Sunday, June 02, 2013

Blended Learning : Piece by Piece

At our recent Symposium one of the roundtable sessions I facilitated was on blended learning and what does this look like in corporate organisations in 2013. I was interested to see if the changes in learning and technology over the last couple of years had filtered down to the solutions that organisations are developing.

The term blended learning has always struck me as strange. Apart from making me think of cocktails, the image that springs to mind is one of producing consistency and uniformity with individual elements almost losing their identity to create the finished product. The best blended solutions, in my mind, are more like jigsaws with every element being carefully designed to fit snugly next its surrounding pieces and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

What became clear very early on in the roundtable was that it is still difficult to create a good blended solution. It takes skill and time and often both of these are in short supply. Interestingly, one of the major obstacles was still felt to be the skills in the wider learning and development teams and their reluctance to incorporate online learning (in all its formats) into the blend. Some of this was due to lack of skills / understanding and some was felt to be due to an element of self interest and the need to preserve a reliance on classroom based solutions. Some companies have recognised the lack of internal expertise and outsourced the design process, although even in this case there still needs to be an element of involvement from the internal team. Others have tackled it head on and have introduced programmes to upskill team members.

As well as resistance from within the L&D community there can also be reluctance from learners themselves and often those present experienced extremes; where people in the same job roles and section of the organisation would go from whole-heartedly embracing the blend to rejecting it. It just shows that however carefully you develop the blend, you are unlikely to please everyone! What is particularly frustrating are learners who embrace technology with open arms in their private life but reject it in a corporate setting. Clearly for some people there are very different drivers in a social context versus a work one.

In terms of the benefits of blending there were two clear camps during the debate. One side saw the reason behind blending being about improving choice and putting the learner in charge. By giving people a choice they can select the elements of the blend that work best for them and fit with their needs and context. Blending is a means to making learning more accessible, flexible and aligned to the needs of the learner. This choice relates to the depth of learning required, as well as the choice of method. The other viewpoint was that blending is meeting the needs of the learner and it is less about offering choice but more about meeting the needs of the business, with blended solutions allowing people to improve their perform quicker and more efficiently. As one attendee said “Often there is no choice to blend. With time to competence shortening dramatcically there is the need deliver learning in the most effective and efficient manner. This often necessitates a blend with a mix of face to face and online methods”. Disappointingly there was little evidence of organisations measuring the success of the blend or identifying the value of differing components.

Is there a perfect blend?

There was general acceptance across the group, in line with current thinking, that organisations should adopt a more resource driven approach rather than structured courses. This is especially true for online solutions where more and more is being delivered as short nuggets in audio, video or text format. The role of learning and development professionals is becoming more focused on the curation of resources, rather than their creation. Although interestingly the group did not raise the challenges this presents within the community to have the skillset to do this effectively. How do you choose what are the best resources? How do you align these in a meaningful manner to help create effective learning pathways?

What was perhaps surprising for a group of professionals who are used to evangelising the use of technology was the need to recognise the importance of face to face contact in the blend. This though did not have to be classroom based and many participants discussed the importance that coaching and mentoring has in blended solutions. The role of technology is an enabler. What is really vital is to embed the behaviours to make blended learning successful. Learners must feel comfortable learning independently and the learning team has an important role in supporting them.

So what were the main things I would take away from the discussion?
• Blending is something that is well established in major organisations but many still find it difficult and the perfect blend probably doesn’t exist so don’t waste time trying to find it.

• Successful blended learning is an art not a science – context is important to understand whether your solution will be successful. Think carefully about the culture and the skills of the learners to engage with your blend. Don’t rush the process and think carefully about why you are including components and what /whose needs they are meeting.

• Successful solutions are about every component adding value. Focus on the outputs and remember to meet the business drivers for the blend – don’t blend for the sake of it!

Clearly there is now much more than ever, the opportunity to include technology elements in the blend and organisations are starting to grasp the opportunities that this offers. I’m certain as emerging approaches such as mobile learning becomes more embedded in organisations this will become a standard part of the mix. These opportunities though come with their own challenges and learning teams have to think through more clearly their role in creating successful blends and how they measure the value that these deliver, especially as more and more will involve informal learning methods.

1 comment:

Ara Ohanian said...

Adrian, thanks for a balanced view of enterprise learning that isn’t trying to promote one particular approach. I agree with your final bullet about the need to focus on business drivers. Unquestionably, L&D tends to focus on individual programs or the materials that make up those programs rather than the benefits of effective blending of those components and their effective deployment for business ends. I look forward to your further thoughts on this matter.