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The Complexity of Blended Learning

Bob Little 

August 1, 2014

Over its lifetime of 20 years or so, “blended learning” has been seen as bringing together separate pieces of the same jigsaw. It uses a combination of learning delivery (and assessment if required) methods to produce its results.

Although some would argue that the growing diversity, and use of, mobile learning devices means that informal learning should now be included in the mix, “blended learning” is still firmly grounded in formal education. It does, however, refer to a learning program in which a student is empowered to learn, at least in part, through the online delivery of content and instruction. There also has to be some element of student-control over the time, place, path, and pace of the learning.

Addressing Learning Styles

As if meeting all these criteria for a blended learning program were not enough, in these days of “personalized” learning, L&D professionals need to be aware of the options that are available to the learner. Moreover, they need to include these in the blended learning mix and offer them, so that each learner can use the optimum delivery methods for his or her preferred learning style – and, indeed, lifestyle.

So, when deciding what materials to make available through each delivery method – although, in a perfect world, all materials would be available in all delivery formats – the L&D professional needs to take account of individuals’ learning styles. A great deal has been written about these. People’s preferred methods of learning can be difficult to identify, and are likely to change over time and according to their circumstances. Nonetheless, the learning process is going to be most effective if it accords with their preferences.

Determining a preferred learning style can be done by asking the learner or assessing him or her in some way – perhaps via the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. There are cultural and generational factors to take into account, along with educational background, technology skills, lifestyle, work-life balance, priorities, and so on.

In the end, it’s often simpler and easier to make the learning materials available in a variety of delivery formats and allow learners to choose for themselves.

This raises further issues. For example, do you select the delivery media on the basis of overall cost; client prejudice; purpose or “learning objective”; time; audience preference; learning style preference; constraints in terms of physical or mental ability; business needs; distribution/geography; technological constraints; learner reactions; behavior change; equipment/facilities required, or return on investment?

Efficiency

The key criteria for success can be summarized as improvements in effectiveness (the degree to which the purpose of the learning intervention was achieved) and efficiency (the reduction in the scale of resources used to deliver a successful solution). “Efficiency” might be easily understood but there are six dimensions of effectiveness:

  1. Engagement – of the learner.
  2. Control – the learner should feel in control of the learning.
  3. Social learning – the extent to which the learner learns through collaboration with others.
  4. Adaptability – the extent to which the learning intervention can be personalized.
  5. Clarity – the lucidity with which the learning content is likely to be expressed, given the available delivery media.
  6. Transfer – the degree to which the student is likely to see the learning material as relevant and the degree to which he is able to apply the learning.

Of course, circumstances always alter cases, so there’s no “magic answer” that’s always correct for every learner in every situation.

As the number of available learning delivery methods increase, so the importance of blended learning grows, believes Gillian Broadhead. Now a director of Learning Light, an organization which helps companies to improve their business performance via e-learning and learning technologies, Gillian has many years’ experience as an L&D practitioner working for large corporates, including BT.

She says: “Blended learning is a useful tool for the L&D department because it allows for all learning styles. In particular, it enables L&D professionals to adopt a ‘flipped approach’ – whereby they provide online learning resources before learners engage in face-to-face development activities. This can greatly enhance the value of the time spent in the face-to-face sessions.

“Of course, deciding on the actual blend depends on what you want to deliver. There are benefits in delivering most compliance-based programs, for example, online, but programs that aim to bring about behavioral change – say, in customer service techniques – can benefit from a blended approach.”

Looking ahead, Donna Hill, managing director/CEO, Pulse by DNK, a Canadian people-focused business partner to organizations that commit to the view that people are the most important stakeholder in their business, believes that blended learning is evolving.

“I believe that blended learning is quickly giving way to a ‘continuous learning model’ as a method of learning delivery,” she says. “This is in line with the need to align all business processes to the business goals. The continuous learning approach is a way of building communities of learners with common goals who come together to learn with a purpose. They direct their learning to meet a need in the organization.

“The results of that learning are intended to offer immediate solutions to the business but the ongoing intent is that the learning continues beyond the event to become embedded in the organization’s culture. In that way, it creates a natural cadence of information transfer.

“With the focus more on a continuous learning model, there’s less emphasis being placed on event-driven, specifically blended programs. The continuous model takes a more holistic approach to making the learning available.

“Continuous learning is, typically, solution-based. It’s easier for L&D professionals to sell this approach to their organization’s senior leadership team because it can have an immediate and on-going impact on the organization’s bottom line. Moreover, it allows learners to flex and self-actualize to the needs of their individual role, as well as the needs of their individual career paths.”

What are your experiences with blended learning? Join the discussion, below.

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