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An alternative to the blended approach

By Neil Lasher, Trainer1

While the electronic delivery of learning - now termed ‘e-learning’ – is touching the lives of a large and increasing number of people, there are many organisations that have yet to put their toes in the e-learning lake.

These organisations, along with those who have had bespoke content designed for them or have bought ‘off the shelf’ e-learning materials, have begun to realise that e-learning is not a complete replacement for other forms of training. Nor is it, as some have promised, a method to gain significant increases in the return on investment (ROI), significant increases in learning retention, significant speeds of production or significant reduction of costs.

The history of e-learning - short as it is - has seen many changes in style, delivery methods and ideas around instructional design and sales techniques from the vendor. In its early days, e-learning was delivered solely on disk. Initially, the disk was 5 ¼ inches in diameter and highly flexible. In more recent days, the disk has become a CD-ROM and the Intranet is being used for delivery within the corporate world.

During the hype of the ‘dot com’ bubble era, many US-based firms promoted the concept that mass produced content was going to replace all other forms of training. I attended an ASTD conference five years ago, during which the major concern of the attendees’ conversations was the fear of losing one’s job to a CD-ROM. In the years that followed, it has become apparent that e-learning will not replace the trainer.

This realisation has not come from the e-learning supplier but from the corporations that buy e-learning. Early rollouts and implementations did not receive the high take-up expected within the workplace. Initially, this was thought to be because of the length of the programme and one major e-learning guru stated, at a conference, that the time had come to consider shorter training programmes, attempting to reduce the learning time per course from four hours to an hour. Over time, we came to the conceptual idea of creating chunks, or learning objects, and this started the discussion that still rages today as to what constitutes an ‘object’.

A realisation that certain skills did not transfer well into e-learning forced the e-vendors to expand their thinking or lose out in the market. Some two years ago, the ‘e’ vendors in the USA came up with a ‘new’ concept: ‘blended learning’ – which, according to its definition on the ASTD website, mixes e-learning and face-to-face training. These days, almost everyone wanting ‘e-learning’ asks for ‘blended learning’.

Blended learning appears to be the art of taking an existing training programme and deciding which areas of the programme would reproduce well in ‘e’: pre-course material, post-course material, ‘happy sheets’ and online assessments, for example. Take those items out of the programme and ‘blended learning’ has arrived. Or has it?

An alternative model for creating consistent learning that uses all of the delivery techniques available in the right place, is ‘integrated learning’. Integrated learning takes the thought process of learning materials creation and applies a new mindset.

Budgetary and time constraints mean that it is not always possible to redesign, from the ground up, every existing training programme. So, instead of looking for the areas of the model that will convert well into ‘e’, the integrated approach is to re-design the whole course with a view to deliver it in ‘e’. Then each module or object in the course is examined and a decision taken on how much benefit there would be in providing this using a different delivery method – be it face-to-face, e-book, discussion group, classroom, coaching, mentoring, workbook, audio CD, video and so on.

Paradoxically, this new mindset focuses on the training element and away from the ‘e’ element in the project. By placing more focus on the training and less on the delivery method, the course content can only improve.

The one added wrinkle to make this work as an integrated approach is to consider the difference between the two types of training available:

  • ‘Push’ training where the company decides what it wants its employees to learn and pushes that training to its employees and
  • ‘Pull’ training, where the company makes available to employees 500 different courses in a catalogue and lets them choose which one(s) to study.

Many courses that are designed to be ‘pushed’ to employees don’t fit with the individual’s availability for learning. When an employee leaves his/her office to attend an offsite training course, he/she is away from all distractions. On the other hand, providing learning at the desktop has shown that, in over 60 per cent of cases, the end user is multi-tasking while learning - probably eating and taking frequent breaks to read emails or answer the telephone.

Consequently, ‘at-desk training’ should be designed to allow learners maximum flexibility, since each employee will have a different level of availability and willingness to devote to learning.

So, the learners’ availability should be assessed before they start the course. Indeed, their requirements in this respect must be known before the course is designed. The training department should know how much time the end users are able to give to learning at their desks on a weekly basis. The employees, with their supervisors, will determine which areas of learning they need to undertake and a plan can be created that will allow for a weekly delivery to each employee of just enough material to fill the time allowance that the employee feels he/she is able to give.

This plan – for integrated training - may be that, in one week, a book is delivered to the learner’s desk for reading; in another week, a video is delivered for watching; while, in another week, an afternoon networking or classroom event is planned or, perhaps, the learner could even work through an e-learning module.

With regular assessment, courses can be tailored with content being increased or decreased to ensure that it matches the workload of the employee. This is truly integrated learning.

© Trainer1 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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