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Understanding the benefits of blended learning

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Blended learning is often misunderstood but, when implemented properly, it can help HR and L&D to extend training capacity, maximise in-house resources, enhance the skills of internal practitioners and transform processes

Why is blended learning misunderstood?

There is a lot of talk about blended learning but many learning and development departments are not maximising its potential. This is largely because of their interpretation of the term. Often, they think it means merely splitting the delivery mechanism into face-to-face and online learning so you have two primary components but there are many more components that should be introduced. For the blend to be successful, it is also vital that the component parts are held together by a framework and a system that helps to control, manage and support the learning process.

Where many blended learning programmes go wrong

One of the biggest mistakes made by both blended learning providers and L&D departments is that they fail to support the learner. This is especially vital in the early days when attention and focus is most likely to fall off. A huge amount of discipline is required by learners to stay focused so L&D practitioners must ensure they control the process and offer close support. 

If you look at a management development programme in a traditional sense, no matter how hard you try it will still be 10 isolated events. However, if you support the training course with a blend of learning options or components which demands that they do things between the face-to-face events, the learning is transformed from several unconnected one-day events that could be forgotten into a process. This is a highly cost- and time-effective way to add value to the training. Whether you are talking about a short project management course of traditionally two days or a diploma that takes two years, L&D professionals need to continually look at how they can transform the training process from being a single-component event activity into a multiple-component one. 

What other component parts can make up the blend?

As well as online and classroom-based learning, content can include virtual and asynchronous workshops, documentation and information repositories, assignments and work-related projects, tests and examinations, and links to research and additional sources of data to encourage people to explore a subject themselves and reflect on the learning.

As well as content material, a critical part of the blend is enabling the learner to access other learners via forums or continuous learning groups or sets. If a learner has 14 people they can easily refer to on operational management issues, for instance, and those people are all fellow managers with various levels of experience, then they can share ideas and experiences and seek advice on matters directly linked to the business. This, along with work-based projects or assignments can conjoin to tie the educational process to business objectives and drive real business improvement which is, after all, what training is all about.

How valuable are online components?

Online components are fundamentally important and can totally change the shape of the learning when a programme is designed well. There is little point, for instance, in focusing totally on teaching theory and knowledge in face-to-face workshops and seminars. Much of this can be provided online, prior to these critical sessions. Then, when the learners do come together, the focus is on contextualising, putting knowledge and theory into practice and discussing and understanding what has been learned. This approach is so much more powerful than single-component learning since the face-to-face meetings will be all the richer because of the prior knowledge that has been acquired. 

What does 'blended learning' mean for the learner?

Blended learning should never just be about adding something else to the matrix just because you can. The big advantage of a blended programme for the learner is that you can also cater for an individual's different learning styles and preferences, therefore offering choice and options rather than enforced variety in many instances. What you are also saying by using a blended approach is that you respect the fact that they have a job to do and a life to lead or a working environment that isn't conducive to learning. This approach will enable them to do things in a manner that suits them in terms of structure with plenty of flexibility.

A senior NHS IT manager undertaking a management programme using LRI's Blended Process Model has said that there was no way he would have put himself forward for the course if it hadn't been for the flexibility offered by such a blended programme – he simply wouldn't have had the time to do it. This isn't to say blended programmes demand less commitment but quite the reverse as the emphasis is on the learner to discipline him or herself in order to progress through the programme.

How does it alter the role of L&D departments?

Blended learning programmes change the way L&D and HR departments are responsible for an individual's development. Very often we find L&D departments that are full of CIPD-qualified training practitioners who are weighed down by the administration process. What they are desperate to do is get more involved in hands-on learning support and advice. When implemented properly, blended learning programmes demand that they do just that and they need to start acting as change agents. It is no longer just about booking an individual on a course or standing up following a set delivery, but providing true learner support and advice throughout the programme’s life – this could involve being a virtual coach or tutor, a face-to-face coach, a facilitator and more. So professional CIPD qualifications are put to good use and the in-house L&D capability is maximised. Practitioners are using their skills and knowledge (often paid for by their employers) instead of it going to waste.

Can blended learning extend training capacity?

If you are sending employees on or delivering a traditional 15-20-day leadership and management certificate, it would be difficult for most companies to release the time or indeed have the necessary budget to put more than 50 people through this course during a year. However, using a blended approach, the same course could be delivered in maybe six, seven or eight days which is incredibly helpful in organisations with shrinking or frozen training budgets. But it isn't just about increasing capacity and maximising resources: you are offering employees a more flexible and practical way of learning; you are potentially changing the form of the “taught” elements, utilising the real skills of practitioners; and you are giving L&D practitioners the opportunity to develop their roles and move with the times. Most importantly, you are turning learning events into processes and this is the real mantra here.

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