Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blended Learning

The term blended learning is used to describe a solution that combines several different delivery methods, such as collaboration software, Web-based courses, EPSS, and knowledge management practices. Blended learning also is used to describe learning that mixes various event-based activities, including face-to-face classrooms, live e-learning, and self-paced instruction.

Blended Learning is really the natural evolution of e-learning into an integrated program of multiple media types, applied toward a business problem in an optimum way, to solve a business problem.

I believe that every successful e-learning program is or will become a blended learning program.

Blended Learning optimizes your resources.

As we talked to companies embarking on blended learning, we found them asking the same questions. What combination of tools and media will give me the biggest impact for the lowest investment?

To design blended training, the instructional designers start by analyzing the training or course objectives and braking them down into the smallest possible pedagogically (for children) or andragogically (for adults) appropriate chunks (learning object).

After the course or training has been chunked, the best approach to deliver each segment of instruction (learning object) is identified. In some cases the best approach might be using online learning but in others it might be live instruction, for example.

The course is then aggregated by grouping the instruction logically while taking into account the medium of delivery. In this way, one may require a few lessons online and some others live, for example.

What medium can be used in Blended Learning?

The medium is not limited to technology and can include:

  • Stand-alone, Asynchronous, or Synchronous online learning / training

  • Performance support tools (knowledge management tools)

  • Traditional classroom, Labs, or other "hands-on" experiences

  • Reading assignments, CD-ROM or other self-paced learning

  • Teletraining / Telelearning, or Other media
Here is a table that categorizes the type of learning that may be used:

Live face-to-face (formal)
* Instructor-led classroom
* Workshops
* Coaching/mentoring
* On-the-job (OTJ) training

Live face-to-face (informal)
* Collegial connections
* Work teams
* Role modeling

Virtual collaboration/synchronous
* Live e-learning classes
* E-mentoring

Virtual collaboration/asynchronous
* Email
* Online bulletin boards
* Listservs
* Online communities

Self-paced learning
* Web learning modules
* Online resource links
* Simulations
* Scenarios
* Video and audio CD/DVDs
* Online self-assessments
* Workbooks

Performance support
* Help systems
* Print job aids
* Knowledge databases
* Documentation
* Performance/decision support tools

Source: Strategies for Building Blended Learning
By Allison Rossett, Felicia Douglis, and Rebecca V. Frazee

The key to bended learning is selecting the right combination of media that will drive the highest business impact for the lowest possible cost.

So how do you decide the mix?

We found a variety of methodologies. One of the simplest approaches is to create electronic content and “surround” it with human, interactive content. This approach of “surrounding” e-learning with human enables you to create high interest, accountability, and real assessment of the results of the e-learning program.

This approach was used by many companies when rolling out ERP application training. An initial conference call and series of meetings was used to explain the project and why the new system is so important – then the users took an online course – then there was a follow-up meeting and evaluation by the manager before the system was actually rolled out.

Blended Learning forces you to think about the business problem.

One of the big things we found was that once you have to make “media” or “blend” decisions, you are essentially doing “portfolio management.” Just like the problem of balancing your 401K account, people need a methodology to help decide when to use a webinar, when to use a conference call, and when to build a complex simulation or online course. When you create a financial portfolio, you start with your goals – factor in risk, time, and budget. In blended learning, the factors are similar:

  • Specifically what is the business problem or goal? (Need to increase sales revenue for a new product)

  • What is the learning problem which you believe is creating this business problem? Can you be sure it is a “learning” problem or a problem of distributing new information? (Need to train sales reps on value proposition and pricing of this new product)

  • What are the characteristics of the audience? (How much time will they have to use the content? What connectivity will they have? What kind of learning style and education level do they need? What do they respond to? How motivated are they?)

  • What are the characteristics of the content? (How long before it goes out of date? Are we “informing, developing skills, or creating competencies? Where is this content? What SME’s do we need to use? How much time will be able to get with them?)

  • What kind of measurement do we need? And how much? What amount of measurement does the business problem justify? (Measurement is expensive – what do we really need to measure in order to solve this business problem? Completion? Scores? Certifications? Nothing at all?)

Blended learning does not have to cost Millions. You can build your own content.

Another interesting finding. Many companies outsource major e-learning projects – and sometimes spend millions of dollars. One of our research companies spent millions of dollars creating a business simulation which trained financial professionals how to use new accounting principles. In this particular case, the problem was global – and the cost of failure was very high – so it was worth the cost. If you have a very large audience and a very big problem, you can cost-justify a lot of money on content.

(The simple cost equation for blended learning is the tradeoff between development cost and delivery cost. For web-based training, for example, high development costs can be amortized by low delivery costs if the audience is large. For classroom training, lower development costs and higher delivery costs are justified when the audience is small.)

However in most cases what we found was the opposite. Companies are now developing web-based content for $100’s per instructor hour (we used to charge $30-70,000 per instructor hour in my prior life!). How do they do this? They often hire a vendor to “teach them” how to build courseware – then they get a small team together (3-4 people) and build the content internally. This appears to be a major trend.

One company developed a major SAP upgrade program which was business critical across more than 10,000 employees for a total development cost of $75,000. This is less than $7.50 per employee for development cost – the cost of lunch in most big cities.

Huge Impact is Possible

The most fascinating of all findings from our work was that Blended Learning in fact has huge and measurable business impact. Most of the companies we studied told us that the blended learning programs they built solved problems which were impossible to solve in any other way.

The biggest business benefits of blended learning which we found are:

  • Scale: You can roll out a new initiative or program to global audiences and reach more people than ever possible before. This is the promise of e-learning and it is true.

  • Speed: If you need to train people within months, you can reach thousands of people simultaneously. Although there is a fixed time to develop content, the time to deploy is fast. If the business problem is NOW and the content will become stale, blended learning is the answer.

  • Throughput: If your training problem is bottlenecked (one telecommunications company had such a backlog of training that technicians were driving around in trucks drinking coffee for weeks waiting for new-hire training slots), you can eliminate that bottleneck and improve training throughput by orders of magnitude.

  • Complexity: many training challenges are just too complex for a single web-based course or PowerPoint based webinars. If the material is complex and your business need demands that people internalize and change their behavior, using multiple media will get much higher completion and results.

  • Cost: I believe that many companies have found that e-learning may not really save as much money as they thought. By the time you buy and LMS, implement the LMS, buy tools, buy a content catalog, and start building lots of web-based courses – you may find that the total cost has just shifted – from instructors to infrastructure and web development. By using the blended approach you can avoid this explosion. One of our research companies starts with job aids first, and then moves up the scale to more expensive media only if the problem demands it. By thinking about every problem as a “blending” challenge, you can select the lowest cost media which solves the problem.

Bottom line: Blended Learning is here to say. I believe it is the natural evolution of e-learning – understanding the business problem and selecting the right “portfolio” of technologies and processes to drive impact. As companies focus on understanding the processes of blending media, they will find


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