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More than blended learning

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2nd Feb 2015
Consultant Skills Journey Ltd
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Clive Shepherd explains how to design world-class learning interventions.

The concept of blended learning will already be familiar to many of you. After all, people have been blending learning methods and media for as long as there have been things that people need to learn and others willing to teach them. Yet somehow, it is only in the last ten years that the modern learning professional has fully come to terms with the fact that a single approach – a classroom event, perhaps, a self-study module, or a period of on-job instruction – when used on its own, is unlikely to fully satisfy a learning requirement.

Blended learning is right now the strategy of choice for most major employers and for many educational institutions, whether or not they favour the term ‘blended learning’ to describe their approach. The blended learning of today is broad in scope, extending well beyond the delivery of formal courses to include all sorts of online communications, from webinars to YouTube videos, social networks to mobile performance support materials. They will also draw heavily on long-standing, non-digital approaches, including coaching, action learning and accelerated on-the-job learning.

Employers recognise that learning at work takes place continuously, whether or not it is formally planned. They understand that courses are not enough to change behaviour and increase performance. As a result, they increasingly expect more far-reaching solutions that go well beyond the presentation of information and half-hearted attempts at providing opportunities for practice. They want learning solutions that deliver and that places fresh demands on the designers of those solutions.

There’s more to blending than meets the eye

Even the simplest design decisions appear, on closer investigation, to be multi-faceted. OK, so let’s say you want to replace part of what is predominantly a classroom curriculum with an element of self-paced elearning. On the surface this seems like a simple issue of media selection – deciding which of the face-to-face elements should in future be delivered online. But hold on: The chances are that, by switching some face-to-face elements to self-study, you are also going to change who it is that the learner learns with (what was previously a group experience is now self-study), the mode of communication (what was live is now carried out at a time that suits the learner), and often also the underlying learning strategy (your classroom course that employed discovery learning techniques is now largely instructional). All of these decision points need to be carefully and separately considered, not bundled together.

It is also evident that formal interventions, however well they are designed, will rarely be enough to satisfy the needs of employers or the goals of learners. Formal input will, in many cases, be a necessary ingredient, but it is unlikely to be sufficient. Rather than standalone events we need end-to-end processes.

Evidence for this comes from the Corporate Leadership’s 2011 survey of 350 line managers in 51 countries. Some 86% of respondents thought that employee learning and development was vitally important. Most were supportive of individual events organised by L&D, yet 76% felt that L&D was 'ineffective or extremely ineffective' at supporting their business outcomes. While the formal input that L&D was providing was popular, it simply was not delivering in terms of changed behaviour and, ultimately, business performance.

We need something more

A blended solution differs from a conventional intervention in that it contains highly contrasting methods and media. It does this in order to improve both the efficiency (cost, time commitment, flexibility and scalability) and the effectiveness of the solution.

Blends are more efficient because they do not focus on a single delivery channel (such as the bricks-and-mortar classroom) when more flexible approaches (such as online media) can do an equally successful job, for at least some of the elements in the solution. Technology is an important enabler here, providing opportunities that we could have only dreamed about 20 years ago.

Well-designed blends, can also be more effective, because they put quality first and emphasise practical application and follow-through.

Good blended design principles can be applied to any situation in which there is a requirement to support a population on their learning journey and, as a result, meet a need. You do not have to start out with the intention of devising a blend and, who knows, you may decide on a solution that does not contain highly contrasting methods or media. Realistically, though, to fulfil the requirement for really effective, end-to-end solutions, it is hard to see how you could avoid coming up with a blend, however simple.

Most learning professionals will probably use blended design approaches to conceive programmes that have, at their heart, formal elements, such as workshops, instructional materials and assessments. But the blended approach will work just as well when the primary input comes from, say, the meetings of an action learning set or a series of coaching sessions. It will work whether the programme you have in mind is learner-driven (pulled) or mandated by an institution (pushed). To flex your blended design muscles, all you need is a learning goal and a conscious attempt to achieve that goal.

Designing end-to-end blended solutions is not rocket science, but neither is it a task that can be approached lightly. Because there are so many potential ingredients in a blend, each of which has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, it can be tough to make the right choices for your particular requirement. And there is rarely an obvious right answer that can be applied again and again – every organisation is different and so is every problem.

If you don’t get the design right for the blend, your detailed plans for live events, digital content and all your other ingredients may well be misdirected. The onus is on the blended designer to make sensible judgements based on a solid design methodology. The skilled designer will be more than up to the job of finding a solution that is not only efficient, but delivers results.

Clive Shepherd is a consultant specialising in blended learning. His new book More Than Blended Learning can be ordered from Amazon, the Apple iBookStore or http://morethanblended.com. He blogs at http://clive-shepherd.blogspot.com

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