Blended learning is a powerful training solution that combines e-learning with a variety of other delivery methods for a superior learning experience. This article reveals what makes blended learning so powerful, and how to choose the right mix of delivery methods for the best blend of skill enhancement and sustainability to ensure a company's long-term competitive advantage.
In this increasingly complex and competitive business environment, you face quarter-to quarter, even month-to-month, pressure to produce measurable gains. To succeed, you need that competitive weapon: the best trained, most capable workforce available. To keep your workforce at its best, you need to maintain a learning environment that creates continuous improvement to keep pace with the continually changing marketplace.
With recent advances in the science and technology of learning, practitioners have many choices of training media. Will it be e-learning? Or one of the older but tried and true methods: self-study, job aids, videos, mastery cards, computer-based training (CBT), role-plays, or workshops? How about teleconferencing or web-based seminars? With all these options, it's hard to know which delivery method is the best choice for your organization.
But why take one item from the menu when you can have the buffet?
Enter blended learning. If you know how to choose your servings wisely, you will come away from the table more satisfied, with improved results and a much higher return on your training investment. If you choose unwisely, there are consequences that may slow your progress or even stop it in its tracks. The key is to understand why blended learning is so powerful, and to know how to make the choices that will provide the best blend of skill enhancement and sustainability to ensure long-term competitive advantage.
Everything old is new again
Blended learning is a custom approach that applies a mix of training delivery options to teach, support, and sustain the skills needed for top job performance. With blended learning, the tried-and-true traditional learning methods are combined with new technology to create a synergistic, dynamic learning structure that can propel learning to new heights.
How does blended learning accomplish this? To answer that, we have to go back to the question of what learning is, and how it achieves performance improvement, regardless of delivery mechanism.
Four stages of learning
In the corporate setting, learning is a means to an end, a beneficial change in job behavior.
The learning model follows four stages:
- Stage 1: Initial knowledge or skill acquisition
- Sateg 2: Increased knowledge or skill proficiency
- Stage 3: Ability to apply knowledge or skill in simple situations
- Stage 4: Ability to apply knowledge or skill in increasingly complex situations, to think through a solution.
These four stages represent a continuum from passive reception of facts to active application of them.
Learning over time
Deep learning occurs over time. It is a process rather than an event. Only through complete processing of information, on-the-job practice opportunities, and feedback, will learners develop proficiency. Additional time is needed for the performance change to be sustained through reinforcement on the job and skill refreshers. Learner motivation and concentrated attention to learning are also key factors in the success of this learning continuum.
This takes time. Therefore, it sounds as though effective learning must also be expensive. The good news, however, is that technology can compress the time spent on learning. E-learning eliminates travel time and provides individualized training based only on the skill gaps of each employee.
The classroom provides the organizational framework and motivation, and enables people to learn through their peers' experiences. These aspects of learning can be simulated online, but classroom training will strengthen the learning experience and is the best place to deal with subtle organizational differences in practice, as well as exceptions to the rules.
Instructional strategies for each stage of learning
Blended learning acknowledges that some stages of learning require the input and feedback of peers and the specifics of organizational approaches in order for behaviors to become embedded. Once knowledge is acquired, skills practiced, and a certain level of mastery achieved, classroom training can provide an added organizational experience to the learning process.
The following chart links training methods to each of the four stages of learning.
||Learning tools and instructional strategies
||Initial knowledge or skill acquisition
||To assess the learning need, then teach skills and knowledge
||Assessments or diagnostics, e-learning, self-study, mastery cards, job aids, information access systems, examples, analogies
||Increased knowledge or skill proficiency
||To improve understanding of the context for performance, and to test proficiency
||E-learning tutorials with practice exercises, modeling and testing
||Ability to apply knowledge or skill in simple situations
||Involve participants in simulated simple situations and provides feedback on responses
||Interactive multi-media, simulations, projects, practice exercises, workshops, role-plays, mentoring, lab work, monitored on-the-job application with performance coaching
||Ability to apply knowledge or skill in increasingly complex situations
||Involves participants in complex situations where they must problem-solve and react instantly to changing circumstances, and offer feedback on their performance
||Mentoring, coaching, expert presentations with group discussion and practice, case studies, advanced workshops and simulations, videotaped skill practices
Blended learning in action
A blended learning approach is flexible, using the most effective training delivery option (or combination of options) for each stage of learning. It is more effective than any single form of learning at creating the results you want: sustained behavioral change that increases the return on your training investment.
For example: The business goal for Bank ABC is to improve its share of the small business market. The strategy is to distinguish itself in the market by providing superior service through its small business lenders. A gap has been identified in their employees' ability to conduct productive sales conversations about credit - some have the skills and some do not. There are ambitious business targets to meet in a six-month period, a dispersed and diverse population to train, and limited managerial expertise to apply.
Let's compare two common approaches: an e-learning solution and a workshop solution in terms of cost and time. Then, we'll look at a blended solution and see how it compares.
- Online testing to determine individual skill levels - 4 hours
- Online tutorials delivered according to skill gaps found in testing, followed by online simulations that must be passed to confirm knowledge - 3-4 hours
- Prereading on cases - 2 hours
- Two-day workshop -16 hours
|Total: 7-8 hours of training
||Total: 18 hours of training
Assessment helps target the training to the skill gaps. Training time and costs are both minimized by using online tutorials and simulations.Disadvantages:
The performance feedback provided in an e-learning environment is less specific to individual performance than in classroom/workshop setting.
|Advantages:Participants have time to review the cases and become familiar with them before class. The class offers an opportunity to test new skills, and to learn from group discussion, exercises, and leader experience and feedback.
Time and money, and to some extent, control over the amount learned. Time is spent away from the job and money is spent on facilitation and travel. Content is dependent on the leader and will have some variances.
Now, let's see what a blended learning solution would look like.
|1. Online testing to determine individual skill levels.
||Training is determined based on need. Learners participate only in the programs they need and are ready for, maximizing ROI.
|2. Online tutorials delivered according to skill gaps found in testing are followed by online simulations that must be passed prior to coming to workshop or coaching session with manager.
||Levels the playing field so all trainees have a common knowledge and skill base.
|3a. One-day workshop focused on customer scenarios with videotaped feedback, individualized coaching on performance.- OR -
3b. Manager coaching session on test results.
|8 hours- OR -
|Classroom enables people to learn through their peers' experiences. But training alone will not elevate your organization to higher levels of excellence. Ongoing skills reinforcement will take you there.
|4. Access on the job to refresher sessions and aids such as reference guides or flash cards prior to customer calls.
||20-30 minutes weekly
||Tangible confidence-builders boost success.
|5. Follow-up coaching session in four weeks' time - either based on joint call or simulated customer experience.
||30 minutes monthly
||Observation and results coaching further builds on skills and proficiency.
|6. Remedial tutorials and testing on any skill gaps observed.
||Continue to fine tune skills.
|7. Three month mini-retesting of skills.
||Reinforcing the relentless pursuit of perfection - continuous improvement.
The obvious advantage of the blended learning solution is that learning becomes a process, rather than an event. Blended learning puts training into the job environment, provides a forum for every learning style, includes reinforcement and coaching, and uses minimum effort and resources to gain maximum results. It enables people to apply skills continuously - skills that become habitual with practice.
Sustain behavioral change
Behavioral change can be initiated through the effective use of online simulations or classroom sessions, but sustaining behavioral change must occur on the job. This can be achieved through performance evaluation and coaching, content reinforcement and reminders, and regular skill refreshers. Blended learning enables sustainability to occur in a timely and cost-efficient manner that exceeds the capabilities of either e-learning or classroom training on its own. The principle of blended learning is that it uses the most effective medium for each stage of the learning continuum, and leverages technological capabilities to extend learning on the job.
Blended learning's claims to sustained behavioral change rest solidly on an instructional design model that acknowledges the learning stages, provides appropriate instructional strategies for those stages, and reinforces skills development through practice, feedback, and testing.
Blended learning represents an effective and proven learning model. It capitalizes on the strengths and benefits of technology-based training as well as classic self-study, classroom, and on-the-job instruction in a "mix & match" format that is tailored to the specific training needs of each organization.
Blended learning is a cost-effective approach that keeps your organization at its peak - learning and achieving. It reduces boredom, decreases costs, and produces tangible results that relate to enhanced shareholder value. It can ensure that your people are the competitive weapon you need to meet your goals. That's reason enough to consider how it may serve your performance improvement needs.