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Blended Learning

Why we shouldn’t call it blended learning!

Image by Полина Андреева from Pixabay

Those who know me will certainly be taken aback. After all, I admit, I must sound like a broken record; I’m always banging on about how blended learning is the foundation on which successful learning solutions is built on.

So why am I advocating a change of name?  Because there is still a lot of confusion around what the term ‘blended learning’ describes.

What do some people think it is?

  • eLearning tutorial+classroom+eLearning tutorial (what I call the eLearning sandwich)
  • A classroom course with some computer work included within it
  • Has to include a classroom element with virtual classroom and or online tasks
  • A mix of different learning methods
  • Has to include some computer-based or online activity
  • A collection of diverse resources to dip into when you need some on-demand help

Well, it may surprise you to hear that none of the above are true – and yet – all are true to a greater or lesser extent.  How can this be?

We are in a time where digital has become our first means of communication.  The world COVID crisis has removed the option of any (or mostly) face-to-face learning delivery.  Our default has become digital – it had to.  But an effective digital learning solution is a blended one. And no, blended learning doesn’t necessarily mean there is any classroom in sight.

So what IS blended learning? 

Well, it depends.

“Depends on what?” you might ask…

It depends on the situation and because there are too many variables in any given situation, there is no one right blend template. The only right blend is the one that has been carefully designed for a particular set of circumstances. Every blend should be as unique as the situation it addresses. 

How can we get the right blend?

We can only do this if we investigate thoroughly before making any decisions.

  • What’s the need: What’s happening that shouldn’t or not happening that should? What impact does this have on business performance? Where do we need to get to?
  • Who is the audience: what are their needs, gaps, experience, motivation?
  • What are the logistics: what do we have available, what do we need, what can’t we get, what are the limitations, what are the strengths etc

Our investigations will help us establish whether formal training is the solution (or part of) and where it fits. It will help us identify where less formal approaches such as coaching, just in time resources, and an ‘in at the deep end’ will play a part.

Once we’ve established there is a learning need, we will use the data gathered to help us outline the most appropriate instructional/learning strategies, a clear structure, and effective combination of learning activities.

We will be able to decide on how we can deliver these activities that makes the best use of the resources we have and that will work well for the particular learning activities we’ve chosen. 

In his ‘Blended Learning Cook Book, Clive Shepherd refers to this process as The Logical Approach. Wouldn’t you agree that it is aptly named?

This framework is helps us to make the most efficient choices in delivery tools whilst maintaining (and often improving) the quality of the learning that supports performance throughout.

The model below, illustrates how our learning framework leverages all contexts in which people learn from formal training (live virtual classroom, self-paced online content, classroom, elearning tutorial), formal learning facilitation (live virtual classroom and self-paced tasks) performance facilitation (coaching and mentoring), supporting continued learning and performance and on-demand resources. On top of this sits ‘support in the workplace’ whether this is from the learning and development team, line managers or peers).

Blended Learning Infographic showing the blended learning framework as the base foundation bar and support in the workplace as the top bar. In between there is shown a range of 6 learning method examples. Group 1 is designing live online and self-paced learning and the facilitation of both. Group 2 is classroom design and facilitation. Group 3 is elearning tutorial design. Group 4 is coaching and mentoring. Group 5 is on-demand media content and group 6 is learning on the job in the workplace.

I firmly believe that ‘blended learning’ is the foundation of any learning solution and why it should be the first step for everyone for determinig the best learning and performance strategy for their organisations.

A blended learning solution is a whole workplace learning approach. 

But if not ‘Blended Learning’, what should we call it?

Blended Learning, Learning design

Knowing me, knowing you … A-ha! The key success

What makes an effective learning solution?

I’ve asked the same question many times over the years with the following responses:

  1. Relevant
  2. Realistic
  3. Interactive
  4. Goal based
  5. Flexible
  6. Challenging
  7. Structured but not controlling

Although all of these elements are important they pale into insignificance without one vital consideration because without it, learning doesn’t hit all the marks.

When discussing a hypothetical situation recently, it was suggested that if we were to produce a specific training programme within the given timescales, within the given budget, using the given resources, to the large number of learners, the only way to get this done in time was to forego the analysis of the audience’s needs, experience and characteristics! The reason given was that there would just not be the time.

Looking back at the first word in the list above (and this is more often than not the top-most mentioned word), then how can you produce a learning solution that is relevant if you are not fully aware of the current situation. Without knowing your audience, how can you design the most appropriate solution for them. What you’d actually end up with is the usual blunderbuss approach i.e. blast it out and hope you hit the target!

Unfortunately, and sadly, this seems to be a common decision and subsequently, is the reason why a lot of training solutions, ‘e’, classroom or blended, can suffer.

Today I attended an eLearning Network event where the theme was ‘truly effective eLearning’. The key ingredient for its success running throughout the discussions was the need to be more learner-centred. Without knowing your audience, how could eLearning (or indeed any learning) be learner-centred?

Then tonight, by chance, I also read something Clive Shepherd posted on an Onlignment blog post ‘making transforsmation happen: analysis and design‘ which reinforces how imperative the analysis is.

So as the song goes… “Knowing me, knowing you is the best I can do”!

Blended Learning

Pre-work! – Is it work or isn’t it?

Pre-work! Argh! There’s no such thing. 

Pre-work! – what exactly do we mean by this? Work is either work or it’s not.  And if it’s not ‘work’ what is it?  Is it reading?  If so, reading is something you do therefore it’s work!  Is it watching (a video)?  If so, it’s still doing – ergo – work.  There’s nothing ‘pre’ about it.  Are you getting the drift?

Of course, to make any sort of sense, it’s got to stand for ‘pre-course work’ but even that’s equally confusing.  Let’s explore.

The reason for this little rant is that my pet-hate of a phrase (as if you haven’t yet guessed) has been rearing its ugly head quite a lot lately.  I’ve read a few blog posts, articles and had conversations with people where these terms are being handed out without any thought about their implications.  

It’s always baffled me when people use this term.  I mean… really!  Even when traditional classroom training was the default delivery, we were very often given ‘pre-course work’ to do.  The term indicates that it some sort of activity (usually reading) that needs to be done before attending the course.  Students are usually provided with details of this as part of their joining instructions or booking confirmation.  And what do they do?  Well, the don’t do they?  This ‘pre-course work’ is often (to be fair not always) forgotten.  

Usually, it’s down to their perception that this pre-course work is optional.  After all, if it was necessary, it would be actually part of the course… wouldn’t it? It’s often provided with no clear guidelines about what they should do with it or how it’s going to be used when they arrive at the classroom.  There’s no real deadline apart from the date of the classroom course and more often than not there’s no tutor support or facilitation.

This all tells the student that if the tutors/facilitators can’t be bothered to put that effort in then why should they?  OK, I might be being a little unfair but it gets my point across.

Now us learning designers know that isn’t the case.  We’ve toiled for hours carefully creating this material and determining its importance in the course design.  I too have thrown my hands up in the air, looked skywards and silently screamed when set work hasn’t been carried out.  So why, if we have determined that this work is a necessary part of the course do we insist on calling it ‘pre-course’?  We’re not helping ourselves here.

In today’s multi-media rich world has opened the opportunities of the course to be more than classroom.  There is a wider adoption of blended solutions where different elements of the course are delivered via a range of different media channels.  Some don’t have a classroom element at all.  Strangely enough, those blended solutions where all elements are delivered remotely using a variety of media options are less likely to have ‘pre-course’ work included as it is easier to see it as part of that (likely) online delivery.

But where we do see these blended solutions having a significant classroom delivery element, any set activities outside of the classroom element are still being referred to as ‘pre-course’ or ‘post-course’.  Is it any wonder then, that we still hear concerns from learning solution designers that their learners are unlikely to carry that work out?  Using the phrase ‘pre-course’ perpetuates the misconception that the classroom is still the only place where the real learning happens.  Anything else is less important.  And, sadly, there are designers, trainers and facilitators who still think that themselves.

Over the past 5 years I tried to do my bit to persuade people to think differently about using the term ‘pre-course’ work and to consider using terms such as ‘part 1, part 2 or stage 1, stage 2.  It will also help when we no long consider the bulk of the learning/training to take place in the classroom and concentrate on the course being the content not the classroom.

So, come on folks, no more ‘pre-course work’ – please!