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The race to blend learning: Under starters orders or a false start?


Tim Drewitt, a director of blended learning providers Balance Learning, argues that, although blended learning solutions should be the backbone of training strategies, it’s essential to go back to the starting blocks before taking part in the blended learning race.

Blended learning is in danger of not getting off to the best start for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s association with the failure of e-learning to deliver the promised results has led to a rush to blend everything to do with e-learning, which has often resulted in poorly put together training programmes full of mixed message, duplication of content between the elements of the blend; worse still, even conflicting information. At a recent e-learning conference, delegates commented on how they viewed the rush by e-learning vendors to tag other components onto existing e-learning courses with some scepticism.

  2. The fact that many trainers have been blending learning resources for some time now - long before e-learning - and naturally take offence to jingoistic language being applied to something they hold dear to their hearts – delivering the most appropriate learning, to the appropriate staff, at the right time to suit the learner.

  3. The surrounding hype that follows newly marketed panaceas for training, with conferences galore and articles aplenty. As we know, hype often breeds scepticism and this will not be the first time I’ve warned of rushing towards developing more integrated learning programmes. A sense of déjà vu prevails at the moment!

For certain, blended learning has a role to play within our training and development strategies. Indeed, the more I reflect upon this, I’ve realised that blended learning solutions should be the backbone of our strategies.

But it’s essential to minimise any false starts and to go back to the starting blocks before taking part in the blended learning race.

The key for me, in these early days, is to adopt a systematic approach to developing these, rather than rushing to create solutions that may not work the first time (remember the lessons of the past, where one poorly delivered “new” way of learning has tarnished reputations), or creating many different permutations of blended learning solutions that only seek to confuse the trainers, trainees and the business.

Questions are already being raised as to what constitutes the “correct” blend. I can recall one article that suggested 6 permutations for one training requirement alone!

And as for technology, whilst e-learning is now rightly or wrongly affiliated to blended learning, learning technologies in a wider sense will increasingly play a major role in supporting blended learning strategies, regardless of whether learning technologies actually deliver aspects of the blend, i.e. e-learning.

A systematic approach offers a degree of simplicity, applies logic to the process of learning and enables learning technologies to be introduced in the widest sense.

Starting with identifying the needs of the learner, blended learning solutions should provide tools to enable learners to self-assess their needs, either against the objectives of the proposed training programme, or against identified skills and competency frameworks. Online skills and competency managements systems increasingly offer a wide range of planning tools that facilitate the start of the learning process.

Armed with this diagnosis, blended learning solutions should then offer the most appropriate form of training to meet the identified needs. Elements in the blend will be combined to develop a tailored learning programme for each learner. Adopting a simple approach of delivering knowledge through e-learning or other forms best suited to providing information, skills through classroom events and implementation support through banks of transfer of learning activities is a sensible first decision.

Splitting the learning into its knowledge, skills and application components provides a consistent treatment of material and provides a logical sequence of steps that are intuitive to the learner.

We must not just rely on using technology - in the form of online assessments - to determine which e-learning modules are most appropriate to bring everyone up to the same level of knowledge, but make sure that we use online surveys of objectives to shape the classroom work we undertake.

While learners are completing their preparatory knowledge acquisition, trainers should be using the results of pre-training surveys to “top and tail” the standard classroom offering, so that each group of learners receives an appropriate classroom experience, aligned as closely as possible to their specific requirements. This may mean substituting one case study or role-play for another, or changing the terminology or examples referenced in the class materials.

These surveys also serve as the basis of the evaluation strategy and a follow-up survey after the completion of a series of transfer of learning activities will provide first-hand evidence of the impact of the training.

If we are to avoid the early mistakes of the past, what is essential is that blended learning programmes have context and consistency throughout. More and more, we should aim to move from creating blended learning resources from pre-existing materials and events, that were never designed to be used this way, to developing or acquiring blended learning solutions that have been designed as such from the beginning.

Following a simple approach in the first instances will provide consistency and keep things manageable and, above all, be easier to assimilate by the learners. It also enables the easier tracking of progress and results and provides opportunities for integrating evaluation into each step.


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