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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Blended Learning Dead? - Huh?

I ran across a post by David Wilson - Is "Blended" really dead? He resides in the UK and during a recent discussion by folks who visited firms in the US, the general sense was:
"Blended Learning is still in the literature, but not discussed seriously"

Wow, really? If you are talking corporate learning, then almost everything is Blended Learning these days. The only thing I can surmise is either:

a. The definition of Blended Learning was a very limited definition of face-to-face instructor-led training with some courseware. Of course, even that is being done a lot.


b. It is so much part of everything that's being done that no one thinks about it as being anything worth discussing. In other words -
Of course we'll use a blended learning approach. Next question.
If you look at my Learning Design in a NutShell, the outcome of the learning design is a blend. Today, these blends are more and more interesting.

I can't imagine what they were saying.


Anonymous said...

Tony, thanks for picking up this up. I would be really interested in what your readers (US and otherwise) make of this issue.

The statement from the DTI research was unequivocal - blended was old news! Like you I think this is not a correct message, but I don't think it's just confusing blended as a label versus blended as a practice.

From our research, we still blended as the fundamental model for any structured capability development, as well as for high-impact project-based learning. Here is a link to some of the public domain research info we've put out on blended.

One additional point. One of the problems of blended was that it was a hype jargon, and became a bandwagon for lots of people to jump on, and subsequently off. This always happens of course, the equivalent for this year is probably "informal learning". Now, I don't mean these things are important or right, just that they encourage or allow many people (customers and suppliers) to: start using the term for a while, make some cosmetic changes, and then adopt the next bandwagon as it emerges. We see this all the time. Makes you look like your leading edge, but at the same time results in little different outcomes or any sustainable change in thinking and approach.

Its the latter that really interests me - for blended, for informal, or for any from any significant innovation!

Tony Karrer said...


I took a look at a few of the presentations, papers off of the link. Good stuff.

I'm hoping you are subscribed to this comment stream, because you made some points that raise questions...

You said - "[Blended Learning] Requires profound change for L&D organisations - Impacts and challenges all stages of the life cycle" ... You also mentioned a "shift in economics for Training Suppliers" ...

=> It's funny because I've seen much more incremental change (as you pointed out in your comment) than "profound" change. I'm curious what you see as the big changes?

You also said in a blog post - "The drivers for media decisions are frequently logistical considerations rather than learning design considerations; scale, time to deliver and cost not least, rather than learning effectiveness, retention or ability to apply in the workplace."

=> I don't agree. I think that Learning Design is an art where you have to consider a whole host of issues to ultimately select a design that is a reasonable fit. Logistical issues - can you make it happen - is important, but you aren't making those choices without also considering what you are trying to accomplish. Most people, in my experience, are not just going through the motions. They are trying to create something workable within the myriad of constraints. (My guess is that we agree on this, but I'm curious.)

Finally, it seems like we end on the same note: "Ultimately yes, blended learning will just become learning."

=> Possibly why people say it's not that interesting these days.

Thanks for pointing me to this. Very interesting reading and I look forward to continued dialog.


Dave Wilkins said...

It's funny that you refer to "blended learning" as "hype jargon." I've always found it to be one of the least hyped and jargony sorts of concepts -- at least as compared to nanolearning, or "talent management" or workplace learning. Blended learning for me has always been an obvious, straightforward descriptor of an obvious, straightforward and impactful concept.

As for whose doing it? A huge percentage of our customers are -- from Bank of Montreal blending simulations and WBT with PSS models to California Casualty blending simulations with classroom training to Chevron doing a combination of ILT, virtual classroom and WBT for a global AIDS / HIV awareness program. Honestly, I would have a harder time finding clients who aren't doing some amount of blending.

The questions are I guess:

Blending what?
Blending when?

If we are just talking about blending live instructors with WBT delivery, then my comments may be overly enthusiastic. I view blending as any disparate delivery model combined with another: simulation plus EPSS = a blend in my definition since these are traditionally not connected. Bonus points if the sims are used in WBT's as well. Classroom and simulation together is a blend. Virtual classroom and ILT is a blend. Wiki's plus Raptivity chunks would be a blend.

"When?" is another key question. My experience indicates that blending tends to happen on higer profile projects, and less so on "run of the mill" stuff. That could be an artifact of my invovlement with higher-level projects - I'm not sure.

Of course if this perception is correct -- that higher profile delivery is more apt to be blended, the question is why? Cost reduction? Learner impacts? Necessity? I have seen blending done for all three reasons. Clearly the most impactful is the learner-related, and you generally see the most enlightned groups thinking this way. But I'm not sure from a business perspective there is any less value in doing it this way out of necessity or to reduce costs.

I'd be curious if you have found any trends in usage patterns of blended. It's good to read a contrarian view now and again. Thanks for raising this issue.

Anonymous said...

Tony, some thoughts on your questions.

I do think blended both requires and results in profound change, and the lack of it tends to reinforce my view that most organisations haven't gone through those changes - yet. Can this happen incrementally, yes, of course. But it takes a whole sequence of incremental changes to get to the same end point and often I think organisations revert to type before that. For example, how many training providers offer a blended programs - loads. How many have added in e-learning elements in the blends - loads. These are all signs of incremental changes. How many of them have rewritten their classroom training materials to properly integrate with the e-content - far fewer. How many of them have changed their dominant charging model away from event cost to total process cost - even fewer. How many of them have stopped measuring classroom trainer utilisation as a key performance measure - almost none of them.

That's kind of what I mean. Once you go along a more radical blended path you have to redefine much of the basic assumptions about the way the whole operation works. I just don't see much evidence for that in both organisations and big training vendors. Sure, I see they adopt some of the clothes and some basic elements, but struggle to follow it through as it needs a more profound (that word again) realignment of how they operate, what they value, what they measure, what choices they offer and so on.

Our research indicated strongly that adopting a blended approach as standard was often a trojan horse for many of those other associated changes.

Re the design question. I do agree with you, but my frustration is that blended design gets treated by almost everyone as a media selection process - where do i use e-learning, where do I use classroom, etc. Look at most of the literature out there and you'll end up reading how to do that, often combined together in fairly fixed structures. This to me is weak.

My argument is that blending is first about process not just about components (i.e. the mix not the ingredients). The components are important, but the strength of the blend is in the combination and overall process.

The other point from the post you mentioned is that blending should also ultimately be about blending not just learning, but work and learning. This is the current weakness of any learning event that can be addressed by a blend. Its hard to take an event into your work, but should be easy to take a blend as you have more time, more elements, and most importantly, a learning process that incorporate world real learning on the job. That's why I see blended emerging as the dominant model for all core capability development.

Phew. Hope that's helpful. Final point - we agree its all just learning. But let's be a bit more suspicious of dropping the labels without truly embracing the change!

Have fun. DAVID

Tony Karrer said...

David and Dave,

Both of you have provided some great comments and I'm realizing that I'm back worried a bit that people define blended learning differently. I personally think of blended as involving pretty much any kind of solution that you can think of including tools, EPSS, etc. Of course, my definition of Blended only gets as big as my toolbox. For example, changing compensation is not something that I know about or do, therefore, I may find out its an issue but I wouldn't do more than comment on it.

Okay given that - Dave - you ask about trends in Blended Learning - certainly I'm seeing more solutions that rely less on instruction and more on access to reference materials or other kinds of additional resources. Instruction time is being made as short as possible. Zero is best.

David - I think we are going to disagree about how "profound" the changes are. Incremental is winning the day right now - at least as we head from eLearning 1.0 to eLearning 1.3. We add a new element into the blend incrementally - out of need given the constraints. We have zero time for instruction, okay, let's give them lots of leave behind tools. We have no budget/time to develop, great let's have SMEs create content with Rapid eLearning tools. I don't claim that this is optimal, well thought out, or anything like that. It is simply reality. And, organizations don't do anything "profound" as part of it. We all muddle through.

Interestingly, all three of us agree on the importance of time/process relative to the blend. The affordance of hitting more audiences, more times is HUGE and is something we have yet to learn to take advantage of, and is a more profound kind of change.

We also will definitely have more profound leaps required to go to eLearning 2.0 solutions.

Or maybe that's your point? :)

Anonymous said...

Tony, all good stuff. :)

Final comment then. I also see incremental changes. But when you come back at the end, once those changes have bedded in, and other further changes have been made, new elements added, does it look anything like it was before?

For example, the 1st generation blend of an example 5 day development programme may start crudely with chopping a day or two off the front and replacing it with some e-learning, but this doesn't really work. It probably ends up as a whole mix: upfront e-learning for basic knowledge acquisition, e-assessment linking to additional supported on-line learning, discussion and planning sessions with your manager, a customised scenario-based workshop and collaborative session, some on the job coaching, and then maybe a final assessment.

This change may well have evolve over a series of steps. 1st we added the e-learning upfront, and found that the classroom session needed to be restructured. So we changed it into an application workshop, but realised learners needed a broader pre-knowledge of the scenario to make it work. So we add some more remote learning about the scenarios, and maybe the assessment to validate their readiness. Then we realise the workshop needs to be supported to make sure the new skills and behaviours are applied in the workplace. So add a coaching element. But that needs to be properly focused to ensure real performance outcomes. So we add in a management conversation and planning session. And it goes on ....

Overall the effort may be comparable to the original 5 days, but now its blended over time and with work. How much does it resemble the original? Almost no resemblence. How does it impact the learner time? Massively - no longer a 5 day block where I turn up and get trained. Now I have to monitor and push the process myself or I will drop out. Now I have actually do something on the job. Really deliver something - with someone monitoring and assessing what I do.

How much does it impact the delivery organisation? Massively - I used to allocate a trainer for 5 days in a block and it was done. Now I allocate them for 1-2 days in the process, but I need someone with real experience of the topic because they are running detailed roleplays and scenarios, not just doing basic knowledge transfer. I laso need to redevelop the workshop materials because they have changed extensively. And make sure they link with the e-learning content and assessments. I also need to book and get management time. And who is doing the coaching? How do we allocate and manage their time? How do I manage my delivery resources and their utilisation? How much does it actually cost me to run the programme? And how many people do I need on the programme at once to cover my cost (or make a profit if I'm a training provider)? Oh, and what training facilities do I need to support programme delivery?

Sorry to waffle on, but the more you develop the story, the bigger the overall change gets. Whilst it sounded simple to start with, to make it truly work and effective, the logical outcomes are much more diverse and complex. (I guess it wouldn't be very blended if it didn't). The implications of all those changes are huge - on the learner, on the trainers, on the delivery function and its economics, even on line management sometimes. Now scale that example to all your core capability programmes and tell me that impact is not "profound".



Tony Karrer said...

Great comments and certainly you have a lot of new, challenging logistic issues, design issues, etc. to deal with with the new design. And I completely agree that as you space the learning over time and especially as you embed it as part of work, it becomes a more profound kind of change. However, I think we agree that most of this profound change happens in an incremental way, thus the barrier (and risk) is much lower than other kinds of changes.