All mixed up by blended learning?

training professionals really grasped how to make the most of online teaching
opportunities? Sue Weekes investigates

When the new wipes out the old, people get very twitchy. And understandably
so. New methods of doing things are usually untested, they turn infrastructures
and thinking upside down and breed insecurities among the custodians of the old
ways. And so it was with e-learning, which as we all know now, promised
trainers and learners the earth, but in many cases delivered the equivalent of
a small corner of the Isle of Wight.

But then came blended learning – a less shocking and threatening proposition
altogether. It didn’t wipe out the old completely because it was a combination
of traditional and online learning methods. Vendors whose clients had sent them
packing after e-learning programmes had failed to deliver, had a more
acceptable term to bandy around, training professionals no longer feared they
would be replaced by a computer, and everyone in learner land was happy. Well,
not quite. While blended does offer the potential to maximise the benefits of
the whole gamut of learning methods, its execution and interpretation are
sometimes wide of the mark.

"Vendors are now punting products that are ‘blended’. People like it
because it is a conveniently less confrontational model than pure
e-learning," says David Wilson, managing director of Elearnity. "But
underneath this thinking there is often a reality gap – ask most people what
blended is exactly and they’d struggle to tell you. What many don’t realise is
that an integrated learning model also breaks the classroom part into bits.
Blended does not mean chopping off the first day of a classroom-based course
and adding a bit of CBT (computer-based training)."

Back to basics

If we go back to basics and dissect the component parts of a blended
solution (traditional classroom environments, books and other support material,
CD-Rom, online training, telephone training, telephone or video-conferencing
and so on), we see most of them have been around for decades – centuries in
some cases. Even online methods have been used in training circles for nearly
10 years. Had they all been allowed to merge quite naturally, the term blended
may never have arisen. What did happen is that e-learning just happened too
early on the evolutionary scale for many people, with providers delivering
tempting bottom line benefits and plausible solutions that made it hard for
training buyers to refuse. What the ‘blended movement’ gives us is the chance
to get our breath, re-assess, re-think and re-engineer training processes so
that the benefits of each method can be realised and maximised for tomorrow.

Re-engineering the traditional part of the blend doesn’t have to involve a
radical shift in how things are done. Often it will be a case of merely
modifying an approach to suit the situation. "Maybe you have to break
apart a four-to-five day block of classroom training into one and two-day
blocks," says Wilson, while Jan Hagen, director of e-learning sales at
content provider Wide Learning, suggests: "Perhaps instead of following-up
an IT course with a classroom-based component, the blended version features a
supervisor walking the floor to observe people using the new skills."

In many cases, achieving the right blend starts by questioning what
technology-based training is good for and what it is not. On occasions, a pure
e-learning solution will be the most appropriate channel, such as in the case
of just-in-time learning where, for instance, a manager who is about to give an
appraisal, can go online and access a 10-minute course on doing so. In the case
of soft skills, the learning generally benefits from a face-to-face component.

"E-learning won’t teach you how to be a good interviewer – you need the
face-to-face for that – but it will remind you how to do an interview,"
says Paul McKelvie, director of learning at Scottish Power.

Similarly, when it comes to more academic study, an online environment
cannot be expected to always do it alone. ‘More and more of our corporate
education work as an ‘e’ element to it," says Colin Carnall, professor at
Henley Management College. "But we find we have to energise the group with
some conventional face-to-face methods for the e-learning to be
effective." Carnall has been working on an e-learning MBA programme with
750 IBM executives.

McKelvie believes that all learning has been blended for years and says the
trick is simply to be clear on what technology-driven training can do and what
it can’t. "You need to look at all your options and all the channels and have
a clarity about the purpose of the training. There are times we have used
technology and times we haven’t – sometimes a single channel is fine.

"Where blended has worked best for us is in bespoke material," he
says. "Health and safety is a good example of this. We used to do it in a
three-day course. Then we wrapped some e-learning around it and reduced the
time required by half. Employees now have to sit a course on the intranet first
to ensure they have a certain level of competency before doing the classroom

Human interaction

Not only does this approach play to technology’s strengths, but it can
enhance the face-to-face interaction. It is also indicative of how we can best
use technology in life and work in general, which is summed up by David Cannon,
a research fellow in organisational behaviour at the London School of Business,
in the book E-people: "If you use all the technological tools we have,
such as answer phones and e-mail to prepare for the interaction and to find out
what each needs to know, the human interaction is a much richer

So while it was feared that technology erodes human interaction, used
properly – and indeed logically – it actually adds value to it.

In a similar way, Helen Tiffany, managing director of people management and
training consultancy Bec Development, believes an informal online channel has
enhanced the service she offers as a trainer. She e-mails an electronic course
feedback form to students after the training for them to fill in and return. "Because
they sit down to write a quick note to accompany the form, they often comment
on the training in the message as well. In some cases, they are much more open
in this and give much more feedback than they do on the form – and certainly
more than they would give if they were filling out the form in front of the
trainer," she says. But she believes it is far more than just an efficient
evaluation tool and, with some learners, the e-mail correspondence has
developed into an ongoing dialogue.

"Many report back on how they have applied what they have learned in
the workplace, such as how they are dealing with a difficult individual who
they might have mentioned in the training. Getting real examples like this then
helps me prepare for the next training session. You didn’t get this level of
feedback and continuous dialogue before e-mail."

What Tiffany is describing is a form of blended learning since an online
channel is supporting and adding value to the face-to-face training but it
could also develop into full-blown networked learning as the two sides exchange
problems and solutions. Certainly it demonstrates the value of online forums
and discussion after classroom-based training has taken place.

Even if training professionals are starting to get excited about the
potential of combining several channels for learning, the pressure to linking
people strategies to an organisation’s bottom line means that they will have to
be able to demonstrate some measure of blended learning’s success.

Impact on performance

In the bad old days of e-learning, it was easy to show how it could save an
organisation money, but assessing any learning strategy’s impact on employee
performance and productivity is more difficult. In an attempt to define a
successful blended e-learning model for both vendors and trainers, Thomson
Learning, parent company of e-learning provider NETg, has conducted a two-year
study of 128 employees at all levels and across a range of industries,
including aerospace, retail and manufacturing. It found that "a structured
curriculum" of blended learning would dramatically increase employee
productivity over single-delivery options. It also found that accuracy or
performance increases 30 per cent and speed of performance by 41 per cent.

The research, which began in 1999, focused on one product, Microsoft Excel,
and compared the effects of traditional learning and blended approaches in
three different groups of employees. Group 1 received a blended learning course
in Excel, Group 2 received a pure online course in the software and Group 3
acted as the control group to benchmark performance with Excel spreadsheets.
The groups received post-assessments and conducted real-world tasks with the
software. The blended option featured scenario-based exercises aligned with
learning objects, hands-on use of the software by learners, online mentoring
and other support materials (the research can be accessed at

Thomson has brought together three of its units – NETg, Wave Technology and
Course Technology – to form the single Thomson Learning business entity, which
it says will directly address corporate blended training needs. We can expect
to see more and more companies offering ‘bundled’ blended learning solutions.

Premier IT is launching exactly this for Microsoft certification training in
the shape of the MCSE FastClass, which it claims reduces typical training times
by 50 per cent.

As well as combining classroom-based and e-learning, it offers the FastClass
Club portal, which provides additional support through online tutors, web
recordings, mock exams, white papers and frequently asked questions (FAQs). It
says that it reduces time spent out of the office from 30 days to 18. There is
no doubt more blended approaches will be developed and offered but trainers
should still be aware that blended is still something of a bandwagon.

David Wilson believes the push is still from the supply rather than the
demand side, with many companies still feeling bruised from their experiences
with e-learning the first time around. While healthy scepticism is good, it
would be wrong to go into denial over it because, in the long run, blended is a
compelling proposition.

"We are in for a 10-year transformation period," says Wilson.
"This may seem like a long time, but as has been shown, a gentle evolution
frequently has the edge on full-blown revolution.

Blended in action – in its many

Technology and training guru Elliot Masie shows there is more
to blended than a computer and a classroom

"One of our e-learning consortium members, Michelin, asked
if I would conduct a briefing on trends in learning for its senior team. I
checked my calendar and saw that I was not only in another city that day, but
that I was going to be boarding the plane for a five-hour flight to New York,
just as the meeting was to get underway. The answer was a blended model. First,
an e-mail went to the participants and asked them to generate a list of issues
that they would like me to address. Based on these answers, I videotaped a
30-minute dialogue, responding to their questions and concerns.

They started their meeting by viewing this tape, followed by
breaking into groups and surfacing additional clarifying questions for me. As
soon as I cleared security, I called the meeting room and we had a 35-minute
Q&A from these distilled issues. Following our chat, they proceeded into
other discussions, and are forwarding a list of follow-up questions, which I
will respond to in a streamed video in the coming days.

The result was a multi-method, multi-event blended learning
experience. It was simple and low-cost to produce and was totally flexible to
both of our calendars. And it worked.

Reproduced by kind permission of the
Masie Centre,

Distance project is a success

Clerical Medical’s first blended learning programme included a
detailed feedback process to truly assess the effectiveness of the approach.
The programme was developed by Malmesbury-based Waterman’s Training and
delegates’ in-depth reactions to the first presentation skills course reveal
exactly how the end user rates blended learning.

"The expectation at Clerical Medical has always previously
been that training is a face-to-face experience so we were pleased to find no
negative response to the distance learning aspect of the programme, or as one
of our attendees put it ‘the distance learning didn’t get in the way’,"
says Peter Cornelius, learning resources manager at Clerical Medical.

"One hundred per cent of the attendees were completely
satisfied with the course and would recommend it to others, and when we
compared results, we found that the achievement of learning outcomes was
equivalent to that achieved in traditional instructor-led training

"We realise that not everyone will respond well to
distance learning, it will not suit some people’s learning styles – one of our
delegates admitted it did not suit his learning style because he found it
difficult to motivate himself to learn alone. But given the overall results, we
are now very happy to use the approach in other appropriate areas.

"Distance learning does work well in a blended approach
and we will reap the benefits in terms of reduced cost and time out of the

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