The key to e-learning is b-learning

By Amanda Reid-Young

E-learning is not just about substituting online modules for classroom training. A lot of organisations are finding that blending their own mixture to suit is easing the transition.

E-learning is now a major force to be considered in learning and development planning. Organisations that already have large and effective internal training groups are reviewing their programs to see which ones can be converted for online delivery. Others are suggesting that e-learning is a natural vehicle for training in web-based activities. At this moment of heightened interest, something called “blended learning”, or b-learning, is being mentioned more and more frequently.

This article takes a look at some of the possible meanings of the term blended learning, and why its moment has come.

Who is e-learning for?

When an organisation considers e-learning for its workforce, it is typically driven by several of the following factors:

  • The workforce is spread across multiple locations, whether in a single city or across continents
  • There is a need to contain growing costs of face-to-face training (trainers, facilities, travel)
  • Scheduled training is not meeting increased demand for certain courses
  • On-the-job training is unmonitored and may be inconsistent
  • Releasing staff from their daily jobs for one or more days of training presents difficulties in planning
  • Learners have different needs that are not necessarily met by the necessary structure of a face-to-face course
  • There is a need to respond to changing training needs more rapidly than is currently possible

These are all good reasons for management to be considering e-solutions, and such solutions can deliver the benefits of just-in-time training, standardised and available at all locations, with certification of participants if required. The typically high costs of development for online programs is mitigated by the growing availability of ranges of generic materials in “soft” areas such as management training, client relations, occupational health and safety, and equal opportunity.

Trainers, however, may be much more reluctant than management to adopt an e-learning model, and learners even more so. Such reluctance can derail the best intentions, so we need to look carefully at the concerns of both of these stakeholder groups.

Trainers, firstly, put a high value on the intangibles that are not accounted for in the normal measures of training effectiveness. These are likely to include their own interaction with the learners and the opportunity to get to know them, building learner confidence, supportive networks created between learners, active feedback (in both directions), and the process of assimilation that takes place during a two or three day course.

Learners’ concerns are more likely to revolve around any uncertainty they may have about how to use the required technology, an unwillingness to be monitored remotely, the lack of an opportunity to connect with people who can give them ongoing support, and of course boredom if they are presented with too much information in an undifferentiated online format.

So an effective e-learning approach has to tackle these concerns, and this is where blended learning comes in.

The elements of the blend

Blended learning is simply a flexible approach to learning delivery that recognises the benefits of delivering some training and assessments online, but also uses other modes to make up a complete training delivery service. These other modes may range from classroom sessions to mentoring arrangements, or the support of a subject matter expert in the same office or area.

There are as many blended learning models as there are organisational challenges. You can blend your own mixture to meet the learning needs of the workforce, the monitoring and planning requirements of Learning and Development, and those management issues listed before. Combinations of e-learning and other modes can be developed to match the available technology, the distribution of the workforce and the availability of trainers.

Here are some typical examples of blended learning – you may recognise some of them from other contexts.

Course model: Learners complete a series of online modules that make up a course for certification. They are at remote locations, so they submit their assessment tasks by email to a tutor. An online forum provides for discussion of topics and shared feedback between learners and tutor. Periodically, if possible, they may meet as a group, ideally starting with a session where they can familiarise themselves with the format of the online material. If this is not possible, they may be “buddied” with another learner in their region and talk to their tutor by phone. This is a model often used by universities for distance learning.

Reference-based learning: On-job training is supplemented by procedures manuals deployed on an intranet. Learners are assigned a regular program of online or written assessments to confirm that they are acquiring the knowledge they require during their induction and follow-up. The required knowledge includes the ability to navigate the intranet and locate relevant information. The author of the manuals also maintains contact with the learners either directly or through the training department to ensure that the documents provide the necessary support for the job.

Pre-assessment: Learners of varying abilities complete an online pre-assessment to ascertain their level of knowledge in a certain area. Those assessed at a lower level may be nominated for a further online course to fill some of the information gaps. Once they have gained this pre-qualification, all the learners can be brought together in a face-to-face session that provides a forum for them to discuss their knowledge and practise their skills. This structure provides more targeted learning experiences for all levels of experience, and also gives meaning to the online tasks by making them stages in a process that will be practised and reviewed in the face-to-face session.

Blended learning along the lines of these examples may result in better outcomes than either a traditional classroom model or one that wholly embraces online delivery.

The concept recognises and where possible incorporates the intrinsic value for learners of face-to-face interaction and discussion with a trainer, other learners or a subject matter expert. At the same time, existing technologies are deliberately used to create and foster relationships between people with common interests when they are unable to meet. Such continuing support is rarely provided to participants as a planned component of classroom-based training.

Blended learning solutions establish and provide a continuing framework for new networks within the organisation, while also delivering the training to meet management’s goals of efficiency, availability and relevant data capture.

In the context of operational training, the costs of creating an online course may be prohibitive, both at initial development and in ongoing maintenance. A blended approach allows the organisation to utilise its existing knowledge base of manuals and other procedural resources, and to obtain efficiencies by a much smaller investment in, for example, updating manuals and putting them on the intranet. The procedural material is supported by the e-learning infrastructure to schedule, prompt and monitor course progress, and complemented by online assessments that can easily be developed in-house.

The blended learning concept is timely because its initiatives make an entry into the e-learning culture less daunting for all participants. Reference-based training can help to limit the costs of course development, trainers can develop communication and support arrangements that meet the needs of the workforce, and course participants are actively supported both in their work and in coming to terms with the technologies.

The intrinsic value is that an imaginative application of blended learning principles can result in wide-ranging organisational benefits, with individuals using their learning networks to become more active in process improvement, in mentoring new recruits, and in knowledge sharing.