What is Blended Learning? - BL Series part 1

This is the first of a series of articles in which we examine Blended Learning within enterprises, building on the experience we at CLS have gained in designing and implementing learning programmes for multi-national organisations and including additional references to findings and research of colleagues in the learning industry.

It is important to begin by defining what blended learning is.  This will then form the foundation for future articles which will examine the challenges of implementing it, how to overcome these challenges, what good blended learning looks like, measuring effectiveness and what the future is likely to bring.

Many people think that blended learning is just eLearning added to classroom training.  When Jane Hart of C4LPT recently conducted a survey on what blended learning means to different people the most popular response from the options provided was the one that stated it was simply a training programme containing a mix of face-to-face-and eLearning.

But blended learning can and should be seen as a much richer and more powerful concept than that, one which embraces many different forms of learning and looks at the best ways to mix them together and apply them.  There are many different definitions of blended learning with nearly all of them indicating the richness of the approach.  For example, the Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in its definition stresses the inclusion of online learning, student control and at least partly supervised learning to give an integrated learning experience. In similar vein, MIT suggests the following:

“different learning or instructional methods (lecture, discussion, guided practice, reading, games, case study, simulation), different delivery methods (live classroom or computer mediated), different scheduling (synchronous or asynchronous) and different levels of guidance (individual, instructor or expert led, or group/social learning).”

We believe that there are four elements running through the different definitions which are key to effective blended learning:

  1. Strategy: blended learning provides all the options necessary to build and deliver a learning programme from framework to ongoing performance support.  It is not a technique to be used where necessary, but a strategy that underpins the need to plan all learning to meet corporate requirements and to tailor it to the needs and capabilities of learners.
  2. Mix: there obviously must be a blend of different types of learning and it is not just limited to face-to-face versus online.  Blended learning allows selection from a full range of formal and informal learning, face-to-face and at distance, theoretical and practical, timetabled and on-demand, individual and social, away from work and on the job, learner-led and fully organised, coached/mentored and via self-discovery.   All possible blended options should be considered with the appropriate ones chosen for each learning programme
  3. Tailoring: each enterprise has its own unique needs, based on its existing infrastructure, culture and its objectives, and each learning programme is targeted at a unique set of learners, individuals with their own talents and potential.  Blended learning must include the necessary strategy and framework to address these organisational and individual needs by selecting the right learning options and blending them into a coherent whole
  4. Choice: in order to harness the enthusiasm, creativity and collaboration of employees in the modern workforce, programmes must now be much more learner-led, giving learners real choice in how and when they learn.  Learning by rote does not get the best out of employees and learners need to be fully engaged when in classrooms as well as supported by a wide range of choices for learning on the job and elsewhere.  There is an increasing willingness of people to engage in learning even in spare moments if the opportunities fit in well with their habitual use of mobile devices, online browsing and social media.

While there are blended learning programmes constructed without consideration of some of these four elements, their potential is limited from the outset.  While you will not use all of the vast range of options for blended learning in any one programme, all the elements should be considered in order to optimise the learning opportunity.  The skill lies in being able to find the right mix for each situation. If you are currently just blending classroom and eLearning courses, we encourage you to think about other options that can be added over time to enhance the effectiveness of your programmes.

Throughout this series of articles, our definition of blended learning will assume that it is an overall strategy and implementation that includes a rich mix of formats, tailored to organisational and individuals needs and that engages learners by allowing them choice.

In our next article we will look at how to construct the blended learning strategy for specific cases.

(Article originally published August 12th, 2015)


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