practice, and is focused on sharing its knowledge and experience with its customers and e-learning practitioners.

Recommended Fosway Reading

The other articles in this series are as follows:
Recipes for E-learning Success
The Volume Vs. Value Equation
Design Dynamics for E-learning
Building Learning Communities
Synchronous Vs. Asynchronous
E-learning Standards

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The analysis and recommendations made in this document are based on the information currently available to Fosway and from sources believed to be reliable.

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