Sunday, November 14, 2004

When Blending Doesn't Mix

I had thought the term “blended learning” would die rapidly, not because the concept is not important, but because the expression itself is a misnomer, and the learning experiences so labelled are often a disgrace to the training profession.

The theory is sound: by getting learners to grasp the basics pre-class, we get more time to have richer human interactions in the classroom. But the reality is often less inspiring. Any learning design that uses both online and classroom activities to achieve its objectives is referred to as blended. There is rarely an attempt to “blend” content, contexts, or learning processes. Many of the designs of blended courses that I have seen are, frankly, disjointed and chaotic - a jigsaw puzzle hastily put together in the dark.

Every training and development department that I talk to is pursuing “blending” as a core component of their learning strategy. They talk about saving costs, reducing learner time in the classroom, and cutting trainer workloads. Most have stopped trying to pretend that what they are doing is more effective; the efficiency argument is more credible.

In business we use technology to improve performance, 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. 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 the cheapening of it?

Real blended learning offers an opportunity to move training away from its isolated course environment and to merge it with the learner’s real-world work, to allow continuous transfer and reinforcement. And, where feasible, blending should blur the lines between an instructor’s role and the role of the learner’s manager.

None of this is difficult to achieve technologically, but means thinking outside of the normal content-centric mindset of traditional instructional design. It also needs learners, instructors, and managers to embrace a less simplistic view of what their own involvement in learning can be. The result may actually demand more time, not less, from learners, instructors, or managers. But the reduction in time-to-competence and time-to-business-impact are likely to outweigh any increase in personal involvement required by the blend. And because the learning is so intimately merged with each learner’s workflow, the output – the impact on the business – can be easier to observe and measure. This is particularly true if managers have been “blended” into the process of developing learners’ abilities to meaningfully apply the learning in practice.

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. While clearly overkill for basic training, such an approach is ideal for things like core management methodologies and soft skills such as sales and customer service.

If you get the right learning design, expectations, and management systems, you can achieve greater efficiency. And you can do it by increasing the outputs, not simply by cutting the inputs. Ultimately, that variation on blending has to be good for corporate competitiveness.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 8/10/04

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