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The search for the holy e-learning recipe – learning channels and strategy

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In the first part of an indepth study, E-learning Consultant and Content Designer Don Morrison interrogates e-learning and blended learning, and wonders if we have been asking the right questions.

Part Two


"Distance Learning is a conflicted arena of human endeavor if there ever was one. Actually, in Education there is nothing so insignificant that it cannot be contentious."
Elizabeth Perrin
Editor, US Distance Learning Association Journal

I'll come clean. I hate the term ‘blended learning’. I'm not alone. A number of people including several e-learning luminaries have shared their dirty little secret with me. I can't help reading ‘blended learning’ as 'we can’t make up our mind learning’. We're not sure which type of learning to use so we'll use lots and hope that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Now some people are saying that 2003 will see ‘blended learning’ gave way to ‘blurred learning’. Yeah, right.

I find it difficult to give 'blended learning' the same respect I give, say, blended whiskey which is produced by the highly skilful blending of between 20 and 50 different ‘single’ malt and grain whiskies—of differing ages and from different regions and distilleries—to create a new brand with its own unique character. The greater the number of component whiskies, the greater the consistency of the resulting blend. If one of the contributing distilleries goes out of business, the blenders can achieve the same end result by adjusting the blend of the other single whiskies. If only such art, science, and commerce lay behind blended learning.

Personally, I’m much more comfortable talking about the strategic use of learning delivery channels than ‘blended learning’. Every enterprise has learning delivery channels—it's a question of identifying them and deciding which to use when. Typical channels include the physical classroom, the virtual classroom, print, e-mail, the telephone, print, coaching and mentoring, EPSS, software simulations, online collaboration, self-paced e-learning, and Knowledge Management channels. Increasingly, mobile or wireless channels are also available. It’s clear from this list that learning delivery channels are more than technology channels. Coaching, for example, is a learning delivery channel that can be delivered by phone, e-mail, message boards, Instant Messaging, and face to face.


The Search for the Holy Recipe

In print publications, in online forums, and at learning events, the same plaintive question is heard, ‘I'm responsible for delivering a package of blended learning. How should I create the blend?’ The question is asked as if there existed a holy recipe capable, like some Hogwartian spell (Blanda lore!), of producing the desired effect time after time as long as the incantation is articulated in the right sequence and with the correct pronunciation.

However honest, the question is flawed.

I have heard blended learning dismissed as the Emperor's New Clothes on the basis that all learning—from infancy, through the classroom, and into the enterprise—is blended learning. While that's true, it's also a red herring. The blends of learning we encounter outside organizational learning are almost always accidental or intuitive—which is not to say they are ineffective. It is a different matter to design the right combination of learning delivery channels with the goal of improving the performance of a specific task or combination of tasks in a business unit or department. Also, blended learning through infancy and formal education has to do with pedagogy while organization learning has to do with andragogy. The difference is significant.

I have also heard it said that blended learning has its origins as an apology or, worse, a distraction promoted by e-learning vendors in order to take the market’s attention away from the apparent failure of e-learning to deliver on its promises. 'Mea culpa, mea culpa’, cant the e-learning vendors. ‘We got a little carried away there. Of course, e-learning can't do it all. What you really need is blended learning—and here's a solution we prepared earlier.'
There's an element of truth in both these tellings of the genesis of blended learning but neither gets us closer to an answer to the question, ‘How should I create the blend?’ The only thing that can is hard thinking.


Hard Thinking

Consideration #1. Before asking how you should blend learning shouldn't you be asking why you're blending learning? How many organizations have thought hard about why they're embracing blended learning? I know some have but I'm reasonably confident when I say most haven't. I believe that for the majority blended learning is a reaction to a disappointing e-learning initiative (We built it and no one came.), having the budget for their e-learning implementation cut as a consequence of current market conditions, or a failure to create the transformation in the training department necessary for e-learning to take root and flourish.

Consideration #2. So why have so many e-learning implementations been disappointing? The excuses could fill a book but it's my contention that e-learning failed to keep the promises it made to the learner and the enterprise because its implementers didn't think hard enough about why they were implementing it. It's more than a contention. According to Linkage Inc, 58 percent of senior managers admit their business implemented e-learning without a formal strategy signed off at board level.1 You've heard the saying, it's not guns that kill, it's people. I feel the same way about e-learning. It's not e-learning that lets learners down, it's people.

Consideration #3. Unless organizations stop and think hard and in detail about why they're implementing blended learning, chances are they will repeat the mistakes they made with e-learning. Too many organizations, with the encouragement of too many e-learning service and product vendors, invested in e-learning believing it was an off-the-shelf learning solution. It never was; it never will be. Phoning your favourite content vendor, licensing 250 courses, and arranging for the vendor to host them too might be an e-learning implementation but it isn’t an e-learning solution. Blended learning isn't an off the shelf solution either. All the challenges that surround e-learning surround blended learning—and more.

Consideration #4. Here's a challenge. Name me one enterprise with an exemplary track record in traditional training that fouled up its e-learning implementation. If the organization was capable of delivering traditional training that was aligned with enterprise requirements, that improved performance, that generated good ROI, it was capable of improving on all those metrics by adding e-learning to its learning delivery channels. A more typical failure scenario is of an organization delivering mediocre traditional training and carrying that mediocrity forward to its e-learning implementation. There’s no inherent reason why blended learning shouldn’t suffer the same fate.

Consideration #5. Why am I reasonably confident that organizations are not thinking hard enough about why they're embracing blended learning? Because if they were, they would already know how to create the right learning blend. There is no perfect recipe for blending learning, there is only the selection of learning delivery channels that best meets your business and learning requirements. So first principles first: understand your requirements.


Devising a Strategy

So how does hard thinking turn into a strategy for blended learning? In an article entitled A Bulletproof Model for the Design of Blended Learning, Frank Troha offers a straightforward and practical process:

1. understand the true scope and nature of your project;

2. gain the support of all internal stakeholders early in the process;

3. efficiently and accurately communicate project scope and requirements to potential providers;

4. hire the best provider for the job; and

5. confidently manage and monitor project tasks to ensure success.

Of course, what really maters is Step 1—and the quality of that step will be in direct proportion to the quality of the learning department’s relationship with the business. Unless you have a deep understanding of the business requirement and context, and have assured yourself that it can be achieved through learning—as opposed to, for example, better tools or rewards schemes—there is no way you can make an effective selection of learning channels.
Here are the elements that you need to think hard about in order to devise a useful channel selection strategy:

1. Business objectives

2. Speed to market

3. Subject matter

4. Learner base

5. Instructional Design

6. Shelf life

7. Practical constraints

8. Cost parameters

9. Technical infrastructure

10. Channels available to the learner base

Enterprises also need to think about the nature of the blend. Is every course delivered through multiple learning channels? Or does the blend exist across multiple courses each delivered through a single channel? Either way, why is that approach being adopted?


Requirements are Like Enterprise Fingerprints

Some organizations have a blended learning strategy that I describe as all-content-in-all-channels. They see their role as learning publishers using every channel in the enterprise to deliver content and leaving the nature of the blend to the learner. I’ve seen this described disparagingly as ‘buffet learning’—but leaving channel selection to the learner isn’t always a lazy solution.

Employees of The Dow Chemical Company are some of the busiest learners in the world. Driven by compliance requirements, they clocked up 630 000 hours of learning in 2001 with about 7 000 course completions every week—and that's just the activity in Dow's e-learning channels. Dow has learned that the combination of shift work in its factories and the need for its employees to meet and renew compliance requirements means that the more channels it uses to deliver a course, the greater the take up. There are no value judgements about channels—at Dow, access is the driver for blended learning.

The Royal Bank of Scotland aspires to all-content-in-all-channels for a different reason. The bank sees the nature of work changing and with it the relationship between the bank and its employees who, increasingly, will work remotely and virtually. The bank's aim is to provide as many learning delivery channels as possible in order to cater to the increasing diversity of employees’ lifestyles.
Before it was acquired by IBM Global Consulting, PwC Consulting developed a blended learning strategy based on the value of client accounts. The more valuable the account, the more PwCC was prepared to invest in delivering learning.

In practice that means consultants working on the most valuable projects received the most instructor-led learning because face to face learning is the most costly to deliver. Project-driven learning is also delivered through Web collaborations and self-paced e-learning courses. On the other hand, career-driven learning is only sometimes delivered through instructor-led channels and mostly through e-learning courses. Interest-driven learning is neither tracked nor charged for and is delivered solely through the consultancy's self-paced e-learning channels.

For years, IBM itself has been leveraging its learning delivery channels through what the company calls its 4-Tier Learning Model. Tier 1 is about learning from information and uses online channels to deliver performance support and reference materials, for example, Web-based lectures, books, conferences, pages, and video on demand. Tier 2 is about learning from interaction and delivers interactive learning, simulations, and games through Web and multimedia channels. Tier 2 content includes self-paced, self-directed learning objects as well as coaching and simulations. Tier 3 is about learning from online collaboration. It delivers virtual classes, e-labs, collaborative sessions, live conferences, and teaming across the Web. Tier 4 is about learning from co-location and uses face to face channels to deliver experiential learning in the form of learning labs, mentoring, role playing, coaching, and case studies. The learning is accumulative with the sequence always moving from Tier 1 to Tier 4. IBM has applied the 4-tier approach in its well known Basic Blue for Managers course with notable success.

No one of these approaches is right and none are wrong. Each has been designed to meet specific enterprise learning needs—and that's the way it should be.


Copyright Don Morrison, E-learning Consultant and Content Designer
[email protected]
Don's book "E-Learning Strategies: How To Get Implementation and Delivery Right First Time" will be published in March.

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