“Blended learning” seems to have evolved past its buzzword status and has now become quite common in learning organizations at large enterprises. There are articles on best practices in blended learning, books that detail how to implement a blended approach and presentations that tout the benefits of a blended learning strategy. But what exactly counts as blended learning, and how will this new approach to enterprise education evolve?
Blended learning is generally considered to be a combination of various learning interventions, including classroom-based leaning, Web-based learning and a certain degree of on-the-job training. The main concern has been getting the right blend—providing learners with the right amount of each type of learning intervention. But, according to David Metcalf, Ph.D., chief learning technologist for the Applied Technology Solutions division of RWD Technologies, a provider of process improvement and training products and services, blended learning has the potential to be a lot more than simply the proper mix of a company’s existing learning solutions.
After working with numerous clients and understanding their needs from a performance perspective, Metcalf said that the best blend may combine traditional learning elements, such as on-the-job training and classroom sessions, and the newer learning interventions, such as e-learning and simulations, with things that are already happening in many organizations, but are not generally considered when a blended strategy is implemented: performance support and knowledge management.
This blend of traditional learning, online learning, knowledge management and performance support is the core of the book, “Blended E-Learning: Integrating Knowledge, Performance Support and Online Learning,” which Metcalf co-authored with Larry Bielawski. In addition to explaining how blended learning can incorporate these additional elements, Metcalf said they looked at how the theory can be put into action, providing case studies of organizations that have been successful. “They’ve been able to leverage things that have already been done in the organization—maybe outside the training department—and the way people learn on the job with job aids, performance support materials or accessing knowledge bases and tying those things together in a logical, cohesive curriculum that makes sense,” Metcalf explained.
So what types of learning are most suited for the blended approach? Breaking learning down into knowledge, skills and abilities, Metcalf said that knowledge-oriented learning is easy to transfer and assess in an online format, while skills that involve physical manipulation are better learned in the real world in a hands-on environment. “Where we see the need for a blend is when you have a mix of knowledge and skills, or when you’re also trying to adjust attitudes and attributes in people, where it takes longer to do that, and it takes more learning interventions to get your point across, to really reshape someone’s attitudes or emotions or behaviors,” said Metcalf. “That’s when having a mix of those interventions really shines the most—when you’ve got something that is holistic with all three of those areas or when you have a lot of attitudinal work that you have to do.”
Enterprises can get many benefits from a blended learning strategy. First, there are obvious cost reductions associated with delivering more education in an online format, reducing travel and classroom costs. “You can leverage costs by looking at the things that need to be delivered broadly and widely and that can be done effectively within that knowledge structure rather than the skills and ability structure,” said Metcalf. “You can go and look at those skills and attributes in the regular material world through the use of non-online means and at the same time still have all those things that are delivered online saving you cost.”
Another benefit is the ability to more smoothly transition employees from traditional classroom-based learning, with which they have a lifetime of experience, to online learning, which may be alien to certain populations. Ultimately, blended learning provides the best of both worlds, Metcalf said. Some topics can be best addressed through online learning. Sometimes classroom learning is most effective. Often, all that’s needed are some on-the-job performance support tools. In many cases, the topic can best be learned and reinforced through a variety of methods.
Metcalf said that the main challenge for companies implementing a blended approach is knowing where to start. The learning department may already have most of the pieces in place, but knowing which pieces will be most effective before getting started can be difficult. “It requires analysis and having the right tools to analyze that,” he said. Various kinds of analysis must go into the planning process for a blended learning strategy, including analyses of the audience, the job-tasks and the performance analysis of the end state learners must reach. “Taking that approach oftentimes helps people see it clearly,” said Metcalf. “When they see what they want them to do at the end, what job they are fulfilling, that’s the performance consulting aspect and the job-task analysis. Oftentimes, it even goes to what business results we want to achieve through the improved human performance.”
Metcalf warned that companies shifting to a blended learning approach should not bite off more than they can chew. The best way to begin the shift to a blended learning approach, Metcalf said, is through a pilot project. “One of the things that we’ve seen be a success in many different instances and locations is to look at a pilot program that is a key strategic initiative in the company where you can prove out some of the financial returns as well as the human impact returns that you might have—people improving their performance and doing their job better,” he explained.
Metcalf said that often the momentum of this initial pilot project provides the launch pad to adopt the approach across the whole company or in a larger group within the company, depending on the size of the organization. He has seen many learning professionals use the initial pilot project as a springboard for their careers. He advises clients to think of the future as they work on near-term projects. “You need to be thinking about what those next steps are, so you’re thinking globally but acting locally within the organization,” Metcalf said.
“We find that companies have invested a lot of money—even if they don’t know it—in the way they train people on the job, which is oftentimes performance-support-oriented more than classroom-and-training-oriented,” said Metcalf. “Just leveraging those and linking those together has produced significant cost savings for companies as well as improved the overall quality of what people consider their learning experience, taking it from just the classroom into some of those other environments too.”
Ultimately, this provides a platform for considering up-and-coming learning tools, such as mobile learning, or m-learning, Metcalf said. “Taking a larger platform approach gives you some of that potential to add in innovation in a very small way, a practical and pragmatic way, without having to reinvent your model,” said Metcalf.
Emily Hollis is managing editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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