Blended learning is a great option for knowledge- and skills-based content and outcomes, as it lets you leverage the best and most cost-effective tools for the job.
Blended learning describes learning solutions that combine two or more learning modalities. The blend could include asynchronous training modalities—such as eLearning, reading, research, and observation—or synchronous modalities, such as instructor-led or virtual instructor-led facilitation or a mix of both.
Blended learning is like the Swiss Army knife of learning solutions. You have many tools at your disposal; the key is in choosing the right one—or a combination of the right ones—for the task in hand. And blended learning is also a great “best of all worlds” solution to consider when your learning includes both knowledge-based and skills-based content and outcomes, as it allows you to leverage the best and most cost-effective tools (modalities) for the job.
Why Classroom Learning Doesn’t Always Meet the Need: An Example
Let’s take soft skills training, and use a very typical example. For many years, we believed the only way to teach soft skills effectively was in a classroom setting with a skilled facilitator. The training would typically begin with icebreakers and introductions, and then the facilitator would explain why this particular soft skill is important by sharing some examples. She might then go on to discuss the science, history, or theory behind the various models and tools—before revealing them and explaining how to use them. Afterward, she might demonstrate or show more examples of using video or case studies. At the end of the day, learners would finally get a chance to practice applying their new skills. More often than not, however, there wouldn’t always be enough time left for this, which inevitably meant that not everyone would get the chance to have a go.
Setting aside the financial side of things, the cost to learners of attending a program like this was extraordinarily high because they had invested more of their time listening to or observing the facilitator rather than actually practicing their new skills.
Blended learning solutions can help to address this imbalance by taking content that doesn’t require a facilitator outside the classroom and reserving the classroom time for meaningful practice, coaching, and feedback.
Top 3 Tips for Creating Blended Learning Solutions
As with all learning solutions, it’s critical that your learning objectives and expected outcomes have been clearly defined before embarking on any blended learning solution development. This includes defining not only the overall program objectives (i.e., what will learners know and be able to do at the end of the program) but also at each step along the way.
With that in mind, here are our top three tips for creating a blended learning solution:
1. Look at the content and decide which pieces can be studied asynchronously and synchronously, and then select the most appropriate modality for each.
- Asynchronously: This is typically the knowledge-based content/objectives.
- Synchronously: This is typically the skills-based content/objectives.
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2. Consider the best way to chunk out and sequence your learning.
- If the learning follows a linear process, it may make sense to break it out into logical steps and teach each one in sequence.
- If the learning is more conceptual or theoretical, identify the concepts, models, or tools learners will need to learn first in order to move forward, then build upon that as the learning journey unfolds. One way to help with this is to think about what, if any, prerequisite knowledge learners will need to have either going into the session or when moving from one block of learning to the next.
3. Balance the time between asynchronous and synchronous activities carefully. If too much time passes between tasks performed outside the classroom and the actual classroom sessions, there’s a risk that learners may forget what they’ve learned. Conversely, if tasks or sessions are grouped too close together, learners may not have time to fully review or synthesize the content. Consider your audience and their capabilities and the content and its complexity to help gauge the timing between activities.
Let’s Revisit Our Example—and Make It Blended
Here’s what our new blended soft skills learning solution might look like:
Part 1: Asynchronous learning activities – Take an eLearning course to learn about active listening.
- Define active listening.
- Discover what models and tools are used for active listening.
- See examples of people using the models and tools of active listening (via video, case studies, animated scenarios, etc.).
- Check for understanding: Use scenario-based knowledge checks to practice applying the tools of active listening.
Part 2: Asynchronous learning activities – Observe active listening in the workplace.
- Listen for the use of open and closed questions in the workplace.
- Practices using nonverbal cues to show others you are listening.
- Observe people’s body language when they are in conversation.
Carry this out on an ongoing basis between completing your eLearning and attending class.
Part 3: Synchronous learning activities – Attend a live session to use your active listening skills.
- Practice using your active listening skills.
- Receive coaching and feedback on your active listening skills.
Attend this class two to four weeks after the eLearning is complete.
In this solution, we’ve extracted the knowledge-based content and designed it as asynchronous activities (eLearning and observation), and we’ve reduced the classroom time by using it to focus solely on the practice and application of skills-based content. (This particular approach of delivering theory first and then gathering to practice is also known as “flipping the classroom.”) We’ve also recommended leaving no more than four weeks between eLearning and the classroom activity, and suggest some on-the-job observation and tasks in between to help maximize retention.
Blended Learning Best Practices
Now that you have some of the basics, here are more things to think about when putting together your own blended learning solutions…
Know your audience. Understanding who your audience is and what their preferences are will help to ensure the success of your blended learning solution—particularly when selecting modalities. Things to think about include but are not limited to:
- How much time do learners have to dedicate to training?
- Do learners have easy access to offline and online resources?
- Can they commit to a program that might take several weeks or months to complete?
Set expectations at the beginning of the blended learning journey:
- Show the participants what the learning journey looks like, how all of the parts and pieces fit together, and what they can expect to achieve at the end (and at the end of each milestone, where applicable). For longer blended solutions, we recommend scheduling a formal kickoff meeting or call.
- Provide realistic estimates of how much time the learner will need to invest in both online and offline activities (for example, if a blended learning solution spans three months but only has 1 hour of vILT each month, how much time will learners be spending on asynchronous activities like reading, research, and eLearning?).
- Be clear on the level of participation that’s required. Let participants know if they can afford to miss one or more classroom sessions. Share what might happen if they do miss something.
- Consider adding test-in and test-out or opt-in and opt-out content so that learners can bypass content or adapt the program to suit their needs.
Consider forming cohorts. If your blended learning solution comprises multiple components or sessions or will span a number of weeks or months, think about creating cohorts to help foster inclusion, teamwork, and collaboration. Adding a social component—such as Skype or WhatsApp chat groups—will provide teams with access to support and encouragement from facilitators and each other throughout the experience.
Administration: While blended learning solutions can often ease the burden of facilitation of more traditional in-person, synchronous training events—such as instructor-led training (ILT) or virtual instructor-led training (vILT) programs—they can come with an added administrative strain. This is particularly true when programs span several weeks or months or contain multiple offline or online activities—not to mention multiple participants. We have listed some of these administrative tasks here:
- Coordination of participants – Ensure candidates meet requirements for the program; coordinate placement and enrollment.
- Follow-up and reminders – Ensure learners know what is expected each step of the way by providing prompts and reminders throughout the program.
- Facilitation of online activities – Coordinate facilitators; book classrooms or reserve online learning space.
- Provision of coaching and feedback – Coordinate or provide timely and specific feedback for participants throughout the program.
- Evaluation of attendance and progress throughout the program – It may be necessary to confirm completion of certain activities before allowing learners to progress to new ones.
Last but not least, here are some other factors that can contribute to or get in the way of the success of blended learning solutions:
- Do participants have the support of their leader to participate in the program?
- Will learners be able to prioritize the learning (if needed) in order to stay in the program?
- Will learners be able to easily apply what they’ve learned once they return to the workplace?
Do you have a project in mind and think we can help? We’re happy to discuss how to best design and deliver your blended learning program for maximum impact, retention, and skill-building. Give us a shout!