Thursday, August 26, 2004

Blending: efficient or deficient learning?

The term blended learning has been used to describe any learning design that uses both online and classroom activities to achieve its objectives. Like “e-learning” in the late 1990’s, “blended learning” acquired a sort of cachet, a fashionable edge that we all wanted to be associated with. But just as the term e-learning is applied to a vast array of activities, many of them dire, blended learning has often simply missed the point. At its most mundane, blended learning is merely a classroom course with the bits that can be handled by self-study pulled out and stuck into online modules. So, no pedagogical breakthroughs there. The blend is seen as a way to cut time in class and save instructor time, not as a way to actually improve on the learning outcome of the original classroom-only activity.

In most fields of endeavor we apply technology to improve performance, to get better results. Yet so often in learning, we apply technology to give the illusion of progress while silently accepting that the performance result is a step backward. Why are we so content to let slide the quality of learning outcomes in the interests of economy or convenience? Why do we need to apply expensive technological solutions, if all we are looking for is a cheaper activity with acceptably lesser results? Can’t we just do it the way we used to do blended learning back in the 1970’s – give learners a document and tell them to work through it before showing up in class? That, unfortunately, doesn’t look like progress. But if we are going to use technology, shouldn’t we make the effort to have it actually enhance the learning experience, rather than merely support it?

In the quest for learning efficiency, there are several routes to take. Efficiency is simply a ratio between output and input. In training, the inputs are seen as the direct and indirect costs of providing the learning experience; the outputs are the value of the impact that the learning has on the business. But business impacts are very hard to measure objectively, so it has become almost a knee-jerk reaction to seek efficiency by cutting inputs, rather than by increasing outputs. If you cut the input by 30% and the output drops by only 10%, you have increased the efficiency of your learning. But your learners are not as well-equipped for the task as they were before, and as an organization you may incrementally degrade your competitive edge. It takes a brave soul to plan a 10% increase in input with the aim of attaining a 30% increase in output – but smart use of blending can help.

Much blended learning looks like it was made in your local Subway. It’s a sandwich, with a discrete chunk of ILT wedged in between a couple of chunks of WBT. There’s nothing blended about it at all – it’s segregated sequential learning. That may be totally appropriate for the objectives of a particular learning experience. It may also be a real waste of opportunity.

blended illustration

Blending should integrate the different phases to achieve some kind of synergy. Each phase should draw on, and build on, the phase that preceded it, just as each phase should prepare the learner for the phase to follow. Not only that, blending should integrate what is being learned with the learner’s day-to-day activities in the workplace, so continuous transfer and reinforcement is taking place throughout the learning experience. And, where feasible, blending should blur the lines between an instructor’s role and the role of the learner’s manager. Blend the learning externally, not just internally. Blended learning offers an opportunity to move training away from its isolated classroom environment and to merge it with the learner’s real-world workflows.

None of this is difficult to achieve, technologically, but it requires a willingness to think outside of the normal content-centric mindset of traditional instructional design. It also requires learners, instructors, and managers to change their expectations and to embrace a less simplistic view of what their own involvement in the learning can be. And – there’s always a catch – the resulting learning experience may very well demand more time, not less, from learners, instructors, and managers. But the reduction in time-to-competence and time-to-business-impact are likely to outweigh the increase in personal involvement required by the blend. And because the learning is so intimately blended with each learner’s workflow, the output – the impact on the business – may be so much easier to measure and observe. This is particularly true if managers have been “blended” into the process of developing learners’ ability to apply the learning in practice.

Depending on the subject matter, priority, and context, a blended solution can incorporate self-paced work, online instructor support, supervisor involvement, peer group involvement, classroom sessions building on job-specific pre-work assignments, ongoing application assignments moderated online by mentors and managers, community threads and chat tools, and dynamic libraries of relevant materials. The less technical the training, the more appropriate a “rich blend” becomes. While clearly overkill for much basic training, such an approach is ideal for teaching things like core management methodologies and soft skills such as sales and customer service.

One of the reasons that many blended solutions are of the Subway sandwich variety is that anything more ambitious requires a management system that is a little more sophisticated and flexible than the average LMS. If you are going to manage a well-blended learning experience, your instructors need to monitor learners more closely than they would if they were simply thrown into a stand-alone WBT course. Ideally, learners will communicate with an instructor throughout the WBT experience, using learner-specific workplace assignments as the catalyst for this interaction. Because the learner works on real-world applications, the learner’s manager can be brought into process, and can take on a secondary mentoring role. The learner-instructor interaction will usually be asynchronous, probably by e-mail. Most off-the-shelf learning management systems have difficulty supporting anything other than the sequential sandwich version of blended learning.

Another barrier is cultural. For many, the culture change imposed by ambitious blended learning designs is hard to deal with, and it can be the biggest obstacle to success. Learners may have to demonstrate capability and produce results, and can’t expect to “pass” just by showing up. They must be accountable for the quality of their application assignments. Instructors have their credibility tied directly to visible learner results, and there is real responsibility for learning outputs (no longer a smile sheet exercise). Instructors also have a responsibility to mentor learners through a much longer period of time. Managers have to create and protect learning time, and support the application of learned skills.

All of this puts a burden on the training department to build comfort with technology, and to build comfort outside the ILT-zone. Staying on schedule becomes critical, and may be difficult for instructors who end up managing overlapping groups of learners. They also need to develop comfort with managing technical issues and responding to technical queries that learners may direct at them. And they may have to become more nurturing than usual, because those who need help most, take full advantage of the mentor who is only an e-mail away.

So to make a “rich blend” work effectively, you need to set expectations early and often. You have to ensure that learners, instructors, managers, and administrators all know how different the blended process will be, and they must buy into new levels of individual responsibility.

If you get the learning design right, set the right expectations, and have the systems in place to manage processes that may be a little more complex than usual, you can achieve greater efficiency in your learning. And you can do it by increasing the outputs, not by cutting the inputs. Ultimately, that has to be good for corporate competitiveness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Godfrey, great article. It's very timely for me. I'm preparing to pilot a new program (sales training) which takes a very different approach from anything we've done in the past. The course is a combination (blend!) of WBT, manager coaching and interaction, and on-the-job application. Our trainers will not be involved except as a resource. The local manager will administer the program directly to his employees.

I know I need a good plan for introducing this program. I expect to learn from the pilot and what types of questions and concerns come up from managers that I haven't anticipated. Again, thanks for the article and suggestions for introducing a new blended approach.

Paughnee Moore