By Owen Davis
In the not-so-olden days, education came in one form — a teacher and a classroom. Whether learners were in kindergarten or adults in work-related classes, learning had the same delivery method.
Times have changed. Today's workplace requires ongoing education from employees at every level. Yet workplace trends now make traditional learning environments almost impossible to successfully implement. Heightened productivity means less time to sit in classes. A mobile workforce and the rise of telecommuting make centralized classes counterproductive. Recent research shows that different people learn best in different ways. Put it all together and the prospect of continually training employees using the same old methods looks unlikely to succeed.
That's where "blended learning" comes in. Blended learning is the technique of teaching material through a variety of methods that reinforce each other and engage learners in different ways. Blended learning uses the power of the Internet and the self-service ease of online learning delivery while still utilizing the best features of classroom interaction and live instruction.
Blended learning is an essential new tool for companies that want to remain competitive in today's market. As traditional methods become less feasible due to cost, geography and time constraints, blended learning is emerging as the best option for successful workplace learning.
To make blended learning work for your company, you'll need to understand what it is and what challenges await when it is first implemented.
How Blended Learning Works
Blended learning recognizes that many employees learn best when they have some control over their learning schedule. At the same time, having a high-level schedule framework with assignments due on specified dates can help to hold learners accountable. Blended learning programs use Web seminars, conference calls, online collaborative distance learning programs and teleclasses to engage learners in a classroom-like environment where they can also encourage and challenge each other, forming relationships that can extend beyond the class environment. Blended learning may also involve interaction with a live facilitator through group conference calls and one-on-one phone or Web coaching to address individual needs.
Some blended learning environments may begin with a live class in a traditional classroom and then deliver the majority of the learning content through self-study workbooks or via the Internet. Students may reconvene for demonstrations, role playing or a final wrap-up. Other programs are entirely conducted via phone and e-mail but still maintain high-touch through a dynamic facilitator who spends live call time with participants as a group or as individuals.
The success of Internet marketing gurus such as Michael Port and Travis Greenlee can be traced directly to their proficiency in effectively creating blended learning environments that utilize multiple delivery methods. Group phone calls, an online classroom environment that facilitates sharing and interaction among participants, blogs, Web audio, brainstorming class and Web seminars combine with the use of workbooks, e-books, traditional textbooks, handouts and online quizzes to challenge and engage students.
A key success factor in blended learning environments is to create high quality interaction between the students and the instructor as well as among students. The best programs combine directed and self-paced study while also having an effective way to answer questions, provide assessment and collaborate with peers. If a test for certification is appropriate, this can also be added to the online component and participants can immediately print their own certificate upon successful completion.
Learners who have completed a blended learning program can be encouraged to continue participating and learning through access to white papers, knowledge bases and update sessions. "Alumni" can be encouraged to stay in touch, facilitating better peer collaboration and intra-group networking.
Challenges for Blended Learning
Because blended learning changes the way employees, managers and trainers are used to thinking about education, some natural challenges arise in the effort to shift behavior to the new model.
While blended learning is already a hot trend among entrepreneurs, corporate employees may have had less exposure to blended models. Employees who are used to more passive traditional learning or who lack up-to-date computer skills may find the level of interactivity expected in a blended environment to be daunting, since it calls for Internet skills beyond e-mail. Workers who have snoozed through traditional classes may be surprised at the visibility individuals have in the blended environment when it comes to collaboration, one-to-one coaching calls, homework posting and contribution to knowledge databases and forums.
To assure a smooth transition, employees who are expected to learn in a blended environment should be introduced ahead of time to the blended learning concept and, if necessary, receive training in online skills prior to beginning a course.
Managers also face challenges with the blended learning environment. For managers used to traditional classroom learning, it can be comfortable to know where employees go to learn and when they are in class. With blended learning, employees combine scheduled calls and Web seminars with self-directed study offline and virtual group collaboration. In order for blended learning to succeed, managers must learn to trust employees to be active participants outside of a classroom setting and must be supportive of the at-work time requirements for calls, collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Corporate trainers may feel threatened by a shift to blended learning. Trainers without strong Internet skills may not be proficient in the new environment without additional skill building. Presenters who are used to thinking of classes in terms of traditional lecture and handouts may initially feel too overwhelmed by the choices available to them to utilize a mix of the most appropriate online and offline tools. Trainers who have been training with a fully developed system of binders, handouts and offline tools will need preparation time and, quite likely, technical support to create a fully realized blended environment.
All of these challenges can be overcome. Making sure that employees have the necessary online skills increases their job-related proficiency and decreases resistance to the new environment. Helping managers understand the benefits of the new blended environment can decrease anxiety around their perceived loss of control. Assuring that corporate trainers have the technical support and time to prepare for the new blended learning environment can reduce their stress and resistance to change.
Potential for Blended Learning
Entrepreneurs were among the first to grasp the power of blended learning's potential. Through blended learning platforms, they realized it was possible to gain the benefit of working with top business coaches and a global network of classroom colleagues without ever leaving the office. Because blended learning uses multiple delivery vehicles for content, scheduled group time is at a minimum. Learners are able to complete assignments, meet with other group members for collaboration and post to forums at their own pace when their schedules permit.
Corporate training has an even greater potential gain from blended learning because of the sheer scale and numbers of its programs. By applying a blended learning approach, companies can not only increase employee knowledge about the particular course content, but can increase valuable computer proficiency as well. High residual value can be created through the collaborative networks formed among students in blended classes; the networks continue to help with knowledge transfer long after the class is over.
Blended learning offers companies of all sizes a chance to make the most of their global knowledge assets. By developing corporate training in a blended learning environment, employees gain and retain essential skills efficiently while benefiting from participation in growing personal networks. In today's cost-sensitive training environments, blended learning is gaining recognition as the high-performance, low-cost option of choice.
About the Author: Owen Davis is managing director of U.S. operations of TrainingFolks, which specializes in performance consulting, leadership development, and designing and executing employee-based development systems. He can be reached at 704-998-5530 or visit www.trainingfolks.com.