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Mastering the mix: tips for building successful blended learning programmes

By Brian Sutton, Chief Educator, QA

Today’s businesses are faced with an increasingly complicated decision making process when deciding which learning techniques and environments best fit with their employees’ training needs. Since the e-learning revolution of the 1990s this choice has widened as companies seized upon the cost and time efficiencies of this option. However, there is a growing realisation in the corporate world that e-learning is not a standalone solution and that the most effective methods involve the use of a blended learning programme which incorporates different methods and strategies to maximise knowledge acquisition and skill development.

How then can you ensure that your next foray into Blended Learning is a successful one? The following 10 practical steps defined by Brian Sutton, Chief Educator at QA, and a champion of the technique, will help guide you on your way.

A recent survey of over 1,700 training buyers and delegates conducted by QA found that 81% of organisations believe that Blended Learning is an effective means of learning. Clearly organisations are beginning to realise that Blended Learning is about developing skills, knowledge and a winning attitude by engaging and challenging people in many different ways. The following are the building blocks of any successful blending learning approach:

Design and development of programmes

1. Clearly define your desired learning outcomes. Adopt a broad business perspective to develop an understanding of what you need your people to know and do. What change are you aiming to bring about? Determine the skills your learners currently have and where their skill levels need to be to achieve this change. Remember to do this assessment both from an individual perspective and a team perspective.

2. Be clear about the learning culture of your organisation. Every organisational culture is different and will influence the nature of your Blended Learning programme. It is important to understand the prevailing attitude to training with regard to:

  • Variances in training allocation – If all employees have a four-week annual training allocation, your Blended Learning programme will be significantly different to that of a company that has no formal training or personal development policy and instead believes that the only effective way to learn new things is by encountering them on the job.
  • Issues of space, technical support and technical resources are always present in some form. For example, if the target group of employees has limited access to the internet, online learning will not be appropriate.

3. Examine the fit between learners’ roles and the design of the programme. When constructing the blend you need to be clear about the level of learner control you are seeking to build into the programme and adapt the programme to fit the constraints of employees’ day-to-day activities. For example, learners sitting on a help desk, or in a similar role, have little control over their own time. These individuals are working in a totally reactive environment and are unlikely to have the autonomy to plan periods of self-study or e-learning in the workplace.

4. Be aware of and allow for individual learning preferences. Individuals acquire knowledge and perfect skills through a blend of many different experiences such as story-telling, observation, collaboration, trial and error, guided practice, application and experimentation. Your Blended Learning programme should be built upon these same learning principles to ensure maximum benefit from the programme. People will have a natural tendency towards some styles of learning over others, therefore it is wise to build levels of content redundancy into the programme. One delegate may favour books and e-learning while another may prefer interactive activities such as discussion forums, workshops and virtual labs to cover the same learning points as his or her peer.

5. Select the delivery mechanisms that will foster the behaviours that you wish to instil in your learner. This is a key point – the delivery mechanism is not neutral, it implicitly creates and sustains a method of working. The way in which the training is delivered should support the roles of the learners. A programme for call centre staff, who are desk-based and familiar with using the Intranet to support client queries, and also experience fluctuations in workload throughout the day, may include considerable e-learning and online activity.

6. Adopt a holistic approach to design and development. The best thing about the move towards blended programmes is that it once more raises the importance of design. The various elements of the learning should be viewed together, as one solution, not broken up and treated as independent components. The elements of a blended programme must be mutually supportive to realise the full benefit of the blended approach. Meaningful connections between classroom training, coaching and e-learning content will lead to a strong solution.

7. Design programme assessment to reflect the desired outcomes of the programme. Remember that cause and effect can be separated in time and space so it may not be appropriate to evaluate outcomes on completion of the programme; they may not become apparent until weeks or months later.

Also, for Blended Learning programmes, assessment should reflect the delivery mechanisms and desired behaviours involved in the programme. All elements – classroom, online learning, coaching etc, should play a part in the evaluation strategy to determine the strengths of the programme. If team workshops are a feature of the training then assessment should address collaboration skills.

Implementation

The first steps we’ve looked at will help you get the scope and design of your programme right: learning objectives, organisational and cultural fit, appropriate delivery mechanisms, all building towards an integrated solution. Now you need to embed the solution into the workplace – this can be the most challenging phase.

8. Think Big. Start Smart (Small). Scale fast. Steps 1 to 7 are about thinking big – ensuring you have a complete solution in place even if you choose not to fully implement all of it in one go. It is best to embark upon the implementation phase with a pilot to test your new approach. By piloting the complete programme, or key elements, with a small group, you will quickly become aware of areas that need adapting or fine-tuning. Likely culprits are: the balance of the classroom work against the e-learning modules, the time allocated to complete the e-learning, the need for support and social structures to hold together self-study and maintain motivation, the practicality and availability of virtual classroom sessions. Once the pilot is over and tweaking of the programme complete, roll out the programme rapidly to the target group.

9. Commit to the programme. The full support of learners’ line managers is critical to success. If you do not have the buy in of the people managing the time and tasks of the learners your programme will encounter constant difficulties. Traditionally, line managers are used to releasing employees for a small number of days, two or three times a year. Blended Learning, on the other hand, involves considerable self-study: e-learning, books, CD Roms etc. Success depends on line managers allocating dedicated time during the working day for learners to read material, engage in exercises and attend virtual sessions.

10. Rigorously evaluate the solution. Once the programme is underway, don’t lose sight of the learning objectives you developed in Point 1. Are you seeing the desired behaviours in your learners? Regular evaluation over time by those involved in the project will ensure that the Blended Learning project experience continues to deliver excellent results.

Creating a truly effective Blended Learning solution, using the best balance of learning components and fitting within the organisational and cultural parameters is not easy. You may not get everything right first time but, by monitoring and improving your solution, you will quickly see the value of this approach.

Learning programmes that effectively blended multiple learning strategies and styles represent the very best of the past and are exemplars of the future. They do, however, require us to once again embrace the rigour of holistic design. This new emphasis on overall design and development requires professionals who understand the principles of adult learning and who can leverage the potential of the plethora of technological delivery mechanisms that are now available.

About the author

Brian Sutton, Chief Educator, QA>

As Chief Educator at QA, Brian is charged with defining and developing the QA educational experience of tomorrow. Brian has pioneered an architected approach to the deployment of learner centred integrated curriculum within a fully managed environment; a solution based upon this approach won the Microsoft Global CTEC solution award for 2003. He is also specifying and conducting research into the use of multi-sensory learning environments and their impact on workplace skills transfer. Brian is a regular speaker at professional events throughout Europe and the US.

© QA 2004. Reproduced with permission. Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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