THE LEARNING BLENDER
Figure 1: Blended Learning Combines Two or More Learning Modalities
Learning methods and delivery options are multiplying. To get the most learning for their investment, organizations and individuals are seeking blended learning solutions that combine a variety of delivery options and learning methods that create a buffet of learning for all palates.
To avoid a blender blowout while creating exceptional blended learning, it is important to know how to blend various learning ingredients to accent the individual advantages of each.
What is Blended Learning?
Blended learning is any combination of classroom, e-learning, or non-formal collaborative learning that is intended to achieve the same outcomes as traditional learning. Blended learning comes in many forms today with technology promises of new options in the future. The most common learning elements that comprise blended learning are:
- Classroom instruction (97% of organizations still provide it)
- Asynchronous e-learning (on-demand, self-paced online)
- Synchronous virtual classroom (meeting together online)
- Individual coaching/mentoring (in-person or online)
- Formal education (degrees or certificate programs through colleges and universities)
- Social media (blogs, wikis, professional networks, communities of practice, m-learning)
- Self-study (books, podcasts, audio, DVDs)
How Does Blended Learning Work?
Learning experts have identified key psychological and mental processes that facilitate learning which can be reduced to five key processes:
- Focus attention on the subject matter; learning cannot occur without full attention (just as our teachers admonished us as children).
- Activate prior knowledge of the subject matter and connect to the current learning. As adults, our long-term memory of past experience supports our current learning for new associations.
- Manage the cognitive load on our working memory with small, digestible chunks of learning (approximately five to seven items at a time). Our limited working memory can easily become overloaded, leading to forgetfulness and incomplete learning.
- Promote retention in long-term memory through practice as we remember the things that we experience and do repeatedly. Find opportunities to rehearse new skills to help us retain the learning over time.
- Retrieve new knowledge when needed through testing, recall tools, job aids, and reference materials. If we cannot recall our new knowledge, the learning becomes useless.
Given these key learning principles, blended learning can provide multiple opportunities, through multiple sensory inputs, for learners to experience new knowledge and skills. With different exposures to learning types, our knowledge accumulates and our retention and retrieval of the new knowledge improves.
As an example, consider the roll-out of a new computer database. The traditional way of learning the new system would involve scheduling all users for a one- or two-day class with intensive experience of the new system through demonstrations and hands-on practice for 12-16 hours. This type of learning experience typically leads to cognitive overload, limited skill practice, poor retention, and poor retrieval when employees start to use the new system on the job.
A blended learning alternative might start with the use of social media to introduce the new database and the organization’s rationale and goals for the new system. This gets people to start paying attention and buying into the idea.
Next, an online self-paced tutorial could give a high-level overview of the new database with explanations about how it differs from existing systems, what its features and benefits are, and the plans to implement it throughout the organization. This information helps to activate prior knowledge and continues to build attention and support.
Third, users might be brought into a classroom or learning lab for hands-on demonstrations and guided practice in the key elements of the new system, under the guidance of a database expert or systems trainer. The classroom time could be substantially reduced from the two-day class of old by focusing on high priority tasks while using online tutorials to cover more detailed and less important aspects of the database.
Finally, users could receive job aids in the form of checklists, step-action tables, flow charts and on-line technical references to improve retrieval on the job. This learning could also be supplemented by using job coaches to assist employees individually who are still having problems learning the new system.
It is clear from this example that blended learning can combine the advantages of different learning modalities while mitigating their respective weaknesses. This results in more effective learning that has a higher likelihood of impacting the organization positively.
What Are Some Favorite Blends?
While blended learning has many advantages, it also presents challenges to learning professionals. If we blend learning in the wrong combinations, we may actually undermine our very purpose and produce worse results than a classroom-only approach. For example, if we use online tutorials to overwhelm participants with massive amounts of static knowledge (aka “e-reading”) or use classroom time to lecture ad nauseam about “nice to know” but largely useless knowledge, we will produce little or no learning. We also leave employees struggling on their own when they have to use the new knowledge on the job.
As learning professionals gain more experience with blended learning, several blended learning models are emerging as best practices. Here are three that have demonstrated excellent results when properly implemented.
In this blended model, classroom instruction is bookended on the front with pre-work that is often delivered on-line and on the back with on-the-job training (OJT) bthat may come in the form of knowledge management systems or job coaches. This is a great model for skill acquisition. Visually, the model looks like this:
Figure 2: Bookend Model Combines Pre and Post Classroom Learning
The advantages of this model are numerous. It reduces classroom time, thus saving money on training delivery. It engages learners over a longer period of time and allows for greater individualization. Finally, it increases skill transfer to the job, which is the whole point of corporate training.
When learning requires the acquisition of complex competencies based on tacit knowledge, a competency-driven blended learning model works best. This is based on the need to capture and transfer tacit knowledge from experts over a long period of time. Learners interact with and observe experts on the job. This model depends on a variety of learning events - online, classroom and experiential – spaced over time which is often supplemented by assigning mentors to learners. It also supports developing knowledge management systems as repositories of tacit knowledge that can be accessed when needed. Social networks can be deployed to create communities of practice within various disciplines to encourage knowledge creation and sharing.
When learning requires the adoption of new attitudes that lead to new personal behaviors, peer interaction in a low risk environment is required. The traditional way to change attitudes relies on motivational group presentations followed by intense one-on-one interpersonal interaction. The blended approach relies more on peer-to-peer interaction in a risk-free environment to create the motivation to change, while using coaches and mentors for individual follow up. The blended approach to attitude change may employ one or more of the following learning strategies:
- Hold synchronous Web-based meetings (Webinars) to introduce the new attitudes and their related behaviors
- Assign group projects (to be completed offline) to get peers working together and demonstrating the new behaviors
- Conduct role-playing simulations either in a classroom or via computer simulation to rehearse new behaviors and fine-tune them
- Assign mentors to coach and monitor attitude and behavior change
- Use incentives and rewards to drive organizational change and individual behavior change
Blended learning is here and as a phenomenon is likely to have a greater impact on the way learning professionals work in the future. From mastering new technologies to creating new solutions and working in entirely new ways, blended learning offers the potential to revolutionize our field in ways we are only now beginning to grasp.
So, go out there and blend some learning! Don’t be afraid to experiment with new approaches and learn from these experiences. After all, that’s what we ask our learners to do every day.
Donald J. Ford, Ph.D., C.P.T.
President, Training Education Management LLC and
Adjunct Professor of Management, Antioch University Los Angeles