Mix and match

Blended learning – a combination of e-learning and classroom-based courses –
is widely seen as the most effective way to teach new skills. But deciding on
the right blend and method often depends on the skills being taught

When it comes to teaching people about new products and software, electronic
learning is second to none. It enables people to sit down, in their own time,
and get to grips with the latest product developments at their own speed. But
e-learning, once the province of software courses for providers such as
Microsoft, is now also regularly used to teach business skills – from team
management, delegation and mentoring skills to interview techniques, financial
capabilities and even bookkeeping.

This is partly thanks to technical developments that have improved the
access, speed and innovation of e-learning products – video clips and
interactive tools have taken e-learning far beyond the days of straightforward
electronically delivered books. But enthusiasm for e-learning is also the
result of a better understanding of what can and cannot be achieved using
online methods of teaching.

When e-learning first gripped the corporate imagination just a few years
ago, many went about it by simply digitising chunks of course material and
making it available online. But, just as people don’t respond to training in
the classroom unless there are good reasons to do so, they won’t be keen to sit
in front of a screen unless the training is directed specifically at their
needs and the work is stimulating.

Today it is accepted that blended learning – where electronic tools are
combined with class-based methods of teaching – works best. Wide Learning once
provided all its training courses online but now includes a classroom element.
"We were 100 per cent e-learning last year but we decided it only gets you
60-70 per cent down the road for learning outcomes," explains Jan Hagen,
head of solutions group for Wide Learning.

"You have to look at what works and what does not," says
Christopher Crosby, managing director of TMA. "There are elements of skill
development that cannot ever be done virtually – those that depend on human
relations and responses that one never gets in a virtual setting.

"You also need to consider different cultures and environments. If we
work for an Italian team, for example, the whole issue of physical processes
and being with people is so important and you don’t get that in a virtual

TMA’s "blended solutions" generally include pre-course work – done
online – which leads to a class-based section and a follow-up, which could also
be done online. Crosby adds, "We see technology less in terms of replacing
traditional learning and more in terms of what it can support – e-learning delivery
could be through a coach, online, or peer to peer in the office."

Sometimes either method will work, and it can be up to people to choose
which is appropriate for them, says Crosby. "We have recently finalised a
teambuilding programme for one organisation which offers both online and
offline tuition. People can choose which path to take to learn the themes and
objectives. What they choose will come down to whether people are part of an
intact team and want to go through the course with team members and go through
a classroom-based session, or whether they are trying to work as effective
teams internationally, which is done online."

Generally, though, the appropriate channel is self-evident, says Hagen.
"At the moment e-learning is best on theoretical, factual type of
information. But as soon as it becomes company-specific, the classroom works
better." In other words, when information is fast-changing and
people-dependent – be it about products or market information, and how your
company can benefit – that does not work for e-learning.

When it comes to teaching people skills, too, it is much harder to take that
online says Hagen. "We have a course on negotiation skills that outlines
the theory but the next step is for someone to practice the theory. While you can
put an element of training for these kinds of skills online, you can’t do all
of it – it’s hard to assess someone’s presentation skills online." And as
he adds, "People like working together and interaction is important in
companies. Often the best way to get people together is in the classroom – a
non-competitive environment where people can learn to work together."

There are a number of different reasons why a corporate might want to
introduce an element of e-learning into its training programmes. To start with,
says Hagen, are the cost and time implications.

"For many corporates, the shift to e-learning often comes down to cost.
For example, there are a lot of regulatory changes at the moment in financial
services – all financial organisations are required to train their entire staff
in issues such as money laundering, how to spot suspicious transactions and
what to do. That might mean one company having to train 1,500 people by end of
this year.

"So they can spend two months developing online solutions and can put
1,500 people through the training, and test and audit trail it. Using
e-learning means you can bring a lot of people up to benchmark quickly and

As well as saving time and costs, bringing e-learning into traditional courses
can provide a better training experience, says Hagen. "What people should
be thinking about when they consider blended learning is how much more they
could get from a course by using different technologies.

"For example, you have a two-day course on bonds/financial analysis –
do you want to spend two days in a classroom understanding balance sheets and
how they work or do you want to spend time finding out what you can do to
increase the value of the company? It’s easier to teach people what is on a balance
sheet – you can get rid of all the jargon online and have a great classroom
course. Our most powerful courses link the two together."

"Get the theory out of the way and the classroom learning can be very
applied," says Alan Sweeney, e-learning training manager for
KnowledgePool. "It also means the trainer knows the people before they
meet in the classroom, because they have already worked with them online.
Otherwise you spend the first day in the classroom bringing all the people up
to the same level and that is such a waste of time and money."

Teaching and learning online is a very different experience from working
with a group of people in one room, and many lessons have already been learnt
about maintaining motivation and interest for a student online. Sweeney says
the main points are to ensure software is interactive, that there is proactive
feedback from tutors, and that all parties are buying into the deal – including
students, tutors and the corporate’s HR departments.

He says, "I’m a former classroom trainer but when I moved to
e-learning, I noticed that the student is much more in control compared with
teaching in a classroom. When you’re teaching online, you can’t just look
around the classroom and check who does or doesn’t understand. And it is easier
to motivate people when you have them sitting in a group. Online teaching is
also more about working in partnership with the student and, if the course has
been booked with a corporation, you have to enter a partnership with whoever
booked the training."

While it is up to the student to finish the course, the tutor has a real
part to play, says Sweeney. "Regular communication with the tutor is
important. A lot of e-learning is a-synchronistic – not real-time communication
– so every now and again the tutor needs to initiate communications, perhaps
via regular weekly e-mails.

You have to think carefully about your approach. Not every student will
respond to e-mails saying, ‘We haven’t seen you in the classroom for a while’ so
you need to find a different approach to encouraging them to persevere with the
course. For example, when a student answers a question, you don’t just say
whether their answer is correct but use it in a way to introduce the next
topic, or to think about other issues involved in the training."

The company also uses elements in the software to help maintain motivation.
"Every so often in each module there is a little recap of what has been
covered, and a couple of questions, but it is quite low key. It’s more a
wake-up call to the student to see if they have been paying attention?"

Much has been learned about how to make technology stimulating, says Hagen.
"Many people think good course material will translate online but that’s
not true. Good material will still depend on the quality of instrument. In the
classroom, material becomes good because you have a good presenter, but good
material presented in a dry manner online won’t work."

His company assumes that not everyone is keen to go through the training
process. "We have to assume that not everyone likes doing this so our
software has been developed so that every five or 10 minutes, something happens
– you have a little movie and click something to make it continue, say. And we
put humour into it."

Online learning has to be short, sharp and interactive, adds Crosby.
"If we are developing a model of content, we don’t go more than 15 minutes
before some form of assessment, perhaps a quiz. Our software includes core
learning elements followed by elements where the learner is tested for
understanding through a game or quiz. And finally, there’s a job aid to help
them to transfer what they have learned into their working environment. We
follow the same sequence for every unit – each unit lasts 10 to 15 minutes."

As e-learning becomes better understood and more sophisticated, there are
growing opportunities for HR departments to use it, via the corporate intranet,
as part of their approach to training. The first step, says Tim Ray, managing
director of ACT, is to consider their existing information. "HR
departments have a huge amount of information that can be published online –
training and induction courses, information on holidays and so on. But to put
that online requires it to be designed for a purpose and be easily accessible
to the right people."

Publishing such material online starts to create a portal for the HR
department. "People know they can go to one place and find the information
they want – a course directory, for example. It becomes highly visible and the
department is saving costs on things such as printing."

But Ray adds that departments need to have a clear approach to e-learning.
"They need to ask why they are going into e-learning. Is it strategic –
over five years, will we move 60 per cent of our training online, or are they
just dabbling? If you know the purpose, you know what to do."

Once a broad strategy is in place, individual HR elements can be assessed.
"HR might decide it wants to reassess how its induction is undertaken –
perhaps they want to halve the length of the induction programme? Can that be
achieved if part of it is moved to online learning?

"And they need to consider the onward benefits – for example, by
cutting the time the induction takes, the corporate trainers can be used for
more sophisticated training and mentoring," says Ray.

E-learning can dramatically change the way people are trained. For example,
ACT has built a product that provides a personal development website for 250
senior managers across three continents. Ray explains, "It involves five
companies whose IT did not talk to each other, so they could only link via
Internet. As a result of the programme, all those people in one country realise
they are part of one group and organisation – we couldn’t have done that five
years ago."

Smaller-scale changes can be equally dramatic, says Crosby. "Before
e-learning arrived, you sat through a course, there was a lot of interaction,
you went away and were lucky if 10 months later what you learned was still
relevant or applied. But with online learning, you can structure it to ensure
what was learned is still remembered and follow up the course to update those
skills. It’s a revolution."

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