Blended learning used to refer to the different teaching styles used inside the classroom. To reach students’ different learning styles, a teacher commonly would employ a mix of instructional techniques such as lectures, action learning, demonstrations or games.
Today, with the introduction of synchronous and asynchronous learning, the term now refers to the range of delivery options available to learning professionals, including classroom-based, instructor-led training (ILT), synchronous or asynchronous e-learning, portable technologies and on-the-job training (OJT).
With so many alternatives available, how are chief learning officers determining the best mix, and what factors are driving the selection of one mode over another?
Every other month, IDC surveys Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board (BIB) on a variety of learning-related subjects to measure the thoughts, feelings and concerns of today’s learning professionals. In May, this article examined the state of measurement. This month, 574 respondents shared their thoughts on the appropriate mix of delivery methods.
Today’s Blend: Instructors Setting the Course
A majority of the BIB uses a blend of delivery methodologies. As Figure 1 shows, compared to last year’s survey results, the blend continues to be determined primarily by the instructor or learning department. In fact, the percentage of respondents stating this was the case increased slightly over last year.
By comparison, an even smaller percentage of respondents, compared with 2006’s survey, indicated the blend was determined mostly by the student’s choice of delivery method. This continues to suggest most organizations have been successful at using a blend of learning modalities, but that students should not expect to be able to choose from a wide variety of delivery methodologies.
Providing learners with complete control over their delivery choice essentially would require companies to provide the entire library of learning content in multiple formats. Given the limited operating budgets most learning departments face today, this scenario is not likely any time soon. Still, any movement an organization can make toward providing learners with increased choice should help promote the adoption and use of learning.
The Current Mix: Classroom and E-Learning Remain Most Prevalent Modalities
Survey respondents indicate they are using a wide range of options as part of their delivery mix. As Figure 2 shows, classroom learning still represents the primary delivery choice for most companies (which is consistent with last year’s findings), although the combination of synchronous and asynchronous e-learning is quickly gaining ground and represents the next-most-popular modality.
Many organizations also are using formal (OJT) as a key component of their overall education programs. When considering an e-learning strategy, results show organizations continue to use an asynchronous solution nearly twice as often as a synchronous one.
E-learning and Portable Technologies Leading Evolution of Mix
In almost a mirror image of last year’s BIB results, IDC’s learning growth index in Figure 3 shows the greatest change in the delivery mix over the next 12 to 18 months will continue to come via the increased adoption of e-learning and the increased use of portable technologies. This is also consistent with past IDC research, which shows learning groups are expecting to increase their investments in learning technologies over the next two years.
Much of this investment is being made to address the learning demands of an increasingly mobile U.S. workforce. The rising popularity of portable technologies such as podcasts and video on demand, while still emerging technologies, is allowing learners to access their learning from remote locations via cell phones and PDAs, as well as carry it with them on portable digital audio and video players. By comparison, less growth is expected from classroom-based, ILT and text-based training.
Drivers: Content and Interaction Big Influencers
When determining the most appropriate mix of learning needed to meet a company’s objectives, learning professionals must weigh the benefits of each method against the associated costs and resource requirements. Figure 4 shows the top three drivers the BIB selected for each of the most common types of delivery.
Although some of these results are predictable, they demonstrate an important link between content type and delivery method, and they show that student-instructor interaction receives strong consideration in determining which delivery methods get employed within an organization, particularly as it relates to the more traditional forms of learning.
For example, the value of student-to-instructor interaction remains a primary driver for both classroom-based ILT and synchronous e-learning. Even student-to-student interaction is a significant driver of classroom-based ILT. As one would expect, the value of flexibility and cost savings are both key drivers of asynchronous e-learning.
Classroom-Based ILT: Domain of Business-Skills Learning
A comparison of primary delivery methods by content area reveals a majority of BIB members use classroom-based ILT for business-skills learning than for IT skills learning. Sixty-four percent of BIB members selected it as their primary delivery method for business content, compared with 36 percent for IT content. This is not surprising, given the interactive nature of most business-skills courses, which require face-to-face time with instructors and peers to be meaningful. Conversely, one-third of BIB members selected at least one form of e-learning as the primary delivery method for IT skills learning, compared with only 9 percent who selected it as their primary mode for business-skills learning.
Still, as Figure 5 shows, trainers of both content areas are expecting to make changes to their delivery over the next 12 to 18 months. For business-skills learning, a significant percentage of BIB members said they would be increasing their use of synchronous and asynchronous e-learning as a means of supplementing or even replacing some parts of classroom-based instruction. Many are adopting this delivery method as a way to extend the learning experience for learners beyond the classroom environment.
The delivery mix for IT learning will follow much the same trend as that for business-skills learning, although fewer respondents expect to make any changes over the next 12 to 18 months. As Figure 5 shows, only 11 percent of respondents will be incorporating more classroom into their mix of IT delivery in the next year, and a considerably smaller group will be incorporating an instructor-prescribed blend into the mix. A significant number of IT trainers, however, will be looking to increase their use of e-learning over the next year and a half.
Learners’ Skill Level and Seniority: No Influence on Delivery Mix
As with last year’s survey results, a rating of each delivery method’s value showed the majority of BIB members consider all methods equally valuable to highly skilled and minimally skilled workers. In other words, asynchronous e-learning works just as well for training a highly skilled employee as it does someone who is minimally skilled.
A similar finding was made for senior and junior employees, which suggests most learning professionals do not consider their audience’s skill level or tenure as a key factor when selecting a delivery method. Just as interesting is the lack of variation between scores for skill level and seniority for each method, suggesting the learning community might be assuming a strong correlation exists between employees’ tenure and their skill level.
Paying Attention to the Big Picture
Keeping tabs on the evolution of the delivery mix is helpful for CLOs in understanding the effects the emerging trends and technologies are having on the learning industry, but development professionals should be cautious about the degree to which they allow these findings to shape their own learning decisions. The more important question remains, “What is most important for my learners?” and not “What is everyone else doing?” In determining the ideal delivery mix, CLOs should aim to develop one that is appropriate to their business context and the specific roles of their learners.
Susan Lee is a research analyst for IDC’s Learning Services Research Group, where she is responsible for research, writing and program development of the learning services market, and she helps clients understand market opportunities, buyer needs and learning trends. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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