The trend to blend

Delivering training via a mixture of methods could be the way forward this year.

Of all the terms and concepts behind technology-based training, ‘blended learning’ seems to be the one most likely to stick around. Its appeal lies in the mix of delivery media such as classroom training, web-based training, virtual classrooms, books and mentoring. It is also known as ‘integrated learning’, as it is at worldwide provider Skillsoft. There, its trademarked Multi-Modal Learning (MML) product combines online mentoring, e-learning courses and assessments.

“It is particularly geared towards on the job, just-in-time learning,” says Skillsoft managing director Kevin Young, “and MML is often used alongside instructor-led training to reinforce learning that has taken place in the classroom.”

Converting the technophobes

Blended learning is seen to be able to win over even the most reluctant techno-phobic people development manager, who may have previously shied away from pure online learning because it cut out the social interaction of the classroom or training session, or learners who wished to discuss material face-to-face.

“Our own research has found significant resistance to the use of e-learning as a straight replacement for instructor-led training,” says David Pardo, director of IT Skills Research, a body representing IT training companies in the UK.

“But there is a growing acceptance that the ideal solution is one which capitalises on the respective strengths of the classroom, e-learning and other delivery media to provide a flexible, integrated blend,” Pardo adds.

Take-up certainly looks as though it will increase throughout 2004. In Blended Learning: The Here and Now, a recent survey by sister publication Training Magazine in conjunction with provider Balance Learning, 55 per cent of respondents were using blended learning, while a further 27 per cent were planning to use it. More than one third of those surveyed believed that more than half their total training provision will be delivered through blended learning methods by 2005.

Confidence in the method is growing, says Brian Sutton , chief educator at training company QA.

“People have been talking about blended learning for a long time and experimenting with it. However, we are seeing that people are beginning to commit to blended learning.”

A major appeal is the economic climate, says Sutton. “Despite indicators that the market may be beginning to turn around, companies will still have a requirement to keep people in the workplace and not in the training room for extensive periods,” he says. “HR departments and training managers still need to spend their training pounds carefully.”

The economic arguments of any electronic-based training method are now well known – web-based training can cut hotel fees and consolidate learning arrangements. For example, at international engineering firm Alstom Transport, currently undergoing restructuring, vice-president of learning and development Michael Salone says he has reduced costs by “using e-learning to increase the number of employees trained”.

“As part of the change curve when finances are down and we seem to be at the bottom,” says Salone, “training becomes more and more important to prepare individuals for the good times. It is through this that we have increased our focus on learning and development activities, but not necessarily costs,” he says of operations in 60 countries worldwide.

But Tim Drewitt, director of Balance Learning, says that blended learning could also win on its diagnostic applications, where technology-based elements such as online assessments and 360-degree appraisals can be used to “enable rapid deployment of mission critical training”.

“Employers looking at blended learning can use it for more precise diagnostics of learning needs,” he says. “They can use the learning technologies to have a prudent strategy” – meaning employers can spend time and money where it is needed most, rather than taking a blanket approach.

Embracing technology

In terms of financial prudence, Training Magazine’s survey found that 79 per cent of thrifty employers were combining their existing resources to deliver programmes, and the same number were designing and hosting face-to-face components in-house.

A lot of in-house work will be incorporated in the pilot blended learning project at Churchill Insurance, due to start in Spring 2004. Stuart White, e-learning designer and developer at Churchill Insurance says: “We’re very excited here because we think that it will fit with the way our people are learning.”

And Martyn Sloman, learning and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes this learner-centred approach will be the great determining factor in blended learning’s advancement.

He wants all training to shift from a top-down intervention to learning which focuses on the individual and team as an ongoing process.

“The real skill is in knowing what works and what is appropriate for their organisations,” he says. Sloman is in favour of customising learning to give it resonance with individuals, but less keen if it is merely a way of putting variety or sequencing into the training mix.

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