It's raining, and there are no taxis in sight, so I launch my Uber app. Mike, a driver I’ve ridden with before, is 3 minutes out. Relieved, I look through my music on iTunes. I haven’t listened to the latest U2 album. Mike pulls up, and as I settle into the back seat, I connect to Spotify and stream “Songs of Innocence.” Fifteen minutes later, I say goodnight as a receipt reaches my inbox.
My recent taxi experience is common. Today, digital technology facilitates nearly all of our activities. From shopping for groceries to collaborating on projects, digitalization is bringing online and offline together.In short, we live “blended lives.”
Learning experts have been aware of this phenomenon for some time. The concept of blended learning has been around since technology-based training emerged in the 1960s. As a result, CLOs are often immune to the panic industry leaders face as they scramble to reinvent their businesses for the digital world. Learning leaders are well prepared to takeadvantage of the opportunities digitalization offers. Right?
Maybe not. I conducted in-depth interviews with 43 senior learning leaders in North America and Europe during the first quarter of 2014, inquiring how they use blended learning in executive leadership development. My research suggests many organizations are either not inclined or are ill-prepared to support extensive use of blended learning. Furthermore, learning leaders in these companies doubt whether blended learning is a suitable model for executive-level courses.
Three findings emerged. First, blended learning adoption is slower than expected, hindered by preconceptions about online learning. One interviewee said, “E-learning still carries quite a bad smell.” The comment suggests memories of inferior first-generation e-learning offerings linger. Even for those who recognize its improvements, online learning remains primarily a way to achieve greater scale at less cost, rather than a means to improve pedagogy and impact.
Second, learning leaders face challenging hurdles using technology in executive programs. Some cultures don’t support online learning. They either hesitate to try something with an uncertain payoff or are reluctant to work virtually at all. Others don’t have the technological infrastructure. When neither culture nor technologies are barriers, CLOs lament shortcomings in their teams; either a lack of the instructional design skills required to conceptualize a blended program or a deep-rooted preference for face-to-face learning.
Finally, perhaps stronger than other constraints, is the sense that blended learning is simply not suitable for executives. Unpredictable job demands make it difficult for executives to focus on learning when their day is not formally dedicated to a program, and limited familiarity with technology can make them less inclined to try. Executives also treasure the opportunity to establish relationships, build trust and share perspectives with peers, which residential programs allow. They argue, “building social capital” can only be achieved through face-to-face experiences.
The good news is learning leaders are not mindlessly jumping on the digital bandwagon. Organizational resources, program objectives and participants’ needs help to guide their design choices.
On the other hand, learning leaders tend to see technology in a utilitarian way, as a tool for program use, provided the circumstances are right. Today, however, technology is much more than a tool. It’s a fabric that permeates diverse facets of our lives, seamlessly bringing together different contexts and fostering new social practices. This “blend” is dramatically reshaping other industries such as retail, which is reinventing itself for the “omni-channel,” making products accessible via mobile device, brick and mortar store, television, etc.
Can we rethink blended learning as “omni-learning,” moving beyond the functional practice of combining learning modes to an integrative mindset linking the contexts where learning takes place, be it in a classroom, the workplace or on a customer’s premise?
Conceived as this commitment, blended learning becomes exciting for all CLOs because it holds the promise of enriching existing learning experiences as well as creating entirely new ones.