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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Blending for success: Part one


Robin Hoyle looks at the role blended learning has to play in successful training outcomes. Part one addresses the components in the blended learning mix.

It wasn’t that long ago that blended learning was still spoken of as a mysterious next generation of training. For some people outside the elearning world this was the admission they had been waiting for – blended learning proved what some had said all along – elearning doesn’t work!

Others were more open-minded and welcomed the maturing of the elearning market. Steadily the vendors of elearning who come from a simplistic 'we can do anything' position were moderating their cost savings argument. For some time, these technophiles argued that elearning would replace rather than compliment the classroom.

Reality has set in. There’s now recognition – long overdue – that an approach which combines different interventions and training approaches might be the optimum solution for many training needs. Over time, the adoption of a blended approach has become more widespread amongst organisations. Despite this move towards the mainstream there is still the whiff of mystery. Training teams who are quite happy to combine a course with a project activity or a programme of coaching back in the workplace, can seem somewhat nonplussed by the idea of commissioning or managing what has become known as a blended solution.

What’s in the mix?

There needs to be an acknowledgement that the elearning industry did coin the phrase blended learning. Whilst some in the learning and development field constantly tell me that all learning is a blend of different inputs and experiences – and they are, of course, right – I can’t help feeling that this is essentially the same 'told you so' brigade who were rubbing their flip chart pens together with glee when the idea of combining technology with face-to-face activities was first mooted.
Whilst it is a truism that we all learn how to do our jobs through a whole series of different experiences, the systematic approach to designing a blend of learning solutions was always relatively rare within organisations. In fact, the course as the sole route to corporate enlightenment is still a belief that would seem to be highly prevalent. Oh, I know that when engaged in a debate the course runners will re-position what they do in terms of the coherent approach to development using on-the-job experiences combined with formal educational inputs, but the practical reality is that in many corporate training offerings, the course stands out as the only game in town. The idea of a development programme – with its coaches, mentors, action learning sets, residential courses and work-based projects – is essentially the preserve of the fast tracked and the high flyer.

The blended solution

So what is in the mix which may be referred to as a blended solution? I would include a technology component – this may mean an online programme – providing a structured route to knowledge acquisition through a generic or custom designed series of elearning objects. But I would also want to widen access to all those other learning activities. I want sales and customer services staff, shop floor production workers, nurses, support workers and people from all levels within our organisations to benefit from properly structured inputs from skilled coaches, to have a chance to be part of an action learning set and to benefit from supported work-based projects where the learning gained from the task is more important that the output of the task itself.

Of course, I also want people to have access to well run courses. Learning is a social act and there’s a lot to be said to participating in a well run face-to-face programme which properly uses the opportunities presented by bringing a team of people together to develop new insights and increased confidence with skills they need to develop.

All of these things form part of the mix - and a heady brew it can be. But it can also be an unsatisfactory mess – a loose collection of inputs which lack clarity of purpose. Certainly, I have been engaged in a quite traditional blended activity where pre-event elearning had covered off many of the knowledge outcomes from the course and the event itself was supposed to submerge the delegates in debate, planning sessions and skills development activities. 

What actually happened was that the academic running the programme (unconvinced that anyone would actually have used the elearning and who hadn’t deigned to access the programme himself) read his lecture supported by a series of very worthy overhead slides (yes, acetates – no flirting with the age of technology for him). Needless to say the content was pretty similar in every regard to the content of the elearning. Those who had (according to the tracking system in use) stayed up until gone midnight to make sure they completed their pre-course activity were pretty miffed, I can tell you!

And here is our first pitfall. If the blend is going to work smoothly, we need to make sure that the components do actually complement one another. The first mistake I see organisations make when preparing a blended solution is to be unclear about what each part of the process will do and how coherence will be achieved between these different elements.

The role of the components in the mix

So what do all the parts do? Let’s start with the most expensive bit – the course. At this point, coffee is being spurted across desks the length and breadth of the country as trainers question my assertion about expense. Surely I hear you splutter, the elearning piece is usually more expensive!

Well, yes and no. Whilst I agree someone probably has to sign a cheque with a number of noughts on the end for a reasonable elearning solution, there are some costs savings to be made. Now as I hope I’ve made clear I’m not a 'use elearning - it’ll save you money' merchant.  However, I do think organisations underestimate how much a training course actually costs. When I worked with a major high street retailer some time ago, all the store staff who attended training were on the training department’s payroll for the period of time they were on a course. 

With upwards of 90,000 staff, the cost of a universal course being an hour longer made a difference of over half a million pounds! Have a look at your training budget for the year. For most of you, I bet the expense of trainers and facilitators, room hire, travel and subsistence, catering and consumables takes up the highest proportion of your budget.

Similarly I put a proposal into a government department for a blended one-year development programme in association with a major university. Despite the fact that this was a business school, I couldn’t get the team from the university to understand that their insistence on 25 days attendance per person (rather than the more manageable 10 days I had proposed) was the equivalent of employing 10 additional senior members of staff per year across a relatively small cohort. Needless to say, the client’s procurement team could do the maths and we didn’t get the gig!

The second part of this article will continue this theme and look at how learning is a social activity, how to deal with face-to-face courses and modes of delivery for successful blended learning.

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Robin oversees all learning design activities within Infinity Learning and was nominated for outstanding contribution to the training industry in successive years 2006 and 2007. Robin has been a key speaker at the European eLearning Conference in Monte Carlo, Learning Technologies, Word of Learning, CIPD’s HRD conference, and the HR Forum. He has a BA Hons in Humanities (Drama) and cognitive psychology from the University of Huddersfield; a certificate in training and development (Institute of Training and Development - now CIPD) and a post graduate diploma in management from Leeds Metropolitan University. Read Robin's blog here.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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