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Create an Effective Blended Learning Culture

Bob Little 

April 15, 2016

©iStockphoto/Tannjuska

©iStockphoto/Tannjuska

Blended learning – that elusive yet allegedly much desired, potentially idyllic combination of face-to-face and online learning – is said to be remarkably effective. Yet achieving the appropriate combination of L&D activities that produce this learning effectiveness appears to be extremely difficult.

It seems that every L&D professional knows the theory behind “blended learning” but achieving it in practice, for all learners in every situation, takes a great deal of care and consideration – along with a large slice of serendipity (otherwise known as good fortune).

The key to success in blended learning appears to be making the face-to-face element “high impact” – that is, making it as close as possible to the real world, so that learners can transfer their learning to the real world as easily as possible. This leaves the online element to deal with the more theoretical, “knowledge-based” (rather than “skills-based”) aspects of the learning. However, with the recent rapid advances in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), it may be possible to use these technologies to simulate real-world scenarios, especially if these involve skills and activities that could have dangerous and/or expensive consequences if things should go wrong.

It’s also important to focus on quality rather than on cost. In other words, don’t opt for online learning as part of a blended approach if you’re only interested in reducing the costs of learning. Any learning activities – however they are delivered – should only be used to deliver greater learner and business benefits.

Similarly, the technology used in the “online” aspect of a blended program should only be chosen because it will be effective and provide value – rather than because it’s “new and shiny” and you want an excuse to use it.

Carolyn Lewis, managing director of E-Learning Marketplace and Vocational Innovation, says that providing learners with an engaging learning program and ensuring they’re enthusiastic about embracing change and innovation are valuable ingredients in a strategic approach to blended learning. However, she states, “success is rarely long term and organizational-wide without some preliminary steps.”

Centuries ago, Seneca – the Roman Stoic philosopher – observed that “our plans miscarry because they have no aim.” In other words, without a map, you can’t get where you want to go, and the absence of a map will make all future journeys difficult.

So Lewis advocates defining the business objectives before exploring a strategy for implementing effective blended learning. Defining these objectives means knowing what the organization is aiming for and how it wants to achieve this. Knowing these things should help to clarify the learning required. Then, such factors as ease of access to the learning – along with which aspects of it can be carried out alone and which can only be effectively done in groups – will help determine the actual “blend” of the learning program.

Lewis advocates demonstrating a blended learning model to the learners before they embark on the program, so that they know what is involved – and what will be expected of them – before they begin the learning “for real.” This helps to dispel their fears and build their engagement with the program.

It can also help if the L&D professionals who’re going to be responsible for delivering the blended learning program undergo a third party blended learning program – so they know something of what their learners will be experiencing. This might be encompassed in your organization’s benchmarking activities, for example.

In developing the blended learning program, Lewis advises that you start with the learners’ needs. She adds, “Ensure content is engaging, user-friendly and meets learning objectives.

“Don’t make decisions before you’ve formed the bigger picture. For example, don’t decide on the online portal for content access until you know what type of content you want to provide to your learners and how they’ll access it.

“With your requirements in mind, learn from others what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for them. These are likely to include free and paid-for solutions. Don’t dismiss the free options, since some of the most user-friendly content creation tools are free.”

Before the blended program “goes live,” it’s important to test it – perhaps with colleagues but, if possible, with actual learners in a pilot program – to gauge its likely effectiveness and user-friendliness.

Set dates and keep to deadlines. Otherwise, the program may appear to be a low priority and that will send the wrong message to the learners.

Decide on the criteria for the program’s “success” before it goes live. It’s preferable if these criteria relate not to how many people completed the learning but to how the program has contributed – hopefully demonstrably – to meeting one or more business goals.

For Roger Mayo, director of MTandD Learning Solutions, “blended learning” offers the learner a whole spectrum of learning approaches. He says, “Blended learning must be well designed. For example, passing off an input on the latest changes in some financial or quality procedure, followed by a series of multi-choice knowledge-based questions, is a poor shadow of what can be achieved.”

However, he believes that this is many people’s experiences of “blended” learning to date. “All that this does is demonstrate that individual members of a function have absorbed the latest diktat of government or institutional knowledge at a particular time. As a result, the organization can ‘tick’ the relevant box. Haven’t they heard about Ebbignhaus’s Forgetting Curve? Maybe they have – but they’ve simply forgotten it!”

Blended learning needs to offer a range of learning opportunities to the student that are as diverse as a rainbow – and just as attractive.

“I like to see the whole spectrum of options available,” says Mayo. “These include such development tools as action learning, shadowing, mentoring, ad hoc conversations, business improvement activities, books, articles, and film. This, combined with a learner-driven desire to understand and fulfill their own needs, matched to relevant time-driven personal development plans, provides the content and vehicle for change.

“I also like to see learners gain insight into their preferred learning style – see Kolb, Honey and Mumford – with the option of exploring other styles as they see fit.”

Mayo believes that this approach provides learners with a rich source of insightful learning, which they will gladly seek out any opportunities to apply.

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