Across virtually every industry, CLOs are recognizing that they must rethink and reinvent their approach to workforce education. Whether the subject matter is a new body of regulations, an evolving product line or emerging strategic priorities, organizations must find ways to efficiently and effectively keep their workforce educated to keep pace in a corporate environment with greater time and cost constraints than ever before. Blending different learning approaches, including classroom learning and e-learning, helps meet companies’ learning and business objectives.
In today’s demanding corporate environment, classroom time is still valuable, but learning organizations must adapt with the times and implement new approaches. Classroom learning should no longer consist of isolated events meant to transfer information from instructor to student. Rather, face-to-face instruction should serve as an extended process where learners can also converse with peers to discuss the content they have absorbed in advance of the day’s classroom meeting. In addition, today’s most successful learning programs embrace advances in technology. Therefore, the most optimal learning programs should consist of both classroom time and e-learning methods. By offering a variety of learning models, companies acknowledge that people learn in different ways. Although every organization has unique goals, blended instruction can help a business address its learning challenges with the most effective and flexible solutions.
Blended learning follows a framework that orchestrates movement from one learning experience to the next, so that each step builds on the previous one. Blended learning models enable organizations to move up the educational and collaborative scale—starting with a low-level information exchange and extending to mastery. The power of blended learning models comes into play when you think of combining the tiers in a single learning solution. A company can blend elements from each tier or only from selected tiers, depending upon their needs, available content, budget and time. This blended approach to learning acknowledges that as skills development becomes more critical to organizational success, it becomes even more important to ensure that learning programs are designed to be effective, flexible and cost-conscious.
Blended learning models may consist of learning from information, interaction, collaboration and classroom experiences. The first three tiers can take advantage of e-learning technology, allowing a company to minimize costs associated with travel, private instructors and time away from the office. In addition, this approach is cost-effective because the learning objects created in one course can be reused in another, even when using a different delivery approach. Leveraging learning materials that are created once and used many times helps to ensure that key concepts and messages are constantly reiterated. Blended learning also builds in the repetition that adult learners need, as they often do not retain information until it has been presented to them several times.
Learning From Information
Typically, when a learning program is initiated, a logical starting point is to provide learners with performance support and reference materials. Just as we learned from textbooks during college, learning from printed information or from specific instructions is the first level of learning. However, using today’s technology, this step can be Web-based—making it easier and faster to implement and relatively inexpensive to deliver. Learning takes place on demand—enabling learners to access information according to their own schedule and to choose materials that are relevant to their specific job function or business needs. Allowing learners to move at their own pace maximizes interest and motivation, and empowers them to learn quickly and comprehensively.
Learning From Interaction, Simulation or Games
By applying the learning acquired from reading, the content is reinforced, improving the likelihood that it will be retained. Using the Web and digital content, this type of learning can be less expensive to develop and deliver than classroom instruction, and enables students to apply concepts to real-life scenarios in a “safe” environment. Learning can be self-directed and might leverage interactive games, coaching and layered simulations. These practice cases can provide multiple options to help learners master specific competencies at their own pace.
For example, a coaching simulator can present the user with different scenarios. The learners can select from different actions, which, based on their choices, will lead to different results. This type of simulation prepares learners for similar situations that might arise during an actual work experience. As a result, learners acquire the confidence, knowledge and motivation needed to efficiently handle a variety of issues.
This tier recognizes that most of what we know, we’ve learned on the job from others. Technology can facilitate interactions with others, whether they are fellow learners or subject-matter experts. Collaborative technologies, such as instant messaging, chat and team rooms, allow individuals to learn in virtual groups and from shared experiences. Leveraging technology, e-learners can meet in real time, regardless of physical location, or they can communicate via team rooms where they leave messages that are picked up and responded to later. These types of collaborative environments not only provide learners with timely access to subject-matter experts, but they also enable opportunities to receive more in-depth training if needed. Using an e-lab, for example, students gain access to a remote computer running an application program to perform hands-on lab exercises for a course. This is an important option, particularly for global companies, as it provides a consistent educational experience for people located in different countries and time zones. This approach to learning has the added benefit of creating a sense of community within the organization.
Face-to-face human interaction has traditionally been the most effective approach to learning. One important point to remember is that technology will not replace certain instructional methods that rely on face-to-face experiences with peers and mentors. Rather, the appropriate use of e-learning strategies enables important but costly classroom and mentoring activities to be focused on higher-level skills and behavioral change. Classroom instruction also encourages discussions that reinforce lessons learned through other approaches. The classroom should complement and supplement other methods by providing an environment where responses are immediate, information is flexible to human needs, and content can be delivered and tailored to different learning styles.
Because learners can become familiar with the classroom materials in advance of the face-to-face session, more time can be spent in the classroom to delve deeper into the subject matter. Activities at this stage do not have to be limited to the instructor-learner model, and can include role-playing, coaching and detailed case studies.
Peer learning can also provide added motivation and inspiration in the classroom. This helps to build a sense of community among learners and facilitate personal networking. In hands-on situations where interaction with a physical item is required and in learning situations that are designed to develop people skills, the human interaction learners can get in a classroom setting is powerful.
Blended Learning in the Automotive Industry
Every industry has its unique challenges. Regardless, learning can provide a workforce with the knowledge to address problems efficiently and effectively. For the automotive industry, issues associated with demand forecasting, production overcapacity, inventory management, profitability and government regulations periodically arise. In addition, car dealers struggle to maintain and improve customer satisfaction and retention, handle vehicle complexity, manage escalating warranty costs and address the widening gap in technical capability combined with an ever-increasing shortage of qualified technicians. Many automotive companies address these challenges with an increased emphasis on learning, through both additional investments and revitalized learning programs—incorporating both e-learning and classroom instruction approaches.
For example, one large automotive manufacturer needed to improve the knowledge and skills of its car dealership employees to address product problems and support, deploy staff training quickly and consistently via dealership portals, address weak sales and accelerate sales reporting. The company addressed these issues by enhancing its learning program for dealers, delivering and managing it through an interactive learning portal and a highly customized learning management system (LMS). This program combined classroom time with mentoring, coaching and knowledge management—examples of collaborative learning. In addition, the learning portals and LMS enabled individuals to manage their own learning. Learners were able to register for specific classes, track their training progress and access test results and credits and incentive awards. This resulted in substantially improved completion rates, better tracking of training results and subsequent sales performance, and improved dealer satisfaction levels.
Assessing Blended Learning Results
Blended learning raises the level of content retention and provides learners with material that can be reused after the class. The instructor-led portion of a learning program usually has a limited class size, allowing students to access hands-on labs and receive one-on-one attention from instructors. The e-learning component, however, allows for the coursework to be self-paced and can reach an unlimited number of students.
For example, one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers faced the challenge of constantly evolving to meet the complex IT environment demands of the industry. To ensure that its IT investment was keeping up with the changing business climate, the company implemented a blended learning approach to address IT training needs, which included a digital video library, public courses, on-site classes, technical conferences and several e-learning methods. These easy-to-use formats allowed the workforce to access high-quality classes and expert instruction right from their personal desktops or mobile laptops.
In addition to these virtual and live classroom experiences, the company also made materials available via a Web portal. Learners could use the Web to access frequently asked questions, to take course pre-tests, unit-level tests and post-tests, to get answers to questions via e-mail from the instructor and to participate in discussion groups with peers. The company was able to provide a blended learning environment where its workforce could experience both the classroom courses as well as the Web content. As a result, the blended instruction has helped this auto manufacturer keep its workforce updated with ongoing IT changes.
With blended learning, as with the more traditional approaches, a company needs to be sure that its learning and business objectives have been met. As measurable skills competency becomes more important in the marketplace, it is becoming essential that even the smallest course scenario be followed by an assessment to ensure that the material is understood and can be put into practice. One assessment option is to have teams of trained specialists travel to the company to assess skills. This is a common option, as the specialists can come at the convenience and on the schedule of the firm. However, assessments can now be conducted online with a Web-based program that includes complete data capture for answer analysis.
Benefits that can be expected with a blended learning program include:
- Reduced costs associated with training and travel to educate large numbers of individuals in a finite period.
- Increased flexibility for participants, allowing them to access learning around the clock to accommodate their schedules.
- Enhanced effectiveness through the availability of multiple learning interventions and access to the experience of subject-matter experts around the world.
- Improved consistency due to the use of digitized content and granular learning objects that can be quickly updated or modified.
Blended instruction is not just a strategic approach to learning. It is a smart strategy for organizations that want to optimize the workforce in order to reap business benefits. Not only does it reinforce company-wide priorities and goals, but it also gives the workforce a renewed sense of accomplishment and motivation to succeed. Regardless of whether the company is in the automotive industry, the health care sector or the financial services field, blended learning can help educate the workforce and the extended enterprise to address current market challenges and gain a competitive edge in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible.
With more than 20 years of experience helping clients develop and implement strategies to improve organizational effectiveness, Hemant Minocha is a partner in IBM’s Business Consulting Services practice and a leader in IBM Learning Solutions. Hemant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Technology