Browse Category by Blended Learning

Seize the day

Don’t take one step forward and two steps back

Carpe Diem

Rewind to 2002: I was still on dial-up on an old 486 PC, ‘talking’ with my boyfriend (now husband) on MS Messenger. Just imagine if this pandemic happened then … on dial-up! It doesn’t bear thinking about. There was little choice available as an alternative to classroom apart from traditional distance learning with real books, video cassettes and coursework sent through the post. We are living in a digitally enabled world where digital technology gives us greater opportunities than we could have dreamed of less than 20 years ago.

I’ve learned from experts thousands of miles away without leaving my couch and check the ‘magic box’ (my iPhone), whenever I need a definition, translate into English or to convert metres to feet to make sure I’m far enough away from people (yep, I still haven’t got the hang of metric).

We’ve only really had access to decent quality broadband in recent years albeit patchy in rural areas. With more consistent quality broadband during lockdown we have been able to stream films and binge-watch boxed sets; keep in touch with friends and family on Zoom, WhatsApp, FaceTime; kept active with Joe Wicks via his YouTube channel (well, erm, not everyone regardless of good intentions). 

Thrust into remote working we communicated and learned through WebEx, Teams, Slack groups, and online course platforms like Udemy and LinkedInLearning. Organisations speedily fast-forwarded their digital transformation programmes and upgraded their IT infrastructure, adapted business models quickly for remote digital working.

In the 5 years up to end of March 2020, we saw a significant increase in internet use from 86.2% to 92.1%  (Office for National Statistics) with a considerable drop in those who rarely/never used the internet – from 13.5% to 7.9%

As yet, there are no statistics for 2020/2021 but there’ll be no prizes for guessing there will be a much bigger increase.

The next phase of different

There is no denying that 2020 drastically changed the learning and development landscape. We proved we are resilient, inventive, proactive and determined to continue to thrive against adversity in more ways than one. Now, with COVID vaccines, home testing kits, and socially distanced adapted inside spaces, we are readying ourselves for the next phase of different. 

At last we have a tantalising peek at being able to meet in-person in larger, more socially distanced groups – and indoors!. But beware, this isn’t an excuse to go back to doing what we’ve always done, to throw away all that we’ve learned and return blindly to the classroom without careful consideration.

After just over a year since the first COVID lockdown, there already appears to be some cautious moves back to the more socially distanced classroom. Is this move the right move? Maybe, maybe not. Before returning to the classroom, we should ask ourselves if we are doing this for the right reasons? Should we be doing it as much?Should we be doing it at all?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-classroom. On the contrary, I cut my training teeth in the classroom and spent the best part of my L&D career helping fellow L&D professionals hone their classroom facilitation skills as well as helping them transition to live online and blended. 

Great classroom experiences are where learners are actively involved are both enjoyable and rewarding. We love the energy, the sense of community, the ad-hoc conversations, the meeting of minds, the speed of exploring new ideas, sharing experiences and, yes, just being in the presence of others. 

When we do return to the classroom we need to make sure it is for all the right reasons especially as many activities can be successfully run online. Not only that, but digital tools give us added advantages over classroom that increase learning efficacy and which we’ll explore more in later posts.

Make smart choices not Frankenblends 

Don’t make rash decisions about delivery channels and tools too soon. All too often we consciously or unconsciously plan for a classroom or virtual classroom or elearning self-study course at the outset. Sometimes, the decision has been made for us. Have you every been told that it MUST be in the classroom, and under no circumstances must anything go online? or vice versa? I certainly have in the past! We then have to make the learning activities fit that environment rather than concentrate on what is most appropriate for the learning need and the learners.

If we are not careful, blended solutions can become nothing more than Frankenstein’s monster blends (Frankenblends): digital content bolted on for learners to read, or an elearning module to complete with little or no support before they attend several days in a classroom. At best, there may be tenuous linking between each element, at worst, these feel disparate and disconnected. For seamless blended solutions that are not only more efficient but improves effectiveness we should make sure we really understand the situation we are catering for and it’s all too easy to fall back into a classroom by default habit.

Play the Devil’s advocate

No matter how we might feel about it, the future is one of ‘digital by default’. This doesn’t mean we choose digital instead of classroom, it means we should consider digital technologies for learning before we consider classroom and base our choices on what is appropriate – not on our personal likes and dislikes.  

Over many years I worked with people in many different organisations to help them plan effective and efficient blended solutions. I always suggested that they imagine classroom is no longer an option on the table (no I didn’t have any premonitions of the pandemic). This helped them rid the shackles of habit and think differently. 

Every time they suggested that classroom (which is the most expensive of resources) was the only way, I played the Devil’s Advocate, wanting a robust rationale behind their decisions. Very often, I was able to explain how a digital alternative would be as effective (if we don’t know what’s possible or have the skills, we will choose only what we know). When they eventually set out a their final arguments for classroom, when all avenues had been explored and rationally dismissed, I knew they had chosen classroom for the right reasons and making the best use of them.

Carpe Diem 

So let us seize the day. Don’t go back to the classroom just because we can. Let’s seize the opportunity continue to take our learning solutions to the next level, to make smart choices to choose what needs to happen before you decide how you will deliver it. To remind ourselves what good learning involves:

Contextual

Accessible

Retrieval and spaced practice 

Personalise and presence 

Effortful

Digestible chunks

Interactive

Effective feedback

Memorable

How will you seize the day? What differences will you make to your future learning solutions to help you move forward? What challenges might lie ahead that threaten making smarter choices? 

If you would like an informal chat to talk through any ideas you have or would like to pick my brains, please drop me a message. 

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 classroom 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 performance required: 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 are the people: what are their needs, gaps, experience, motivation?
  • What are the practicalities: what do we have available, 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 the need, we will use the data gathered to help us outline the most appropriate learning approach, structure, and effective combination of 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. 

The model below, illustrates how a (blended) 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.

Remember, each situation is unique so each blend will be unique that may use a mix of some or all methods below. A blended learning approach is a whole workplace learning approach. 

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

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”!

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!

The New Learning Architect – A review

On 7th January, Clive Shepherd announced the advent of his new book The New Learning Architect. I waited impatiently for it’s arrival later that month and promised a review. I wasn’t disappointed – not that I thought I would be – and dipped in and out of it when time allowed. This didn’t do it justice and before writing the review, needed to give myself dedicated time to read it all through in a shorter time. Even now, I know I’ll enjoy reading it all over again and still take more away.

Clive Shepherd, author of The Blended Learning Cookbook, is a consultant in learning technologies and their application in the workplace.

I reviewed his Blended Learning Cookbook 2nd edition where I predicted that his new work would likely take blended learning to a new dimension. Boy did it ever!

Clive starts explaining why a ‘learning architect’. “An architect is someone who creates the plans from which others build” and likens a learning architect to that of a building architect. Building Architects designs “environments for living” whereas the learning architect designs “environments for learning”. Although they wouldn’t necessarily become involved in building the environment they would have to have detailed knowledge of current research to design suitable and safe environments. Not only will they have to meet the brief but consider the needs of the inhabitants.

Clive affirms what it really means to be a learning architect. We hear of the responsibility they have to advise and consult with the client on what would be most appropriate, drawing on their expertise in adult learning theories, brain science and learning technologies. Learning architects, he says, are not order takers – order takers are builders not architects.

The New Learning Architect reflects on how there has been a battle between delivery options in the past where you either had to choose between one or the other e.g. classroom v eLearning; formal v informal and people were firmly footed in one or other of those camps. What this book clarifies is that there is no need to choose sides. Each would work with not against the other where appropriate and towards one goal. It is the learning architect’s role to establish, based on the situation, how these options would work together.

Clive investigates when formal learning interventions are more or less appropriate and under what circumstances the learners can take more responsibility for their own continued professional development. We also see how we can provide opportunities for them to become more self-directed and independent. He goes on to explore the various contexts in which learning will occur:

  1. experiential
  2. on demand
  3. non-formal
  4. formal

The book also explores why it’s important to look at these contexts from two perspectives – top down (directed from the organisation) and bottom up (directed from the individuals) and why there is a place for both perspectives in learning at work. This book will guide you to establish what types of learning contexts will be suitable for your particular requirements, what types of top down or bottom up approaches to consider.

Whole chapters are dedicated to each of the four learning contexts in which Clive provides examples of various learning activities and media tools, when they are best used and when to avoid them. He also explores them from each perspective.

Clive discusses how important it is for people to be motivated to learn and that when breaking down the barriers to access resources, people will learn when the need arises. We also hear that it’s down to the good design of the instructional methods rather than the delivery medium that will ensure success.

In a recent article in the eLearning Age about the 702010 framework, John Helmer calls for a template or a model to help L&D professional implement informal learning and until there is one, informal learning will be more style than substance. Well, The New Learning Architect does just that. Here L&D professionals can take Clive’s four contexts for learning together with his explanation of top down and bottom up approaches as that model.

So who is this book for? Well, I would recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in improving results and investing in the development of a workforce whether a large multi-national or small business.

I recommend this book to all those senior managers and CEOs who call for courses (eLearning or otherwise) as panaceas. This book will help you establish whether there really is a formal training need and help you seek advice from your learning and development professionals so that the most effective and efficient solution to a business need is put in place.

If you are a more experienced learning and development professional; if you have benefited from the Blended Learning Cookbook and already implemented some successful blended courses, this book will guide you beyond training and help you take learning into the workplace. It will help you explore and employ informal and social learning methods. It might also encourage you become more architect than builder by advising rather than taking orders from those who don’t know any better.

And if you are new to learning and development then this book will be a welcome guide taking you through the different learning contexts and providing your with lots of examples and case studies.

The New Learning Architect is available on Kindle and from Lulu. Oh and Onlignment will be reviewing individual chapters inviting open discussion too. It’s probably the cost of a couple of drinks or a cinema ticket but could be worth £1000s in improved results.

Content v Technology

Since the Learning Technologies Conference and Exhibition, there have been some great blog posts pondering on the results and looking to the future. I was also interested in the short Voxpops interviews (Voxpop1, Voxpop2) with a selected few from the event. The question posed to interviewees was “What changes would YOU like to see in L&D for 2011?” I was going to do a short review of what people said in their interviews but instead thought I’d just capture the main points in the Wordle you can see above.

It’s interesting that the advice for L&D is to focus on the learning, the learners, the business goals, performance based.  Surely that shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone and it’s a shame that we needed reminding.  There was a lot of references to the learning being effective.  Quality certainly should be at the heart of developing our staff.  In order to produce quality learning we need to make sure the learning is relevant, learner-centred, bite-sized with plenty of practical application and which can be assessed in a more realistic method that handing out quiz questions no matter how you dress them up.  It’s our responsibility to help people learn to do their jobs well which has a direct effect on the bottom line.  We shouldn’t be teaching them how to pass tests – where’s the learning in that?  Give them work-based projects instead.  Help them feel they are contributing.

At the same time as calling for more effective learning, there was also a call for it to be more efficient and to make use of more online learning.  The danger of taking our effective courses online is we may leave out what makes it effective in the first place.  That’s all the learner-centred stuff.  The conversations, the group work, the feedback, the questioning, the collaboration.  Where will that all go?  So they become efficient but now their ineffective.  Efficient without efficacy actually leads to more inefficiency.  Without good quality learning, people won’t learn well (or at all in some cases).  So what happens?  They make more mistakes in their work and/or have to retrain.  If they retrain using the same ineffective materials as before, what’s going to happen?  Yep – a never ending circle.

What’s encouraging is the recognition that training – the formal stuff – is only  a small part of the development of individuals in the workforce but it’s what happens after they’ve had the formal training that really embeds the learning.  We’ve heard a lot about formal training accounting for only 20% of our knowledge on the job. The rest being attributed to informal learning.  However, there’s a little more to it than that as Clive Shepherd points out in his ‘The New Learning Architect’ but performance support will be the cement that makes the learning stick after the formal events have long past.

What I also found interesting from the Voxpops (considering we were at a the Learning technologies) conference was the low key references to using technology for learning.  Oh yes, there was a whole floor at least dedicated to technology but when speaking to the L&D people not the vendors, there was little emphasis on using new media or more technology in their solutions.  James Clay’s post ‘Focus on the technology or not’ puts it brilliantly.  He says:

… it is vital that practitioners are aware of the potential and availability of technology. When they know what is available and importantly what it is capable of then they can apply technological solutions to their learning problems.

L&D should more than capable of designing an effective solution that meets adult learners’ needs but a more efficient delivery means the more likely it has to include new technologies thus creating a huge skills gap. It’s no longer about content versus technology but about content AND technology. In this media filled world where people are always connected and will find it very difficult to avoid using technology to communicate, work, rest and play we can no longer separate the two. We need to think of the technology as the enabler. L&D really need to become more tech savvy and keep up to date with research. They need to try things out and exercise their creation and innovation muscle. Think about using technology not normally considered a learning tool for a learning activity (see Milo). I know we shouldn’t try and shoe-horn a particular piece of technology into a learning solution just for the sake of it but if people are already using the technology in their working or personal time, isn’t it about time we can help them continue to use them for learning.

To quote again to James’s post:

you have to start from somewhere and by explaining the potential that learning technologies offer, you are starting from a good place that will open minds to future potential and possibilities

Overall, the message I got from listening to the VoxPops was that following a logical blended approach to designing learning solutions in organisations is definitely the way L&D can become more than just the ‘training department’.  L&D can become the cement that holds the organisation together by becoming more cultivators of learning.  Helping learners learn for themselves and providing more performance support.  By increasing their knowledge, understanding and skills in using new media tools for more efficient delivery of learning, L&D will ensure their longevity in the organisation by becoming an integral part of the bricks and mortar.  Organisations will pay a high price if they don’t invest more in their L&D professionals.

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