You want to improve your learning and development. You need to improve performance and productivity, and generate a culture of creativity, innovation and sharing knowledge. You’re thinking about blended learning. And why not? There’s a growing knowledge base of supporting evidence that a blended learning strategy can lead to improvements in:

  • Performance outcomes
  • Productivity
  • Emotional buy-in and commitment
  • Learner confidence
  • Sharing and collaboration
  • Positive attitudes – towards jobs, the business, and lifelong learning.

There’s also some evidence that it can lead to cost reductions in learning and development such as less time spent in the classroom. But there’s also evidence suggesting that the trainer simply spends more time preparing and supporting learners. Cost reduction shouldn’t be a primary driver anyway.

Blended learning isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s messy, confusing, and it can appear to lack a governing structure. As it turns out, what ‘blended learning means’ lies at the root of many of the debates, issues, even criticism of blended learning.  Simply put, different people interpret blended learning differently. It is entirely possible to consult two different sources on the same topic only to find completely different versions.

One way of looking at it is to see it as a spectrum with two extremes: the ‘fruit’ spectrum.

At one end, we have what I call the ‘fruit cocktail’ approach. This simple approach generally takes a portion of an existing course and converts it to digital. The elements remain separate and separable – they are not integrated in any real, meaningful, way. This is most typically applied to what is often described as ‘flipped learning’. In reality, all it’s doing is transferring seat time: the learner ends up spending part of their time sitting somewhere else other than in a classroom. This is not blended learning. Nor is it flipped learning. But it is frequently branded with those labels.

The point to be made here is that this approach will not yield the kind of benefits and improved performance outcome that are typically associated with blended learning. Because it is not blended learning. It is fruit cocktail learning.

In the middle of the spectrum we have the fruit smoothie but, in reality, more of a fruit compote because it’s a model that is considerably open to interpretation. In this approach, the model blends social context (one-to-one, group learning etc.) with delivery mode (face-to-face, offline, online, etc.) and communications channel (synchronous, asynchronous). It’s a reasonably good representation of blended learning, but is still missing one or two vital elements, and it is still just a model. But, it is an adaptable one so its best service really is to visualise the basic components of blended learning and how they might interact and interface.

At the far end of the spectrum, we have the ‘super smoothie’. In this model – which is more of a strategy – we represent a blend of all modalities and place them on a hierarchy of governance. So, social context is blended with learning strategy (instruction, exposition, guided discovery, exploration, and anything else you dream up), and this blend in turn drives the choice of delivery mode and communications channel.

What this model does is drive all of the important decision-making and dealing with influencing factors into decisions about context and learning strategy. These in turn are driven and influenced by (or should be) the learner, the topic, the learner expectation and anticipated outcomes, and logistics.

What you get is a strategically-planned learning approach that makes maximum use of available techniques and resources as relevant and applicable to the prevailing conditions and environment. Adding in a process of continuous learner feedback and support potentially leads to a continuously evolving, dynamic learning environment that is increasingly suited to the specific needs of the learners.

It also offers greater opportunities to make a more effective use of social and informal learning, which are now widely thought to be the most preferred and effective way in which people acquire knowledge and learn to apply this in practice. This has been known about for a long time.  In cognitive psychology, it’s referred to as ‘implicit learning’, in my terms, ‘knowing how’ or tacit knowing.  According to my own research over the last five years, a person’s tacit knowing influences what they do and say more than any kind of explicitly learned knowledge.

The problem is that tacit knowing or implicit learning is hard to measure – it’s frequently the stuff we don’t know we know. But it can be seen in performance action. One of the reasons why there is a marked shift from measuring learning outcomes to measuring performance outcomes.

Where do we see this happening? Blended learning is gaining popularity in a whole range of organizations, large and small, globally. It’s seen as a game changer.

Perhaps its biggest attraction is that, over time, and with a consistent approach, blended learning can actually help support an evolving learning or lifelong culture. Smart people have long realised that treating learning and development as a series or sporadic, one-off events aimed at upskilling for a particular job, for instance, is a wholly unsatisfactory approach in terms of effective learning. Ask yourself, is this how you learned at school? No.

But perhaps even more importantly, those same smart people realise that continuous education, and a commitment to personal lifelong learning, is an absolute essential to the innovation culture. That puts effective learning on the same level as firm survival. Learn to survive. It’s what the human race has always been doing. But now we have technologies to help us to it better.

 

Lesley Crane PhD MA BSc Hons is a consultant and author specialising in learning, innovation and knowledge under the theme of organizational transformation. She combines scientific discipline and intelligence with diverse experience and expertise in practice to support organizations in realising their potential through embedding a culture of learning, knowledge and innovation.