One of my favorite guilty pleasures is The Great British Bake Off. It’s a perfect blend of quintessentially British stoicism and quiet drama, and very much reminds me of home.
In addition to creating nostalgia for desserts that contain enough sugar to make Willy Wonka blush, it has also introduced me to the art of complementary flavors and the importance of balance and measure. But more on that later, as the more astute among you may have already spotted the tortured analogy between my introduction and the title keywords “blended learning.”
What is blended learning?
It’s likely you’ve heard of, and possibly experienced, blended learning. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, blended learning is typically defined as a learning experience that blends online and in–person delivery. This may include eLearnings, webinars, classroom-based instruction, and workshops.
Blended learning is most prevalent in the education sector, where the curriculum is delivered in chunks over time, each building on the previous session. (Last month I wrote a piece on how adopting this philosophy could benefit CLE.) However, there are examples of blended learning in professional development, particularly in organizations and industries that have a robust competency model.
Although an online component is usually present in blended learning, there’s an argument to be made for expanding the definition so it doesn’t have to contain an in–person or online element. Instead, what if blended learning referred to a range of modalities that are appropriate for the desired outcomes? For example, a team project spaced out over four weeks that includes a 60–minute in–person CLE led by a facilitator who pulls the learning together and establishes next steps.
Blended learning: benefits and obstacles
The most obvious benefit of blended learning is 24/7 access to resources and materials online. Moving course content to an online environment frees up valuable class time for more advanced work that’s best served through interaction and feedback.
In addition, online forums can encourage more learners to contribute to the course. Then, facilitators can use these experiences to personalize the subsequent in–person content. Think back to an in–person course where 80% of the talking came from 20% of the participants. As someone who likes to share their opinion, I know I’m guilty of this and consciously work to not dominate the conversation.
Studies have shown that men dominate conversations in group settings as well as unconsciously devalue female contributions in classrooms, while overvaluing the contributions of men. Online forums can help mitigate this imbalance, by leveling the playing field and providing a safer venue for those who wouldn’t otherwise speak up.
Finally, blended learning can offer several entry points into a topic. For example, imagine a half-day seminar on well-being in the workplace. Where do you focus your content? Well-being can mean different things to different people. What if learners had a choice of prerequisite courses covering “What is Well-being?” based on their needs, practice area, or geography? That would free up in–person sessions to focus on strategies and tactics to address the issue, in whatever form is relevant to the learner.
It’s worth noting that many of the benefits of blended learning are based on specific assumptions. These are: learners have the digital literacy to manage the software used, they will see the format as a benefit and not a barrier, and they have access to the online tools necessary to complete the learning.
In addition, the more requirements a course has and tools it uses (e.g., online access, in-person courses, discussion forums, etc.) the higher the dropout rate, and studies have shown both positive and negative effects of blended learning vs. traditional classroom teaching. It seems that blended learning is great for some, less so for others.
But one of the biggest obstacles to implementing blended learning is the upfront cost of online content. Whether it’s a formal eLearning or a webinar, the initial cost in resources, and training and development can be significant. However, if you have a large audience the per–learner cost can be minimal.
Striking the right balance
So, back to the baking. The key is finding a balance of complimentary flavors for your audience. Too much information in the online component becomes a knowledge dump. Research has shown that this can lead to poor retention results with obvious impacts on other parts of the “blend.” However, if the online component seems frivolous, you run the risk of learners questioning its benefit.
Before developing a blended learning – or any learning for that matter — it’s important to identify a goal. What problem are you hoping to solve, or challenge are you looking to address? Then, ask these questions during the design process to help you stay focused on that goal:
- How does this component contribute to the course goal?
- What content could be moved to an online/asynchronous environment for learners to reference on their own time?
- How will the online course incorporate activities to account for the lack of a presenter?
- What additional online resources are available that would help the content?
- How should I use the facilitator if the course doesn’t require lecture–style knowledge transfer?
- Do the learners need to discuss the concepts before the in–person? How do I facilitate that discussion and capture the results (e.g., a Wiki, email chain, or Slack)?
- How can I reference and reinforce the concepts in each of the connected courses?
Structuring your blended learning
All this sounds interesting enough, but what does it mean in practice? That depends on your resources and audience. Your first consideration should be whether you have high quality existing courses that you can build upon. Maybe there are concepts you’d like the learners to master before they enter the course. Or there are more complex ideas you could explore in a follow–up course.
Whether you’re starting from scratch or building on existing resources, here are some blended learning course structures to consider:
- The Flipped Classroom Model
The flipped classroom model is probably the most familiar format. The course content is presented first in an online eLearning, which is followed by an in–person session that dives deeper into the concepts, exploring practical strategies and contextual considerations and providing time for discussion and simulations. This model is easiest for managing CLE hours.
- The Project–Based Model
This model is best for teams that have existing relationships. An in-person session first outlines the course content. A subsequent online project is the practical application of this teaching. Findings are recorded and feedback is given online. This model is a great way to tackle difficult–to–solve problems.
- The Mastery Model
The mastery model is best used for professional development goals that are tied to organizational competencies. Learners are given access to relevant topic resources and then participate in online or in-person practice activities that help them master the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) needed. Mastery is demonstrated through formal or self-assessment and recorded online.
- Virtual Flipped Classroom Model
This model offers a solution for learners who have difficulty accessing in–person courses. The model is structured like the flipped classroom model, but the in–person deep-dive is done remotely, usually in smaller groups so comment and discussion is available. This method can also allow a good facilitator to be in many places without the cost in travel and time.
As I mentioned, blended learning courses aren’t for everyone. But as our interactions with the world become more and more personalized, the CLE industry needs to offer a range of pathways to the same learning destination. Blended learning is a tool in your toolbox that can help.
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