We love the challenge of engineering an effective blended learning experience. Finding the right design is like solving a multi-dimensional puzzle of business goals, organizational realities, performance context, audience needs and instructional strategies.
Blended learning isn’t new, but its definition has evolved with emerging instructional strategies, advances in technology and new research. In the 1990s, instructional psychology professor Charles Graham wrote, “Blended learning combines face-to-face instruction with computer-mediated instruction.” Over time, new technologies and approaches have expanded the definition to include instruction (classroom, e-learning, etc.), sources of information (resource repositories, job aids, etc.) and methods of collaboration (social, communities of practice, etc.).
This expanded definition of blended learning allows ample room to achieve business goals, improve performance and solve training challenges in inventive ways. Blended learning encourages L&D professionals to dig deeper, develop a more complete understanding of the business and performance goals, and explore different solutions to achieve them.
When done well, blended learning results in an efficient, effective and engaging learning experience by striking a balanced mix of elements: sound analysis models, instructional approaches, design principles and learning modalities.
With that backdrop, let’s shift our focus to a number of factors that affect blended learning design decisions.
All training, including blended learning, should have a clear business purpose. Work with stakeholders to ensure a clear understanding of the business context and answer the following questions:
- What are the business goals?
- What obstacles need to be overcome to achieve the goals?
- What business metrics will you use to evaluate success?
- What stakeholder design assumptions may influence the design of the solution?
Effective bended learning design should use the most suitable instructional strategies to deliver content. Before moving to design, establish a clear connection between content and work requirements. Clearly articulate the work requirements, and the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to successfully meet performance expectations.
- What does the work look like (i.e., the complexity, pace and judgment required)?
- How does environment affect the work?
- How does the work flow to and from other processes?
- Who are the customers?
Designing a blended learning solution without an understanding of available resources will likely set the effort up to fail. Consider:
- Training facilities
- Availability of instructors and coaches
- Instructional design staff capability and capacity
- Existing training (company-owned and off-the-shelf)
- Source content (e.g., process maps, guides, job aids, decision support tools)
The technological environments of both the L&D team and the learner impact design decisions. Consider:
- Authoring environment, tools and capability
- Learning management system/learning content management system (LMS/LCMS) capabilities
- Tools for content management or distribution (e.g., SharePoint)
- Data collection and reporting tools (e.g., xAPI)
- Audience access to computers and mobile devices
The audience also affects blended learning decisions. Consider:
- The number of learners
- Whether they are in a centralized location or in many different locations
- If you should focus on current employees or new hires
- The typical education or experience of learners
While this list focuses mainly on demographics, other audience factors, such as organizational learning culture, may also weigh into your design decisions.
Ideal Versus Feasible
In the real world, designing blended learning solutions usually requires a series of trade-offs. The starting point may be an ideal solution for the business need, performance context and audience, but as you weigh organizational realities and limitations, you may make trade-off decisions to reach a feasible solution. It’s not always easy, but a blended learning solution that balances all these requirements is a win.
Let’s take a look at a blended learning scenario for a mid-sized commercial insurance firm.
The leadership team wanted to improve the consistency and quality of underwriting, make better use of new underwriting technology, and reduce new underwriters’ time to proficiency. The leadership and learning teams uncovered these challenges:
- Managers were inconsistent in reinforcing standards.
- Organizational silos affected ownership.
- The organization hires both recent college graduates and experienced individuals.
Underwriters perform a complex job, which includes a mix of sales, account management and technical underwriting. Their work is heavily regulated and requires detailed analysis, judgment and business acumen. Competing needs – from the broker, the market and leadership – influenced the underwriting decision-making process.
The organization had many guides, policy documents and white papers stored on internal sites available to underwriters. It was also using some effective “off-the-shelf” courses covering basic, foundational content. Since the organization had to stay within tight financial parameters, the budget was small.
The organization had an LMS to support training and technology to support social learning. Underwriters had access to a computer and mobile devices.
The underwriter population was 200, with relatively low turnover. Underwriters were hired into small, remote offices and traveled extensively to serve clients.
The blended learning solution to meet this client’s unique situation included:
Off-the-shelf content: Because of the small budget for new training development meant, the organization leveraged existing content and assessed and curated off-the-shelf courses.
Structured coaching: To bridge the gap between general underwriting knowledge and company and job-specific aspects of performance, structured on-the-job coaching provided instruction, guidance and feedback to the underwriters. The organization provided coaches with training, supporting guides, playbooks and ongoing coaching.
Resource library: The organization had extensive resources but worked to reorganize libraries to make them effective development resources.
Communities of practice: Underwriters worked remotely most of the time, so the organization established communities of practice to support training experiences, encourage collaboration, and enable coaches and underwriters to engage across the development experience.
Performance assessments: To achieve the business goals to reduce time to reach proficiency and improve the consistency of underwriting, the organization decided to include performance assessments as part of the evaluation process to measure performance milestones. Knowledge checks gathered evidence of knowledge acquisition, and performance assessments engineered scenarios and job-specific work, assessed by coaches under real-world settings.
The blended learning model was part of a larger design of a development map that outlined the development experience from “basic” to “advanced” and in various product areas (e.g., auto, general liability, umbrella, worker compensation, etc.).
Blended learning can be an inventive way to achieve business goals, improve performance and solve training challenges. Watch this short video to learn more.