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Blended learning

By Declan Byrne, Project Leader at DACG Ltd

Declan Byrne of DACG Ltd., considers all the elements of the latest buzzword in corporate training - ‘Blended Learning’. This article outlines an approach to use, so that traditional training methods can be mixed with technical solutions. In addition, it also highlights some of the pitfalls to avoid to ensure that optimum benefits and results can be achieved.

In the late 1990s many organisations embraced new e-learning technologies. After varied success, it was soon realised that different business problems require an individual mix of media and delivery methods. Some systems and processes can be successfully communicated and trained by stand-alone e-learning. However, if you are considering using e-learning to deliver all the training for the company’s latest business critical system implementation, then think again. e-Learning can play a great supporting role, but when it comes to teaching people not only the new IT system, but also their new job role and new businesses practices, then the most effective way is to use an integrated programme of multimedia to achieve optimum results.

What is blended learning?

This term refers to a learning solution that incorporates several delivery methods and is also used to describe learning that mixes various event-based activities e.g. a mix of live e-learning, face-to-face elements, and self-paced learning. The key to blended learning is to select the right combination of media that will drive the highest business impact for the lowest possible cost.

Why blended learning?

The point of providing blended learning is to offer a range of learning tools and experiences, which in total focuses on the best learning style for all learners. It is in the best interests of an organisation to provide as many opportunities to facilitate the learner to ‘get’ to the educational content as efficiently as possible, and in a way that the learner can absorb the new information without finding the learning experience onerous. In other words, adults don’t just ‘learn’ in one way. The variety of different elements means that learners are more stimulated and motivated than if using just one solution.

Getting started

When using a blended learning approach, it is important initially evaluate the materials and practices that have previously been used to train learners, and evaluate how these programmes can be improved or enhanced with technology. Not every programme needs a technology implementation. Some education programmes serve learners 100 percent adequately as they are. It would be misguided to presume that technology has an automatic place in every learning programme!

There are several technologies that already exist in many businesses and are considered common. This is important, because when adult learners encounter technology as an adjunct learning tool, it should be something they are comfortable using. Otherwise, the process of having to learn new software, or the learning process itself, will stand in the way of expediting the learning. If a new software program is used, organisations should be prepared to train the adult learners in the basic use of the tool, even before training the learners within the content of course. So, select your educational technology teaching tool carefully.

Check all the resources that are already available, such as end-of-course surveys, recent interviews and technology surveys that have been conducted previously. Look for information that identifies the type of technology learners are comfortable using, and the amount of time they have to actually take self-directed learning. Organisations must not assume that adult learners are comfortable using technology in the learning process, nor that they will simply adjust.

Approach

Once the evaluation of current training methods and performance analysis has been carried out, including an assessment of the knowledge gaps that need to be addressed, examine all media types as potential options: classroom training, asynchronous or synchronous Web-based courses, CD-ROMs, video, EPSS systems, simulation tools & tele-training. Other media, which may be deemed less exciting but just as important, includes participant packs, job aids (helpcards), conference calls, exercise scripts, and PowerPoint slides.

When developing blended learning options, organisations must:

1. Analyse the business problem that needs to be solved and determine the purpose of the course. What are the characteristics of the content? How long before information is out-of-date?

2. Determine the best way to deliver the content. Will students be learning a new behaviour, new facts, how to build or put something together? Consider these factors on a case-by-case basis and match them with the appropriate learning medium.

3. Determine the length of the course and the amount of time students will have to spend in each class. In-depth, lengthy courses may be broken into segments, and some segments may be better suited for different delivery methods.

4. The job function of the learner and the learner's background and understanding of the material should influence which delivery method is used. For example, determine if all the material is necessary for all students, and if the course can be modified for each person or role.

5. Discover how your employees learn best. What are the learning styles and education levels of employees? Are they self-motivated? Do they enjoy interaction and collaboration? Generally, IT personnel are self-motivated and able to learn via self-paced courses, but employees should be able to choose the method that works best for them.

At DACG Ltd., we have learned that programmes with the highest impact often blend a complex media with one or more of the simpler tools. A Web-based course for introduction/overview followed by a ‘real’ hands-on interactive class is an obvious mix. Using an e-learning solution as part of the blend has many benefits, it can provide cost savings over traditional training. The real value of e-learning is in its accessibility (anytime, anyone, anywhere), its reusability (refresher, new hire, quick reference), and its assessibility (proof of competency, certification, and learning management). If an e-learning component is to be selected as part of the blend, carry out a thorough infrastructure survey taking into consideration bandwidth connectivity, PC standards (browser version, memory required, CPU speed) and examine the volume of traffic at training time to ensure performance is not affected.

Benefits in using a blended learning approach

You don’t have to make a decision about which single solution is the best; instead blended learning allows organisations to put together a number of solutions that are appropriate for each part of the learning problem, therefore taking the opportunity to combine more traditional formats with newer formats to introduce the learners to newer ways of learning. A variety of formats and elements lead to more stimulated and motivated learners. It ensures that different learning styles are catered for in a solution e.g. auditory, visual, practising, discussing and researching.

Using an e-learning element can reduce travel and hotel expenses and allows organisations to execute a blended approach that selects the lowest cost media which solves the problem e.g. job aids, and move to more expensive media only if the problem demands it.

To reap the benefits of blended learning, ensure that the different elements are fully integrated; as learners may try to select the parts of the training course that they prefer and therefore not concentrate on other elements required. Learners will need to understand that the "package" of learning solutions is greater than the parts, and that each element adds something important to the total solution and should not be disregarded.

Ensure robust learning management is in place in order to detect any problems or issues with the rollout effort. Find creative ways to ensure that the asynchronous modules and other pre-class assignments were completed, such as the forms that learners had to complete to understand the synchronous class.

Conclusion

To keep up with the competition in a fast-changing world, employers need to be able to offer training quickly and effectively to their employees. Choosing the appropriate method for your company's curriculum can be just as important as providing the training. Keep in mind the different training options available, get the highest level of support within your company and, above all, consult your employees to find out which method they prefer.

Blended learning takes advantage of the power of technology to deliver training "just in time," anywhere and anytime. However, in blended learning, technology (and in particular, online education) is not used as an isolated tool, but as a key part of a comprehensive workplace performance solution. E-learning, therefore, is not considered the only means to educate, but it should be considered an adjunct to the overall training process.

About the author

Declan Byrne is a Project Leader at DACG Ltd., a Change Management consultancy assisting organisations undergoing business or technological change. In his six years with DACG Ltd. he has provided corporate training solutions to FTSE 100 clients and public sector organisations alike to maximise training effectiveness for complex I.T. implementations.

© DACG Ltd 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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