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The ROI of Blended Learning: An Interview with Karen Peters and William J. Rothwell

We hear much about blended learning. What does it constitute?
Blended learning has been around for quite some time and is not really a new concept. In its simplest form it is the combination of any two or more delivery methods for learning. Today, with the evolution of technology, the focus is on the combination of online learning (e-learning) and classroom learning.

What do you feel are the blended learning components that add the most value from a learning standpoint?
Not all learners are the same. By combining methods of learning, we are enabling success.

With online materials accessible any time and any place online, learners can work at their own pace. The classroom can be used for questions and clarification.

The ability to combine multiple media into one with the web adds enormous value. The trainer can manage and deliver learning materials in ways that simply were not possible before the web. The online component is more than providing materials to be accessible to multiple learners in multiple locations. Trainers can not only match context to learning, trainers can create contexts to insure learning. From static graphics to live broadcasts, information can be matched, managed and presented to learner readiness. We are not supporting "more" as better, we are supporting matching media to context to learning.

Offline components are equally as exciting. Because materials can be presented online in discussion areas, as online text, as video, audio or broadcast media that can be accessed anytime and anyplace, we have more time to manage and create productive offline learning scenarios. We are not limited to the classroom. Projects can be assigned, on the job training can occur, apprenticeships can be arranged, learners can attend conferences and interact with others in their field. There are many options.The human interaction provides support, feedback, and motivation.

Blended learning combines the best of both instructor-led and e-Learning worlds to accommodate the full range of cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning domain needs.

Why is the learning industry so much more enthusiastic about blended learning than it is e-learning?
The majority of industry training today is still done via the classroom. Learners and trainers are comfortable with this method. Blended learning allows trainers and trainees to hold on to at least some of that comfort by combining classroom training with some on-line component. Any learning that involves changing behaviors or habits may not be accomplished with e-learning alone. With blended learning new learning technologies and the classroom come together to produce the best possible method. It is the best of both worlds. Companies can benefit tremendously utilizing a blended learning strategy.

Do you expect this enthusiasm to continue? Why?
With the potential of new technologies and increased access combined with lower costs the answer would be, "yes." The possible combinations of learning strategies increases as not only new technology emerges but as the use of the new technology is explored in learning. To help keep the knowledge workers of today, companies realize the need for regular learning opportunities for workers. Blended learning combines the best of both instructor-led and e-Learning worlds to accommodate the full range of cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning domain needs. Knowing what combinations work best in what situation is still in its infancy.

What about online learning communities and chat amongst learners and learners and the instructor--how valuable do you feel these potential blended learning components are?
The value of community learning and discussion has been well documented over the centuries. The challenge today is not the community but creating the community online. The instructor has to determine the level of interactivity needed for learning success and the medium that best supports this. The instructor also has to determine the level of management or facilitation needed in the online communication medium. Let me elaborate.

E-mail is at the lower level of an interactivity scale. E-mail is best used to deliver information or ask questions one on one. Bulletin boards allow multiple users to see information that has been posted, however usually limit "who" can post. This is more interactive than e-mail but still not very interactive. Threaded discussions can limit who posts and who replies, for the most part threaded discussion areas are not set up that way. Limiting who posts and who replies limits interactivity but may support learning. By managing posts and replies instructors can mimic the classroom or create role plays online.

The same holds true for chats. A standard chat room is real time hence more interactive. How the chat is managed in the learning environment can be altered to support specific learning goals and contexts. My point is the focus needs to be on learning and knowledge management that supports certain goals. The same medium or environment can be massaged and managed in multiple ways to enhance and support learning. Learning communities, chats, wikis, blogs...all have value. How they are matched to the context and goals and how knowledge is managed by these components will determine their value in learning.

Where and how do you think blended learning will evolve over the next 3-5 years?
We think that blended learning is just at the outset. Look at recent innovations with cell phones and the emergence of podcasting and other, newer forms of delivery methods. The more technology improves and changes the more combinations we can explore. The demand for knowledge workers in increasing and that trend is not expected to change soon. There is more access to information repositories. Business intelligence tools are getting easier to use...how can they be exploited to enhance learning? And how can those business intelligence tools be used to improve worker performance and company productivity? We believe those are where the challenges reside in the future.

Karen Peters is faculty at the Pennsylvania State University in Communication Arts and Sciences and an adjunct Assistant Professor in Communication Arts and Sciences at Western Michigan University. A leader in learning strategies and communication media for learning, Karen has been actively involved in planning university wide solutions for teaching and learning. William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR is author of Beyond Ttraining and Development, a classic on human performance enhancement. He is Professor-in-charge of Workforce Education and Development at Penn State University, University Park campus, and is also President of his own consulting company, Rothwell & Associates, Inc. For more information: www.rothwell-associates.com