The term “blended learning” once meant that specifically within the classroom setting, instructors would use a variety of teaching styles to present content. This mix was achieved through the use of such instruction techniques as lectures, demonstrations, games or group learning. With the flexibility today’s wired universe brings to training, the term has evolved to represent the use of a wide array of delivery modalities including classroom-based instructor-led training, synchronous or asynchronous e-learning, portable technologies and on-the-job training. With so many options available to training professionals, how do they determine the optimum mix, and what factors drive the selection of one method over another?
Every other month, IDC surveys Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board (BIB) on a variety of training subjects to measure the current thoughts, feelings and concerns of today’s learning professionals. In May, this article looked at the subject of informal learning. This month 397 BIB respondents shared their thoughts on the appropriate mix of delivery methods.
The adoption of blended learning is primarily being driven by three key rationales. First, from a practical standpoint, there is the need to reduce training costs. Learning professionals are interested in limiting their training expenses as much as possible, so making content available online or in other portable formats saves the overhead costs typically associated with classroom training. Second, a blended method introduces flexibility into the training equation. By offering content in a variety of methods, learning professionals can scale their offerings to larger and more dispersed audiences. Flexibility also means that training can occur at a time that is convenient for the learner. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, from a pedagogical stand point, it provides a better learning experience for the learner. Cognitive research shows that information presented in a variety of methods improves the learning process and makes a significant difference in how content is initially understood and ultimately retained.
Today’s Blend: Mostly Instructor Prescribed
The vast majority of CLO BIB respondents incorporate some type of blend into their delivery of training. As Figure 1 shows, currently the instructor or training department is primarily determining this blend. By comparison, only a small percentage of respondents indicated that the student’s choice of delivery method determined the blend. This suggests that most companies today have been successful at using a blend of training modalities, but learners should not expect to be able to exercise complete control over the blend of learning they receive. Complete control for the learner would require that their company provide the entire library of training content in multiple formats. Given the tight operating budgets most training divisions are operating under today, it is not realistic to expect this to happen any time soon. In lieu of complete control, however, companies can strive to provide their learners with greater control by offering some content or some sections of content in multiple formats. Any movement along the flexibility continuum is going to promote the adoption and use of training.
The Current Mix: Classroom and E-Learning Most Significant
BIB respondents indicated that they are using a wide range of methods as part of their current delivery mix. As Figure 2 shows, classroom training still represents the primary delivery choice for most companies, with the combination of synchronous and asynchronous e-learning representing the next most-popular modalities. Companies also are including formal on-the-job training initiatives as a key component of their overall education programs. When considering an e-learning strategy, survey results show that companies use an asynchronous solution nearly twice as often as a synchronous one.
E-Learning and Portable Technologies Leading Evolution of Mix
IDC’s learning growth index in Figure 3 shows that the greatest change in the delivery mix over the next 12 to 18 months is expected to come via increased adoption of e-learning and the increased use of portable technologies. This is consistent with past IDC research, which has shown that training divisions expect to increase their investments in learning technologies over the next two years. Much of this will be to address the training demands of an increasingly mobile U.S. workforce. The emergence of portable technologies such as podcasting and video-on-demand allows learners to access their training from remote locations via cell phones and PDAs and carry it with them on portable digital-audio and video players. By comparison, less growth is expected from classroom-based ILT and text-based training.
Drivers: Culture and Content Big Influencers
In designing the most appropriate mix of training to meet a company’s learning objectives, training professionals must weigh the benefits of each method against the associated costs and resource requirements. Figure 4 shows the top-three drivers the BIB selected for each of the most common types of delivery.
Although some of the results are predictable, they show that there is an important link between content type and delivery method. And they show that corporate culture might have a strong influence in determining which delivery methods get employed within an organization, particularly as it relates to the more traditional forms of training. The value of student-to-instructor interaction remains a primary driver for both classroom-based ILT and synchronous e-learning, but interestingly, the same value is not seen in student-to-student interactions across both methods. Although student-to-student interaction rated high for classroom training (fourth), it scored as the lowest driver for synchronous e-learning (eighth). This suggests that learners are more interested in the real-time relationship they can maintain with their instructors than they are with each other. Another conclusion that can be drawn from this is that when trainers make the decision to migrate content online into a synchronous environment, they assume that student-to-student interaction will be sacrificed.
Classroom-ILT a Staple of Business Skills Training
A comparison of the BIB’s primary delivery methods by content area reveals that a greater majority use classroom-based ILT for business skills training than for IT skills training. Seventy-five percent of the BIB selected it as their primary delivery method for business content compared to 37 percent for IT content. This is not surprising given the interactive nature of business skills courses, which require face-to-face time with instructors and peers to be meaningful. As one vendor once put it to IDC, “how else can you learn about people, but from people?” Conversely, a third of the BIB selected some form of e-learning as the primary delivery method for IT skills training compared to only 9 percent who selected it as their primary mode for business skills training. Still, as Figure 5 shows, trainers of both content areas are expecting to make changes to their delivery over the next 12 to 18 months. For business skills training, a significant percentage of the BIB said they would be increasing their use of synchronous and asynchronous e-learning as a means of supplementing or even replacing some parts of classroom-based instruction. Many are adopting this delivery method as a way to extend the learning experience for learners beyond the classroom environment. That having been said, more than 20 percent of BIB respondents expect to increase their use of the classroom in the coming year.
The delivery mix for IT training will follow much of the same trend as that for business skills training, although a larger percentage of respondents say they do not expect to make any changes over the next 12 to 18 months. As Figure 5 shows, fewer respondents will be incorporating more classroom delivery into their mix in the next year as compared to business skills training, and a significantly smaller group will be incorporating an instructor-prescribed blend into their mix. A significant number of IT trainers, however, will look to increase their use of e-learning over the next year and a half.
Skill Level and Seniority: Little Influence on Delivery Mix
A rating of each delivery method’s value showed that the majority of the BIB considers all methods equally valuable to highly skilled and minimally skilled workers. In other words, synchronous e-learning works just as well for training a highly skilled employee as it does someone who is minimally skilled. A similar finding was made for senior and junior employees. This suggests that most learning professionals do not consider their audience’s skill level or tenure a key factor when selecting a delivery method. Equally telling is the lack of variation between scores for skill level and seniority for each method, suggesting that the learning community might assume a strong correlation exists between an employee’s tenure and his or her skill level.
Keeping the Learners in Mind
Monitoring the evolution of the delivery mix is useful in understanding the effects emerging trends and technologies have on the learning industry, but training professionals should be mindful of the extent to which they allow this type of information to influence their own training decisions. More important than the question “What is everyone else doing?” is the question “What is most appropriate for my learners?” The framework IDC uses to measure learning effectiveness includes “appropriateness” as a key metric. In establishing a company’s delivery mix, learning professionals should strive to develop one that is appropriate to the business context and the specific roles of its stakeholders. Observing macro-level trends that impact the delivery mix is interesting, but each learning opportunity calls for its own recipe.
Peter McStravick is the senior research analyst for IDC’s Learning Services group, where he addresses the impact of training methodologies and business models on end-user organizations and tracks market growth and opportunities in the U.S. corporate training market. He can be reached at email@example.com.