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Shaking It Up: A Blended Approach to Learning


By: 
Date: July 1 2005

Training professionals have long recognized that training and development is integral to an organization´s success. A highly skilled workforce is productive and innovative, propelling an organization forward even in the most difficult of business climates. Continuous learning to maintain alignment between the workforce and organizational goals is widely recognized as fundamental to an organization´s ability to create sustainable competitive advantage.

Several factors have converged to drive a need for innovation in trading and development. Given today´s rapid pace of change, according to Frances Lilly, 50 percent of an employee´s skills are outdated within three to five years ("Web-based Training: Moving from C-Learning to E-Learning, SHRM white paper, May 2002). At the same time, today´s workforce has become highly mobile. Some employee groups are now difficult to reach effectively or cost-efficiently with traditional instructional methods like classroom-based training. And, the need to "do more with less" - that is, produce the same results with an often drastically fewer number of employees - means organizations need their workforce on the job as much as possible, not in the classroom.

All of these trends call for new methods of delivering instruction. Enter blended learning - a new educational paradigm that is revolutionizing the learning landscape. Blended learning is a cost-efficient, effective training approach that maximizes employee productivity levels while generating positive learning outcomes: driving employee behavior toward organizational goals.

A Variety of Learning Options

Blended learning leverages the best of more traditional training methodologies and combines them with newer, technology-enabled approaches. The application of technology to the learning field has created a dizzying array of options for content delivery. Joining instructor-led, classroom-based programs are a myriad of programs centered on electronic content delivery. Some of the common terms and acronyms used to describe electronically delivered content are e-learning, online learning, Computer-Based Training (CBT), and Web-Based Training (WBT), and they are often used interchangeably.

One differentiator among the various kinds of training, including e-learning options, is the type of interaction between instructors and students and among students themselves. In some cases, interaction is real-time and even face-to-face; in others, instructors and learners never actually come together at the same time. In this vein, all training can be grouped into two basic types: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous describes learning events in which the instructor and learners come together in real-time to share the learning experience. Examples include instructor-led training in a classroom, online training conducted in a virtual classroom setting, and online discussion groups and chat rooms. Synchronous learning enables students to interact on-demand with instructors, whether in-person or virtually, to provide immediate feedback or ask questions. The instructor can quickly and immediately adapt to needs of the learners. At the same time, learners can interact with each other to transfer knowledge.

Some of the highest quality learning clearly occurs in the classroom, as learners share ideas with one another and an instructor acts as facilitator. One of the challenges in e-learning today is to model that experience in a virtual environment. Instructor facilitated, online chat is one way that many universities have successfully addressed this challenge in their virtual course offerings, suggesting an opportunity for all organizations.

Asynchronous learning events can be accessed at any time from any place. Participants engage in an individual, rather than shared, learning experience. Examples include Web-based training (WBT), printed materials (articles, books, manuals), CD-ROMs, and simulations that provide just-in-time, on-demand training for learners. Employees learn what they need to effectively do their jobs, exactly when they need it. They are more likely to remember what they learn because they immediately put their newly acquired knowledge to use on the job. Asynchronous learning gives learners great flexibility in terms of when they learn and their learning pace, while maximizing on-the-job productivity. At the same time, these approaches provide consistent information to a wide audience, and enable inexpensive content distribution.

The Right Mix for Your Organization: Getting Started

With the endless ways of combinations of synchronous and asynchronous events, live and virtual, how can you determine the best blend for your organization? Determining the right mix of learning methods requires planning surrounding your objectives, content, and audience.

Objectives

Like all good training programs, a successful blending learning approach begins by linking learning to your organization´s business objectives. Learners are best engaged and motivated when they understand how training improves their job performance and contributes to "big picture" organizational goals. Ask yourself: What objectives do you want the training to achieve? What do you want learners to be able to know and do when they complete the program?

Content

The basis of instructional design is that good training requires good content that supports your training objectives. The content itself may naturally drive your learning choices. Is a portion of your content basic facts? If so, perhaps a self-paced CD-ROM would be the most effective, efficient delivery channel. Self-paced modules offer convenient, flexible learning events that are easy to maintain and customize. For more complex content, instructor-led training may be the best choice to present ideas and engage the group in discussion. Or, virtual instructor-led training can offer hands-on exercises designed to reinforce web-based training. But before deciding on the delivery methods, consider your audience to help you to pinpoint the most appropriate strategy to deliver the content required to meet your learning objectives.

Audience

The needs and learning styles of your audience can provide direction on the most appropriate learning blend. For example, self-paced learning events followed by instructor-led training can get a group of learners with diverse skill levels on a level playing field, making class time more productive.

It´s critical to consider issues surrounding learning styles when you develop your blended learning program. For example:

  • How comfortable are your learners with technology?

  • Are your learners conceptual or serial learners? Or do you have a mixed audience?

  • Are they independent learners?

  • How much repetition do they require to learn the new skill?

  • How often will the new skill be used or new knowledge applied?

Several variables are clearly at play in decided on the appropriate blended learning program: student learning styles, learning objectives, and the content to be delivered. At the same time, cost and efficiency are necessities from a business perspective. This may mean that the geographic location of your learners is a consideration. If your headquarters is in St. Louis but your workforce in Alaska needs to be trained on new products every six months, or your employees are scattered across the country, virtual training with self-paced modules would be a cost-effective and efficient choice.

Why Blended is Best

A blended approach helps overcome a number of the challenges facing many organizations in their training and development initiatives:

Training that doesn´t "stick"

The challenge of many training programs, like sales training, is making it "stick". Employees go to class, learn, and then go back to their jobs and act the same way they did before. The best of blended learning creates an integrated program that has a stronger potential to create sustainable results. Some companies are finding this to be an effective approach to sales training programs, where a link between training and performance has historically been very difficult to develop and maintain. Virtual pre-work is made available on-demand for students to prepare. A synchronous classroom component of the program allows an instructor to present more complex material and engage students in collaborative work to emphasize key concepts; typically, this classroom portion is shorter than you would normally use because employees all share the same basic knowledge from the pre-work. Then, learners virtually engage in regular post-work once they´re back on the job to maintain emphasis on the new learning and to prevent them from reverting to old behavior or forgetting their new skills.

High costs

Face-to-face instructor-led training - the traditional synchronous learning method - typically incurs high costs, such as travel. A blended approach enables organizations to minimize this component of the program. Productivity isn´t compromised by extended time away from the job.

At the same time, the downsides of asynchronous learning, such as lack of collaboration, lack of self-direction and motivation, and lack of feedback, are minimized when interaction is built into the blended program. Perhaps there is a classroom-based portion of the program, as in the example above. Or maybe an online discussion group brings learners together to chat with an instructor, while online bulletin boards provide asynchronous interaction and online lectures provide content on-demand. The result is maximum interaction and efficiency.

Ensuring Success

Gain Executive Level Support

Before deploying a blended learning approach, it is critical to garner support for your program on the executive level. The key to gaining executive backing is to show value by building a compelling business case for blended learning. If you´ve linked your training initiative to your organization´s business goals, you´re half way there. The other half of the equation involves demonstrating the ROI gained by a blended approach. Estimate the cost savings and productivity you can gain with your new learning strategy. You can find case studies and statistics to help you estimate these metrics on HR-related professional associations such as SHRM and ASTD.

Start small

Once you´ve determined your blending learning approach, implement your strategy to a small segment of the workforce. The feedback you get will enable you to define your approach, if necessary and establish small successes that will be recognized throughout the organization.

Overcoming Resistance

Human beings are notorious for fearing the unfamiliar. To counteract pockets of resistance lurking within your organization, there are a variety of change management techniques you can employ. Again, executive support is key. If the Vice President of Operations is championing your latest training plan, chances are, frontline workers will follow the lead. Get people familiar with the components of your strategy. For example, hold a kick-off event where you display sample content and walk people through the technology. Brainstorm with other HR professionals or even your Marketing department for creative ideas to market your approach to the workforce.

Blended learning is a growing trend in the training and development field because it is a cost-effective, high-quality approach that can be customized to meet organizational and individual learning needs. With careful thought and planning, you can design a program that will fuel both your employees and your organization´s competitiveness.


Lisa Hunter is the HRMS Solutions Marketing Manager and Peggy Albrecht is a Training Specialist at Kronos Incorporated, a single-source provider of HR, payroll, scheduling, and time and labor solutions. www.kronos.com.



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