Are you skeptical about blended learning? There has been a lot of talk about blending, and any topic that’s on everybody’s lips isn’t typically on mine. Also, blending is more complicated than scheduling a class or pointing people to an online course.
However, there is something about blending that has intrigued me from the get-go. Students often learn best from blends, from systems, from messages delivered by many sources and available in many ways. Any CLO who is concerned about lessons that stop at the classroom door recognizes that blending might just make a difference in performance at work.
What Is Blended Learning?
In a white paper for the American Management Association titled “Blended Learning Opportunities,” Rebecca Vaughn Frazee and I wrote that blended learning integrates seemingly opposite approaches, such as formal and informal learning, face-to-face and online experiences, directed paths and reliance on self-direction, and digital references and collegial connections, in order to achieve individual and organizational goals. (To read the white paper, visit www.amanet.org/blended.)
From the learning executive’s perspective, blended learning is about improving performance and achieving business objectives with employees spending more time where they are most needed – at work. From the employees’ perspective, blending allows them to answer questions and develop at a time and place more of their choosing.
Blended learning must communicate with employees and encourage smart choices. In the past, the decision was simple: Commit to this class at this time and this place, or do not. With blending, there are many and persistent choices to be made:
- Do I do this e-learning module now, later or perhaps not at all?
- Will I be active in my online community? Do I want to add an entry to the blog?
- Where do I find somebody to talk to about this?
- Should I take this self-assessment and use it to point me to resources?
- Which class should I attend? Why attend any class at all?
- I downloaded seven podcasts. How do I find time to listen to them?
- Do I want to read this book or the other one that my e-coach recommended?
- Can I get back to headquarters for the lunch chat that my manager scheduled?
- What is available to me in the databases, reference manuals, templates and checklists?
Why Consider a Move Toward Blended Learning?
Blended learning has a growing presence in workforce learning and performance. A 2005 survey by Kyong-Jee Kim, Curtis Bonk and TingTing Zeng of 200 training professionals in the United States found that respondents anticipated an increase in the use of blended learning in their organizations.
That others are doing it is interesting, but not conclusive. Far more compelling are experiences and studies that suggest that blended learning makes a difference. What might blended learning do for you?
- Capitalize on the resident smarts in your organization: Blended learning presses people and organizations to find, store, stir and share what they know. A database might help salespeople re-use parts of proposals. Far-flung hotel administrators can “ask the experts” through FAQs, e-mail, phone calls or live video streams. Employees may turn to their supervisors to practice a skill or explore an idea. Learning experiences are paired with knowledge available on demand.
- Converge learning and work: Instructors and managers have good reasons to worry about transfer when employees go to training and return to work. This is less worrying in a blended situation because blending insinuates learning, information and support into the workplace. Got a question? You can look it up online. Got a problem? Chat with your manager or share it with an online community. Eager to get better at personnel management? There is a course you can take and a pre-assessment that will make certain you are ready for that course.
- Promote connections and conversations: Blended learning encourages the organization to extend lessons and conversations beyond the classroom and into the workplace through coaching, e-coaching and online communities. A salesperson who has learned about a new product can chat with more experienced colleagues attempting to bring that product to Asia. An executive can reach out for expert views from a trusted e-coach. A researcher can reflect with others on the investment team about how a natural disaster should influence their purchases and sales.
- Provide consistent and updated messages: Instructors are a great resource during training, but their messages sometimes differ and their smarts and enthusiasm depart after class. Technology, on the other hand, can deliver standardized messages consistently, tirelessly, swiftly, repeatedly, patiently, around the globe. Online modules, knowledge bases and archived presentations do not get jet lag.
- Nurture independent habits: Employees in blended programs can participate in online communities, seek out lessons and answers as needed, and enjoy interaction, guidance and encouragement from peers, experts, supervisors and coaches. For those who are reluctant to turn exclusively to independent learning, blending anchored in the classroom can pave the way.
- Improve performance and control costs: Studies have reported increased cost-effectiveness and productivity for those using a blended approach as opposed to e-learning alone. Other studies have reported enhanced employee retention and reduced training time for blended approaches. In addition, online resources can be easier and cheaper to update and distribute.
How Does Blending Change What Everybody Does?
Blended learning redefines roles. As we move from instructors in classrooms to many kinds of assets everywhere work gets done, participation and results transfer into the hands of employees and their managers.
Blended learning shifts responsibility for learning from the instructor to the employee. For many, this is not an easy transition. They like what they know – classroom experiences led by instructors – and are often uncomfortable and not particularly adept at learning more independently and online.
Provide useful, clear guidance systems that link to work and career paths. Help employees consider their readiness to learn continuously and independently. Engage managers in helping them find time and motivation to learn. Nudge employees to reflect on their readiness, with questions such as:
- Are you eager to know more about this topic? Is this top-of-mind?
- Do you know what’s involved in blended learning and how it will affect what you do at work?
- Do you know how to navigate the technology?
- Are you ready to assess your skills and knowledge, and to make choices based on skill gaps?
- Do you seek more responsibility for your own learning and development?
- Would you prefer to find an answer or take a class on your schedule when a need arises?
- Do you like to talk and read about ways of doing your job better?
- Do you know how to manage time and distractions?
- Do you know what might get in your way? Do you have ideas about how to mitigate obstacles?
- Do you know your department’s priorities and how development in this area relates to those priorities?
- Do your supervisors support this growth?
- Are you willing to seek help from a peer or mentor?
Because it often occurs in the workplace, blended learning depends on an active supervisor or manager. When blended learning is in place, managers and supervisors must coach, guide, track, motivate and encourage. To learn about managerial readiness, ask:
- Do managers know what blended learning is?
- Do managers understand how blended learning expands their roles?
- Do they know why they are needed?
- Do they know how to help employees stay involved in blended learning?
- Can they picture what their participation and support might look like?
- Are meaningful incentives in place for managers to be active within the blend?
- Are participation and support in the blended learning program part of managers’ job descriptions and performance reviews?
- Do managers have the skills and knowledge to tackle these new responsibilities?
- Are there cases, examples and templates to help managers know what to say and do within the blend?
In a blended learning system, teaching is important, but not sufficient. Instructors will do more than stand and deliver when a blend is in place. Through online systems, they might monitor and nudge employees’ progress and persistence, moderate a discussion board, coach managers, enliven online communities, offer feedback on a group or individual task, analyze workplace readiness and post answers to frequently asked questions.
For example, at Defense Acquisition University, instructors are growing into coaches and performance consultants. They tailor services to needs and are measured in part by the satisfaction of the people they serve in these new ways.
In Kim, Bonk and Zeng’s survey of training professionals, a majority of respondents said that by 2010, online facilitation or moderation would be a vital skill for online trainers and instructors. Other key skills included online mentoring, lecturing and evaluating or assessing skills.
The executive’s role in blended learning is to ensure that the culture is active, collaborative and cross-functional, with each employee, manager and supervisor keen on continuous learning and aware of what to do to advance it.
Before embarking on BL, executives should examine where they stand:
- Do executives see the link between this blended learning and their strategy? Can they describe how this program furthers organizational goals? Will they actively do that?
- Do executives know what blended learning is and what benefits the approach brings?
- Do executives know how blended learning programs typically fail?
- Have executives worked with workforce learning professionals and line managers to consider what might get in the way as their organization moves to blended learning?
- Where obstacles are anticipated, what mitigation is put in place?
- Have the executives worked with management to nurture a learning culture?
- Are the executives engaged in the effort to redefine the roles of employees and supervisors to encourage continuous learning and support?
- Are the executives working with the learning organization to redefine the measures associated with their success in ways that link to continuous engagement, participation and strategic results?
- Have executives worked with the individuals involved with blended learning to ensure that evaluation will happen and that the program will be continuously improved?
Blending, of course, also means changes for workforce learning professionals and their leaders. There are obvious matters such as acquisition, creation and update of diverse assets, some familiar and some not familiar at all; the press to leverage technologies and keep track of individual participation in diverse experiences that happen everywhere; and orchestration of many programs, people and relationships, not just classes. And then there are those changes that are more subtle. Ask about those changes as they apply to the work and priorities of the CLO:
- Does the learning executive know what blended learning is and what benefits the approach brings?
- Can the CLO describe how blended learning changes priorities and efforts for the CLO and for others?
- Has the CLO examined the learning unit and determined where colleagues need development and which processes will require reengineering in order to advance blended learning? What about the health of hardware and software for blended learning?
- Does the CLO know how blended learning programs typically fail? Where obstacles are anticipated, what mitigation is in place?
- Has the learning executive worked with line executives to define and advance their roles as coaches and guides?
- Has the learning executive endeavored to redefine what line managers will do? How will line managers be recognized for their efforts?
- Has the CLO pressed learning specialists to develop assets that help line managers engage with employees in active and ongoing ways?
- Is the learning executive advocating for assets and programs that will compel employee attention and loyalty?
- Has the CLO experienced a blend? What lessons does that blend bring to the organization?
- Is the CLO attentive to concerns about employee satisfaction, engagement and persistence? To concerns about technology infrastructure?
- Has the CLO pressed for development and communication of guidance systems that help employees find what they need when they need it?
- Has the CLO found ways to gather data and use that data to improve the blend and individual assets, and to inform participants and managers about progress?
- Is the learning executive engaged in selecting “sweet spots” for blending – topics and initiatives most likely to benefit from concerted attention over time and place?
- Is the CLO working with organizational leaders to alter the metrics for his or her unit in light of the changes inherent in blended learning?
How Do We Get Smarter About Blended Learning?
The shift to blended learning demands thought, planning and new commitments from us and from others in our organization. No silver bullets here.
What kinds of assets are typical in a blend? How does blended learning alter how we use instructors and classrooms? Where does technology fit in? What forms do blends take, and when would we use these different forms? What about blends for smaller groups of employees? For large numbers that are spread around the world? For employees who do not embrace the topic? How does blending alter familiar approaches to evaluation?
Allison Rossett, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University, is the author of many books and articles about workforce learning, technology and performance improvement. A free, comprehensive white paper about blended learning authored by Allison and Rebecca Frazee, and sponsored by the American Management Association, is available at http://www.amanet.org/blended/. Allison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.