We live and work in a world where personalization is the standard and becoming increasingly present in the mainstream communication tools we use daily such as iPods, MySpace, search engines and blogs. Consequently, learning professionals need to adjust their thinking about training in the workplace. To design and deliver a personalized training experience effectively, learning professionals must develop a heightened awareness of the relationship between learner and the different types of learning activities they develop.
We know people learn in different ways, so workplace training should be made available in a variety of formats. Blended solutions were created just for this purpose – to address the many personalized training needs and learning environments of employees in order to solve a business challenge. The key to a successful blended learning solution is to find the right mix of delivery methods for the best results, knowledge retention and skill mastery.
The Buzz Around Blended Solutions
A carpenter doesn’t live by his hammer alone. Based on that adage, you’d be hard-pressed to find a learning professional worth his or her salt who would advocate the exclusive use of one form of training delivery in every situation. We need to use the right tool for the job at the right time. And that’s what the different methods of training delivery are – a set of tools that should be found in a learning professional’s tool belt.
Blended solutions can help learners retain information, but it can also reduce training time and costs. We’ve all heard the argument that traditional instructor-led training can be costly and time- and labor-intensive, so pairing it with e-learning and other business collaboration tools can be cost-effective, reduce learning time and improve knowledge retention. According to Bersin & Associates’ industry analysis in “Blended Learning Program Management: WhatWorks,” blended learning is the combination of different training media (technologies, activities and types of events) to create an optimal training program for a specific audience. The term “blended” comes from the concept that traditional instructor-led training (ILT) is supplemented with other electronic formats.
Blended solutions are not a new concept, but many professionals in the learning industry now possess the experience in e-learning and expertise to identify the right technologies to develop blended learning programs capable of delivering the kind of bottom-line impact and speed-to-competency that catches the eye of senior management.
The Right Mix
To be clear, blended learning isn’t just combining online training (OLT) and ILT methods together. Although it might be easier to force a series of OLT and ILT activities together and call it a blended solution (especially if they already exist), the most effective way to ensure knowledge retention is to identify the right mix of components that truly address learner needs and best support the material being taught. An effective blended solution brings together a range of training methods, media types, collaboration tools and mentoring situations to enhance and maximize learning opportunities. The goal isn’t only to have employees complete the training, but to actually come away with the knowledge and apply it back on the job.
It is also important to engage subject-matter experts (SME) in building and providing online coaching and mentoring activities as part of the blended learning initiative. SMEs also will increase their knowledge and proficiency by sharing and engaging in collaborative blended learning.
Assessing how your learners learn is probably one of the most difficult elements of workplace learning to measure. But when developing a blended solution, how your audience learns is the first crucial question to answer. Because pure e-learning can lack human interaction, and instructor-led training is often costly and takes away from productive working days, how do you determine which is more appropriate for your audience or what combination is best for knowledge retention? Learning professionals need to match the most appropriate learning media for the subject matter and the audience.
Consider the demographics of your audience. Does it consist of young people who have grown up with computers? Or is it primarily made up of baby boomers whose learning experiences have principally been shaped by day-long instructor-led training sessions? Or are you faced with a hybrid group able to adapt to a variety of learning mediums? Whatever your audience make-up, be sure to take into consideration how it is they learn. Some might be visual learners while others retain knowledge more successfully through self-study. The key is to keep these considerations in mind when creating a blended program for optimum knowledge retention. Focusing on the strengths of your learners will not only keep them interested in the material being covered, but also will increase information intake and comprehension.
Content is Vital
Regardless if it is custom created, off-the-shelf, workbooks or instructor-led, the content has to be strong and engaging. If not, learners get bored quickly and won’t retain the information being taught. The quality of the content can make all the difference in whether your learners are truly learning or just going through the motions of training. Involving SMEs and instructional designers will add value and intrigue to your content. The whole point of implementing a blended solution is to increase retention and speed up the learning process. You must first identify the most appropriate learning media for the subject matter. For example, you wouldn’t roll out a complex new technology product and expect your sales team to learn all about it via a conference call. A more appropriate method would be to present the content via a live training demonstration or webinar and provide the appropriate level of follow-up and support materials. This way it’s interactive, and the media types better match the content.
Oftentimes it is difficult to be certain that knowledge has been retained. To achieve this, one must look at all the components of the blended solution and actually test the learners on their training experience while they are on the job. Whether you use post-event tests or surveys with learners and their managers, assessing the learning environment will be one way to truly know if knowledge has been attained and retained. This also will show you what is working for you and your learners and what needs to be reworked or tweaked.
Blended Learning Research
Not convinced by buzz? You shouldn’t be. But several organizations have conducted analysis studies on how well blended solutions deliver knowledge retention. The following are a few samples of studies that put blended solutions to the test:
- According to the ASTD article “Strategies for Building Blended Learning,” in a study Peter Dean and his colleagues found that providing several different linked options for learners, in addition to classroom training, increased what they learned over a period of time.
- In the same article, Harvard Business School faculty reported that students not only learned more when online sessions were added to traditional courses, but student interaction and satisfaction improved as well.
- Bersin & Associates “WhatWorks” research clearly shows how blended learning can be used to effectively “drive” learners down the experience curve.
Thomson NETg completed a study with participants who represented a broad scope of corporate and academic organizations to see how a blended solution affected on-the-job performance. The primary goal of the study was to determine if there were significant accuracy and time-performance differences on real-world tasks where one group received blended learning, one received e-learning alone and one received no training at all. The blended learning model used a structured combination of instructional media to appropriately present, practice and evaluate instruction. The results for the study conclude that those in the blended learning group retained knowledge and performed better on the task than the e-learning group and control group. The group that received blended learning performed with 30 percent more accuracy than the e-learning-alone group. The group that received blended learning performed real-world tasks 41 percent faster than those who received e-learning alone. The group that received blended learning performed tasks with 159 percent more accuracy than the control group. And the e-learning group performed tasks with 99 percent more accuracy than the control group.
These findings all come to the same conclusion: blended solutions heighten overall workplace performance and accuracy. They suggest that a single method of delivery alone isn’t as effective as a blended learning approach.
Blended Learning Myths
Despite the growing research and increasing popularity of blended learning strategies, several myths continue to persist. Here are rebuttals to seven of the most common:
1. Blended learning is too expensive for my training budget.
Blended learning can deliver a positive impact to your budget immediately. Replacing costly instructor-led training with less expensive modes of education allows learning leaders to leverage the time that trainers spend in the classroom with the reduced costs, enhanced effectiveness and ability to show quantitative outcomes. Organizations also benefit from lowering student expenses related to attending instructor-led training and the time spent away from daily job responsibilities.
2. Blended learning is complicated to execute and hard to manage.
Traditional classroom training makes learning an “event” rather than part of the ongoing business process. Because blended learning turns training from an event into a process, it requires a different level of planning. The two most important components of blended learning programs are program management and the reporting. Leveraging technology to automate these elements makes managing them much easier. Even the most basic learning management system (LMS) will enable an organization to automate many aspects of a blended learning program, as well as report on a sub-section of the program or the program as a whole.
3. Blended learning is just OLT plus ILT, and we are already doing that.
Just because you are using combinations of OLT, ILT and other training types does not necessarily mean you are executing a true blended learning program. Blended learning programs increasingly involve collaboration and mentoring to meet a particular audience need. By creating small groups of learners and giving them access to topic-specific discussion rooms, organizations can create an online version of a break-out session. To maximize the collaborative experience, world-class learning programs assign mentors and SMEs to moderate and coach the participants. This also can be a significant strategy for sharing best practices and reinforcing organization-wide policies.
4. Blended learning isn’t right for my audience.
Blended learning is more than a “one size fits all” training experience. In this era of mainstream personalization, employees respond best to a curriculum that appears to be created just for them. Everyone doesn’t need the same boot camp learning experience, and when students have different learning styles, blended learning – including collaboration exercises – can be the competitive edge when skill mastery matters the most.
5. Creating a blended learning program takes too much time.
Increased personalization of the learning process turns training from an event into a process with defined business result. Time spent in planning on the front end alleviates time on the back-end in retraining.
6. It is too hard to capture blended learning data.
Traditionally, it has been difficult to capture meaningful ILT data. When automated and managed using technology and online tools, a tremendous quantity of data can be captured, reported and analyzed.
7. The ROI of blended learning is hard to prove.
Again, automation via technology and online tools can capture, report and analyze data that can be correlated with other relevant business metrics (e.g. from an ERP or CRM system) and show exactly what learning activities have the greatest impact on improving employee effectiveness.
Leveraging Blended Learning and Technology to Meet Diverse Training Needs
In the dawn of handheld devices, podcasts and blogging, everything is going electronic and training is no exception. The requirement to meet a diverse, growing set of training needs is being met by the ability to personalize the learning experience and leverage new technology. Today we are able to create, deliver and measure a complex blend of traditional, electronic and emerging delivery methods that make learning easier and more efficient. But the job of the learning professional isn’t getting any easier. The ability to manage complex learning programs is certainly more demanding, albeit exciting. And as corporate learning and technology continue to evolve, we’ll discover new delivery methods will only add to the level of personalization and mix of blended learning options.
Ann Torry is marketing communications manager at GeoLearning Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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