Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
What is blended learning?
Put simply, blended learning is learning that takes place across different methods. The term has evolved from meaning a straightforward combination of live classroom sessions and online courses to encompassing a great many ways of delivering and experiencing learning. You’ll find it used to describe a dizzying range of approaches that combine any and all of the following: prerecorded video, microlearning, coaching, mentoring, elearning, classroom training, discussion forums, serious games, virtual classrooms, performance support materials and even virtual reality!
If all this sounds a little outside your comfort zone, don’t panic: you can harness the potential of blended learning without an enormous L&D budget, specialist tools or coding experience. Fundamentally, the power of blended learning is the notion that you choose the method of accessing learning that’s most relevant for the content, rather than automatically presenting information in a single format.
How can you get started with blended learning?
You don’t need to build an all-singing, all-dancing programme to begin taking a blended learning approach. Start simple, and always keep your learning aims at the heart of your plans. The most challenging part of designing blended learning is keeping track of all the pieces of the puzzle and making sure every aspect fits together, so simplicity is key when you’re starting out!
Jennifer Hoffman, author and founder of InSync Training, has an insightful process she recommends when planning which methods to use in your blended learning offering:
- Break down the learning before you start planning. What are the performance objectives (for the learner) and organisational benefits? Be crystal clear about what you’re hoping to achieve.
- Identify the best assessment technique for each of these objectives. This will inform how you could deliver the content. Fact-based knowledge can probably be assessed in an elearning course, but leadership skills are hard to determine from a multiple-choice quiz. And if you’re not planning to assess it at all, why are you teaching it?
- Work out how much collaboration is required between learners. Why bring people together at the same time if they could have just watched a video at their own convenience and had the same experience?
- Think carefully about where people will be using these skills. We apply skills and knowledge best when learning takes place in an environment as similar as possible to the real-life situation in which we use it. Customer service skills in retail are probably best taught face-to-face if possible, but it makes sense to learn how to use a new web design platform at your desk!
Another useful way of approaching your planning is to consider the PIAF model put forward by Clive Shepherd in his book More Than Blended Learning. He names the four key stages of any learning process, regardless of how the material is delivered:
- Preparation: making sure the learner is ready for the intervention
- Input: usually the most formal part, this could be, for example, an online course, face to face session, or video content – or all of these, spread out over time
- Application: practising the skills or applying the knowledge, preferably in a real-life situation, or as close to real-life as practical
- Follow-up: embedding the learning into everyday behaviour and building upon it
You’ll notice that in this model, the parts we tend to think of as ‘learning’ – the experiences we design – are only one small part of the bigger picture. It’s important that we consider the whole process. Clive also recommends a bigger focus on what happens after the elearning course or classroom session; too often, we fixate on these aspects at the expense of embedding learning over time.
For your first blended learning effort, don’t go mission critical! Build up slowly and keep it simple, remembering to start by identifying what your outcome should be for learners. Once you’ve established exactly what needs to be learnt, use the simplest technology that supports your learning objective, beginning with what you already have access to. You might start with a short video call to set expectations for the programme, then ask learners to complete an online course (built with an intuitive authoring tool like Nimble Author), followed by face-to-face or remote group discussions. Resources could also be available for learners to access in the flow of their daily work, to help them apply and extend their learning: short videos, process checklists, simple guides or visual aids. If this sounds a lot like your current approach, then you are already in the blended learning game! Just make sure you consistently reinforce the purpose of the learning, keeping the message consistent – regardless of the method or modality.
What are the benefits of blended learning?
If we look at this from the perspective of an organisation that is currently employing only traditional classroom learning, the benefits are obvious: blended learning provides flexibility, cost effectiveness (particularly for small groups), availability of learning when it’s needed, and it’s designed with collaboration in mind. If your major focus is on an elearning offering, taking a blended approach also has many advantages. Adding social elements (such as group discussions, online chat in dedicated channels, mentoring, or collaborative document editing) give employees the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned, and providing reference materials will reinforce the learning as they go about their day-to-day role.
Embrace the notion that the method of learning should closely resemble the context where your learners will apply their new knowledge or skills. This has proven benefits for retention, recall and application of learning. If your aim is to train retail staff about a complex new product and achieve record-breaking sales, you can use elearning to step them through the product features, set up role play scenarios with colleagues on the shop floor, and provide handy reference cards to reach for in a pinch. It may sound simple, but this is blended learning at its best: straightforward, useful and grounded in action (not abstract theory).
Taking the leap into blended learning can also be a key step towards building a learning culture in your organisation, particularly if you keep a sharp focus on resources for learning that are available at employees’ fingertips, as and when they need them. When your colleagues know that a tool for learning is always just around the corner, they can feel confident that their employer is committed to providing opportunities for everyone to develop.
Are there any potential pitfalls?
Like any new venture, blended learning can be difficult to get right. Don’t overcomplicate matters. Keep everything you include in the programme relevant and important. You need the ability to see the big picture: how do all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to achieve learning?
One common mistake can stem from enthusiasm for a certain piece of technology. It’s understandable that you’ll want to get the most value from any tools you have access to, but this can result in the focus shifting from the learning to the method. Try not to start by thinking, “We need an elearning course,” or “We need to build something with this piece of software”. What do you need people to be able to do, and what’s the best way to get there?
Another issue can lie in the perceptions of others. When we use the term ‘blended learning’, others may assume that we mean a combination of live face-to-face sessions and online learning. Sometimes, this devalues the online component as ‘homework’ that’s perceived as optional, with the classroom training seen as the ‘real learning’.
It’s important to address this from the start; Jennifer Hoffman recommends beginning a blended learning programme with a quick live event (whether in-person or online) that sets expectations, perhaps by sharing a curriculum map and discussing how much time and effort should go into each aspect. Too often, we find ourselves assigning reading or other independent activities without first explaining their importance – and are then disappointed when learners fail to engage with the material. This ties in to Clive Shepherd’s reminder: it’s the ongoing journey that’s critical, not just the formal instruction.
What’s the future of blended learning?
It looks as though hybrid working is here to stay for many organisations, with 43 of the UK’s 50 biggest employers planning to adopt a mix of office and home-based work. This has obvious implications for the feasibility of delivering traditional classroom-based training sessions, and opens up new opportunities for using blended learning methods. Most of us have become very familiar with the basics of video conferencing, online chat systems and collaborative online documents; now is the time to weave these tools into our learning and development offering. It’s likely that your organisation is already using a tool that has features ideal for social learning, too; breakout rooms, virtual whiteboards and polling are all very powerful when used thoughtfully.
There are also some exciting up-and-coming technologies that we may see becoming more mainstream over the coming years. Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) have received particular attention, and have great potential for workplace learning. Learning in VR involves being immersed in a three-dimensional virtual world, whereas AR can layer computer-generated graphics or information over our real surroundings. Both of these technologies are already being used to anchor learning more tangibly in the work environment for learners, and could become a key element of the blended approach.