The COVID-19 pandemic forever changed the landscape of work and learning. A recent poll showed that 45% of full-time employees in the U.S. work from home, whether all of the time or part of the time. For L&D teams, this means broadening our horizons from in-person training to all that blended learning can offer.
What is blended learning?
“Blended learning” is an approach to education that means different things to different organizations and sectors. It can encompass learning interventions that have both digital and face-to-face elements, those that are entirely on the attendee’s own timetable, and more.
In the 1990s, blended learning incorporated new technology, namely e-learning, to augment in-person training delivery. It was seen as an efficient way for organizations to scale up learning, as well as provide different options for learners.
Donald H. Taylor, in his book Learning Technologies in the Workplace, explains: “This blended delivery usually took the form of an ‘e-learning sandwich’ in which classroom activity was prefaced with some online pre-work, and followed up by online work for reinforcement and consolidation.”
Today, most L&D professionals define blended learning as the use of different elements of learning intervention over time. Jennifer Hofmann, the president of InSync Training, describes it as: “an instructional treatment that takes into account matching content to the most appropriate technology and doing that at the learning objective level, and then sequencing them in a way that makes sense to create a complete program of instruction.”
Blended learning is not to be confused with “hybrid learning,” which happens when there is a group of people physically together, as well as a separate group attending online through a platform like Zoom. “Hybrid” is more about the location of learners, rather than a design decision based on adult learning theory.
The benefits of blended learning
First and foremost, blended learning helps establish an organizational culture of learning by expanding development opportunities beyond the traditional classroom.
Julian Stodd, author and social researcher, highlights that blended learning effectively extends the learning experience. “Instead of just sitting in a room for half a day, learners experience events and activities over a much longer course of time. This can directly support them in taking the critical steps out of the workshop and into the workplace,” she says.
Similarly, Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, says modern workplace learning is a range of activities, not just courses, and is “as much about working with managers, groups, and individuals to help them learn in the ways that work best for them.”
Blended learning is effective because it reflects how people learn and develop naturally every day, through work, projects, and various inputs over time — a YouTube video here, a book chapter there, some feedback from others, and so on. It often includes asynchronous elements, where learners are able to engage at the right time and pace for them, and sometimes with a choice of what or how to learn.
This asynchronous approach is an important part of the design. Andy Lancaster references research in his book Driving Performance Through Learning which shows that self-direction in learning “has a high correlation to personal effectiveness,” and “can be more cost-effective, achieving greater performance improvement.”
Because they’re more cost-effective, blended learning interventions can typically be offered more frequently than traditional instructor-led training. This is especially beneficial for globally distributed teams, as it reduces the costs of travel, time away from work, etc. Additionally, utilizing existing internal platforms for social learning, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, means no outlay at all.
One final benefit — designers aren’t limited to just one medium or delivery channel. Blended learning allows L&D staff to tap into a variety of resources for bringing the best learning around a particular topic to their people. For instance, Big Think+ has a diverse catalog of lessons taught by over 350 world-renowned thought leaders in a variety of fields.
Blended learning best practices
Last year, 79% of learning and development professionals said they expect their organizations to invest more in online training. Technology use in L&D accelerated during the pandemic and is predicted to remain the norm. Technology, though, should be seen as a means for enabling discussion and collaboration, not the end itself.
Research shows “effective blended learning programs for workplaces are those that provide opportunities for learners to engage through human interaction with facilitators, other learners, and colleagues.” This is easy to forget, as the focus when it comes to blended learning is often on which LMS should be implemented, which parts should be e-learning or video, and so on.
Blended learning essentially means training people more than once to help them learn incrementally. This could look like breaking up training into smaller, virtual sessions as well as holding quarterly refresher sessions where more experienced employees coach newer ones. There should be opportunities for social learning and collaboration, ensuring that teams aren’t siloed and that communication is improving between departments and layers of management.
In his book More Than Blended Learning, Clive Shepherd states that there is “more than one way to blend (not just a mix of face-to-face and online).” Whichever way you choose to blend, blended learning should include the right mix of options to achieve the desired performance outcomes.
Blended offerings shouldn’t be thought of as an assorted bag of candy where you dip into the bag and a different sweet comes out each time. They aren’t like smoothies either, where you end up with something that is indistinguishable. Instead, each time you offer blended learning you’re painting a new picture with a complementary mix of both digital and traditional elements.
Blending together different types of learning intervention, on different timescales and with various technologies, is truly an art. Putting it simply, Hofmann suggests ensuring the medium is appropriate to the learning objective — “If learners are going to use the skills at their desk, then we should probably teach them the skill at their desk.”
Keep in mind that both in-person and technology-based learning are valuable components. Stay objective toward both methods rather than becoming biased to one or the other, and always consider learner preferences when designing your strategy. This can be accomplished through learner surveys that ask which learning environments are most convenient for them.
Donald Clark, CEO of WildFire Learning, comments that blended learning is “an adaptive response to what is happening to the learning world as the real world changes around it.” As changes in technology shape and influence learner expectations, L&D teams must adapt.
For staff who are solely accustomed to in-person design and delivery, blended learning options will require developing and applying their skills in new ways. Learning leaders should be prepared to support their team in that development.
Learning staff will need to become well-acquainted with the technologies involved in blended learning, such as making the most of your internal learning management system, facilitating interactive virtual classrooms, creating and editing video, recording webinars or podcasts, analyzing learner data, and more.
Designing and delivering blended learning options for the modern workplace learner starts with investing in your L&D team so that they can employ best practices and help the entire organization thrive.