Putting learning through the mixer

by 18 May 2010

Blended learning has evolved in recent years to become a dominant method of delivering learning. HR Leader looks at some of the latest trends in blended learning and how to get the mix right

Blended learning typically refers to a mix of instructor-led training with a wide variety of electronic tools and media. While there was a strong focus on utilising technologies and tools for e-learning in many companies maybe five or more years ago, this has changed as organisations came to realise that most e-learning programs were not fully meeting needs. Companies then began to view e-learning, not as a replacement for instructor-led training, but rather as a complement.

As a result, there has been a movement to blended learning over the past five years, according to David Mallon, principal analyst at Bersin & Associates, a global consulting firm which specialises in enterprise learning and talent management. As new technologies became widespread, from Google and mobile devices to virtual classrooms and wikis, Mallon says organisations became increasingly interested in informal and on-demand solutions.

“Today, the most modern learning organisations realise that, in order to keep up with the needs of the business, they must create holistic learning environments in which learners can meet their own needs,” he says.

Latest blended learning trends

There are many organisations here and overseas that have implemented progressive blended learning programs, according to Alison Bickford, director and principal consultant at Connect Thinking.

Some organisations whose chief asset is the emergent knowledge of their people are doing some interesting things in online communities and networks, Bickford explains, while other organisations with field workers who depend on online performance support tools are progressing mobile learning technologies.

“Other organisations with good bandwidth are really able to maximise media rich learning environments with video libraries and game-based learning. Today’s technologies enable employees to work, learn, create and perform like never before. Our challenge is to deeply understand workflow to better enable workplace learning and performance,” she says.

“What I am also seeing is an increasing polarisation of organisational capability and capacity to design, develop and deliver blended learning. Many organisations are still grappling with developing e-learning courseware with high-quality learning design. Learning management systems (LMS) appear to stifle some organisations’ ability to evolve their learning designs and offerings for several years while ROI and employee adaption to learning self management is attained.”

Advantages and disadvantages

Blended learning is increasingly being used as it saves time and can be more efficient, according to training, learning and performance consultant Derek Stockley.

The diversity of electronic devices means that delivery can now be achieved in a much greater variety of ways, he says. “People and organisations are time poor. Face-to-face (classroom or video conferencing) is still the best for flexibility, where the trainer can interact and adjust as the training progresses,” he explains.

A common advantage is that blended learning methods can be used to bring participants up to a common starting point (or level), according to Stockley. Experienced/ knowledgeable participants can quickly review the material, while others spend the time absorbing the key learning points so they are ready for the training.

“The most common disadvantage is people not doing the preparation required, although this can be overcome with inbuilt monitoring. In a face-to-face situation, you can gauge participant engagement,” says Stockley, who adds that this is harder with e-learning type material.

Making the most of blended learning

Companies are entering a new era of social, collaborative and talent-driven learning, and today’s worker still needs formal training that is built around specific problems and talent needs, according to Mallon.

“However, today’s worker also needs the availability of a learning environment in which they can find information, collaborate and build their own learning plans. The learning organisation must go beyond the disciplines of building content for use online. We must provide context and pathways for people to learn,” he explains.

Research shows that a hallmark practice of successful learning organisations is the ability to “formalise” informal training activities, and Mallon says companies which incorporate elements of informal learning in their program design can get orders-of-magnitude greater returns than those that do not.

“Also, most L&D professionals are well- schooled in the traditional disciplines of corporate training (such as instructional design), but they may not have mastered the new disciplines required to support new forms of informal learning,” he says.

It is important to keep in mind that building a successful learning environment requires a deep understanding of the audiences and businesses involved, and Mallon says research shows that effective programs include a clear understanding of the learner’s job needs in detail.

“Rather than simply teaching someone a new skill, the most effective programs took into account the company’s processes surrounding their jobs – and built content and a program that fit into these processes,” he says.

Case study: Symantec

Symantec implemented an innovative blended learning program to roll out its new enterprise-wide security management solution. This massive product launch touched all elements of the company, from sales, marketing and support through to service and finance.

To address all of these areas (and the multiple levels of expertise needed in each area), the learning team built a program that included blogs, wikis, emails, courseware and instructor-led training.

The total curriculum was complex and included in-depth instructor-led training. It also included prerequisite e-learning courseware, and a rich set of blogs and email campaigns to help technical people at all levels learn about the new product as well as its impact on existing products and customer environments.

All of these elements were integrated into a total launch and delivery experience. The result of this program was one of Symantec's most successful product launches in the company's history.

Source: Bersin & Associates

Pitfalls of blended learning programs

1. Poorly scoped requirements leading to the purchase of suboptimal technology

2. Inadequate inclusion of the IT department in the decision-making process

3. Insufficient training of the team charged with developing blended learning

4. Poor preparation of employees for change to what they understand learning to be

5. Inadequate experience in blended learning to properly predict both opportunities and consequences of implementation

6. Missed opportunities to work strategically with other HR initiatives, for example, recruitment and retention, talent mapping

7. Poorly designed evaluation of blended learning

8. Inadequate time set aside to refine and improve blended learning

9. Choosing blended learning deliveries that are a mismatch to the current and/or desired culture of the organisation

Source: Alison Bickford, director and principal consultant, Connect Thinking