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An Introduction to Blended Learning


Last updated 8/5/2010

What is blended learning?
In 1958 the milk monitors at Public School 164 in New York City experienced a blend of approaches to help them learn to distribute the milk to other youngsters. Loading and carrying was demonstrated. They were coached by their supervisor on handling leaks and mashed cartons, and moving from one classroom to the other in safe and orderly fashion. They were paired with a more experienced monitor to try milk delivery the first few times.

Ingrid, a German engineer, wanted to become a fluent English speaker. She conversed in English in online chat rooms. She vacationed in English speaking places and hung out in cafes. She studied English language tapes. And she sought a British boyfriend who spoke not a word of German.

It’s not different for financial services representatives today. Many go to class. They rely on a manager for coaching. And they have materials to which they refer when they need to know more about a product or situation. These materials are available any time, anywhere, online from a comprehensive support system.

The point, of course, is that milk monitors, language students, financial services professionals, and everybody else, no matter their century or age, are well served by something not novel or radical or trendy or even necessarily techie. They profit from a well-crafted blend.

Here is a brief definition of blended learning:

Blended learning (BL) integrates seemingly opposite approaches, such as formal and informal learning, face-to-face and online experiences, directed paths and reliance on self-direction, and digital references and collegial connections, in order to achieve individual and organizational goals.
  • BL is devoted to learning and performance. From the organization’s perspective, blended learning is about improving performance and achieving business objectives. From the employees’ perspective, blending is about getting work done, when and where a need emerges, more typically at a time and place of the employee’s choosing.
  • BL takes many forms. Blending might involve structured or casual interactions with instructors, peers, coaches, mentors, and supervisors. It happens in classrooms, on ships, at home, and in the field, even the battlefield. It might involve time spent independently with reading material, online modules, databases, reference manuals, templates, checklists, worked examples, or hours engaged on a group assignment or in conversation with peers. Technology is central to some blends, less a part of others.
  • BL addresses that nagging concern about transfer of training. BL is the next step in a continuing commitment to systems, results, and performance. If you are concerned about lessons that stop at the classroom door and events limited to time and place, BL has much for you.
  • BL relies on compelling assets and experiences. As we move from instructors to blends, from classroom to field, participation and results are in the hands of employees. Employees can elect to skip entire programs or elements that feel superficial, complicated, or irrelevant, in favor of their “real work.” Thus, BL programs and assets must present themselves as worthwhile and manageable.
  • BL capitalizes on the resident smarts in the organization. BL presses people and organizations to find, store, stir, and share what they know. A database might help sales people re-use parts of proposals. Far-flung hotel administrators can “ask the experts” through FAQs, e-mail, phone calls, or live video streams. Employees may turn to their supervisors to practice a skill or explore an idea.
  • BL promotes connections and conversations. BL encourages the organization to extend lessons and conversations far beyond the classroom and into the workplace through coaching, e-coaching, and online communities. A sales person who has learned about a new product can chat with more experienced colleagues who are attempting to bring that product to Asia. An executive can reach out for expert views from a trusted e-coach. A researcher can reflect with others on the investment team about how a natural disaster should influence their choices.
  • BL guides, directs and tracks. BL must do two things: first, it must propel action, showing employees how to benefit from the blend, how far they have come, where else they need to go, and what else is possible; and second, it must simultaneously encourage smart choices and involvement. Diagnostics, assessments and feedback, menus, and sample paths can be used to tailor experiences, assets and activities.

Why blend?
Blended learning has a growing presence in workforce learning and performance. Kim and colleagues’ 2005 survey of 200 training professionals in the United States predicted an increase in the use of BL in their organizations. In another survey of almost 300 training professionals in the US and UK, ASTD and Balance Learning reported that more than two-thirds of respondents ranked blended learning as “the most effective and cost-efficient form of training,” and indicated that “blended learning will make up about 30% of all corporate training budgets by 2006,” (Sparrow, 2004).

That others are doing it is interesting, but not conclusive. Far more compelling are studies and experiences that suggest BL works. What might blended learning do for you?

  • Nurture a world-class and worldwide workforce. Globalization, offshore outsourcing, and franchising are changing the nature of organizations and the needs, location and experiences of their employees. Executives expect workforce learning to translate into performance, and to make contributions—big ones. Do they want their sales people in class or out in the field? Do they want consultations with each other or customers? Do they want knowledge acquired in class nine months ago or access to ideas and perspectives that reflect what is happening today? As organizations have shifted to customized and boundaryless services, knowledge and expertise must follow and surround peripatetic employees.
  • Provide consistent and updated messages.  Instructors are a great resource during training, but their messages sometimes differ from one to another, and their smarts depart after class. Technology, on the other hand, can deliver standardized messages, instructional and otherwise, consistently, tirelessly, swiftly, repeatedly, patiently, around the globe. Online modules, knowledge bases, and archived presentations do not get jet lag.
  • Exploit technology.  Dropping prices and increasing functionality mean that more people around the world are plugging in, with and without wires. The number of PCs is projected to surpass 1 billion in 2007, and the number of PDAs is anticipated to reach almost 60 million by 2008, with most boasting wireless e-mail and Web browsing capabilities (eTForecasts, 2005). Ipsos-Insight reported that at least two-thirds of all Internet users connect via high speed broadband (Modi, 2005). Of course, cell phones are everywhere—a whopping 1.5 billion and counting. They can be used for mobile training, coaching, and performance support. Internet browser capabilities allow employees to access Web-based databases or search engines through their cell phones. Short text messaging (SMS) can be used to send coaching tips, quizzes and knowledge checks, or to measure training transfer. And video clips can provide short examples of desirable performance in areas such as negotiation, managing meetings, or customer service.
  • Foster independent habits for learning and reference.  Learners like choices (Reigeluth & Stein, 1983).With BL, employees can progress at their own pace and even repeat parts of the program (Zenger & Uehlein, 2001). They can participate in communities and relationships, and enjoy interaction, guidance, and encouragement from peers, instructors, supervisors, and coaches. For those who are reluctant to turn exclusively to independent learning, blended forms anchored in the classroom can pave the way.
  • Converge learning and work. In the traditional instructor-led world, you are either IN class or AT work. Not surprisingly then, instructors and managers worry about transfer. That is less of a concern in a blended situation because BL brings learning, information and support to where the work gets done (Rossett, 2005b). Got a question? You can look it up online. Got a problem? You can chat with your manager or share it with an online community. Eager to get better at personnel management? Fortunately, there’s a course you can take and a pre-assessment that will make certain you’re ready for that course. AMA’s blended approach capitalizes on this benefit.
  • Improve performance and control costs.  Studies report increased cost-effectiveness (Graham, Allen, & Ure, 2003), and increased productivity for those using a blended approach as opposed to e-learning alone (Thomson/NETg, 2003). Other studies have reported enhanced employee retention (Bersin, 2004; CLO, 2005a; Nelson, 2005), and reduced training time for blended approaches (Zenger & Uehlein, 2001). In addition, online resources can be easier and cheaper to update and distribute (Osguthorpe & Graham, 2003). Singh (Singh, 2003) noted that less expensive solutions, such as virtual collaboration, coaching, recorded live events, and self-paced materials, can be used instead of more expensive customized computer-based content.

If studies and opinions do not attract you to BL, consider that it just plain makes sense. Who wouldn’t benefit from additional opportunities to practice and reflect, targeted resources, engaged supervisors, interactions with experts and peers, and advice and learning experienced right there, within the workflow?

Read the complete white paper Blended Learning Opportunities, by Allison Rossett and Rebecca Vaughan Frazee.