Blended learning: Blend game

Is blended learning simply e-learning in disguise? We ask the experts

In spite of its versatility, blended learning has always suffered from an image problem: namely, that it’s just a glorified form of web and computer-based training.

This connection with e-learning – which a mere 7% of respondents in the 2008 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) learning and development (L&D) survey said was the most effective learning medium – explains why some continue to question the blended approach.

Intent

Jeremy Blain, joint managing director of blending learning specialist Cegos, acknowledges that blended training used to get a bad rap because it wasn’t efficient enough – and was technology, rather than learning, based.

“The intent was there, but it never worked,” he says. “It was inefficient because the live programme still had to do all the theoretical stuff, and the e-learning just had bits bolted on at either end that may or may not have been too relevant.”

These days, however, Blain says blended programmes have moved on from what he dubs ‘first generation assembly’ to ‘architecture’, where every piece aligns with the other.

“For us, blended learning is the journey from A to B – from where we are now to an outcome-based event. It’s not just a new buzzword, it’s about being more efficient and really forcing the issue about what is relevant before, during and after the intervention, as well as who’s involved.”

He insists the effectiveness of any blended mix hinges on agreeing goals and recognising the outcome that the company, individual and the trainer is looking for – with senior management sponsors forming another crucial element.

Far from simply offering a cost and time-conscious mix of e-learning and face-to-face training, blended programmes should use a range of training interventions. Especially the three deemed most effective by respondents to the CIPD poll: in-house development programmes, coaching by line managers, and on-the-job training.

But Martyn Sloman, adviser, learning and development at the CIPD, says the debate about blended programmes is well and truly over.

“Everyone accepts that you learn through different structures and mediums,” he says. “So the over-hype and over-selling is finished too. I have never liked the phrase blended learning – it’s inaccurate. What people are describing is more properly termed ‘blended training’. And essentially, this is about understanding the distinction between training and learning.

“Blended learning occurs when the criminals of e-learning return to the scene of their crime. The huge amount of over-hype used in the initial days of e-learning wasn’t working, so they needed to combine it with other methods of delivery. However, the concept that people learn best when you mix different methods of instruction – even to stop boredom – is actually as old as the hills.”

For Blain, e-learning constitutes a key part of the optimum blend, furnishing employees with all the knowledge they require before they set foot in the classroom. This, in turn, allows the live event to concentrate solely on skills.

Interactive

Cegos e-courses, which cost around £7,500 for 12 people, incorporate audio and visual content and interactive exercises. Delegates receive tutor support and spend two days at a live event. All modules in the current line-up of 110 come with pre- and post-assessment, as well as tutor support and two live training days. Courses can be customised and automatically come in six core languages – English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German – with more available.

Paul Rogers, e-learning development manager at training provider Redtray, who, incidentally, believes there is no such thing as an optimum blend in training, says many organisations are also harnessing the flexibility of blended learning to furnish their employees with a range of options – for example, a live satellite feed, supported by a recording and a transcript of the event.

He says this is where the intervention has evolved – in that rather than simply considering how to blend learning for a project they have, firms are now viewing the blend itself as being important.

Approach

During any analysis, Rogers says training staff have to take a three-dimensional approach.

“First, you look at the training problem from an interaction level – ie, can learner transfer only be achieved via an instructor or could this be done by learners with other learners? Second, what is the focus of the activity – are we talking about content (critical thinking skills, for example) or just knowing some facts? Third, the learning technology required – whether this could be delivered via the classroom, texts, live satellite feeds and so on.”

Blain and Rogers agree that by adopting an analytical approach, the ground will automatically be laid for any subsequent measuring.

“In the same way you measure other training approaches, the first thing you look at when devising a blended learning programme is the problem you’re trying to solve – and that becomes your primary measure of success,” Rogers says.

Best practice tips 

  • Align the learning goals to the organisational, functional and individual’s learning goals.
  • Create a strong project coalition (from the above) to guide the blended programme.
  • Ensure all content elements within the learning track can be aligned to the desired learning goal and organisational outcomes.
  • Ensure the elements within your learning track are integrated and not merely assembled.  Each component part – the assessment, e-learning, live programme, post-course activity – must fulfil its role.
  • Always be flexible and willing to modify/refine and engage with individual learners as much as the core training groups.
  • Conduct regular project steering group reviews to track progress and gather measurables from a return on investment perspective (based on original goals).
  • Technology must be the enabler, not the driver.

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