With the last year resulting in training programmes shifting to 100% online delivery, we need a new model for blended learning.
The original definition of blended learning revolved around online elements supporting the traditional face-to-face elements, with each complimenting the other. The synchronous (simultaneous) classroom element, facilitating group instruction and interaction, and the asynchronous online element, where learners could access content as and when it suited them.
My definition of blended learning is a little more fluid – learning content that provides a mix of offerings – from printed job aids to e-learning, to recorded webinars or face-to-face – the central premise being about choice. Learner choice to access content in a way and at a time and place that suits them.
Over the last year, however, most training programmes have had to switch to fully online delivery, which raises the question – what does blended learning look like in an all-digital world?
Does the face-to-face element simply get replaced with online delivery, or does the whole blend need revisiting?
This is a question I’m keen to explore.
Digital, but simple
A few Google searches on blended learning showed that most of the articles and blog posts written on the topic have come from either the education sector, where models of learning are slightly different to the workplace or from e-learning/LMS (Learning Management System) providers. This is where it is interesting, because a blended model does NOT require either e-learning or an LMS environment to work. You can go as low-tech or as high-tech as you like. An e-learning/LMS free solution could be a pdf with links to extra digital resources or using a tool such as Wakelet to create a learning pathway. Digital, but simple.
So, claiming my own definition of blended learning of being one that provides choice and flexibility, I propose that this ‘new’ blended model, in a fully online world, needs fresh consideration. The main reason for this is when switching a face-to-face element to an online element, something may be lost.
What is lost with an all-digital learning process?
Anyone that has delivered online will know it is different to being in the same physical space as your delegates. An all-day face-to-face training event has the capacity to offer ‘extra’ space for casual conversation – when delegates arrive, break-times, lunch times, and the opportunity for delegates to remain at the end to ask any additional questions. It is during this time that trust can be built, pertinent and individual questions can be asked, and tacit learning can be achieved.
Even being in a different physical ‘space’ – a training room, or an off-site location, can help with freeing up a participants’ mind to learn new things and considering fresh perspectives.
Transferring face-to-face training to an online setting brings the challenge of recreating the dynamics for group or pair work. This should be where peers can practice skills, or coach each other, or just talk and reflect. Zoom rooms are reasonable but they have their limitations.
Throw into the mix the time factor. We’ve all heard of Zoom fatigue. Trainers are naturally reducing of the length of workshops to compensate for this, but what gets left in and what gets taken out?
The risk is that key elements that contribute to learning, the casual conversation, the meaningful exchange with peers which can help cement accountability, can be lost.
So, it is not a like-for-like swap. The ‘whole blend’ needs revisiting, like a chemical formula, to achieve the same result.
A new blend
With some employers opting to keep all-digital training for the foreseeable future, it’s important we pay attention to what really works. While it is still early for too much evidence backed data, my points to consider for a new ‘blended’ model of all-digital learning include:
Adapt group activities for digital delivery
Group activities that may have worked in a classroom setting may not work in a digital setting, so careful consideration and planning is needed to make them effective. It’s important not to shy away from converting them. Any interaction, even if just messaging in the chat box, is better than no interaction at all.
Additional learning content
If content is likely to be compromised by a shorter training session, consider adding in access to additional learning content, that learners can access at a time that suits them. If your content isn’t readily adaptable, consider using some ‘off-the-shelf’ content. Providers such as LearningPlanet have an affordable selection of over 270 micro-learning videos on a broad range of management, leadership, and customer service and topics. Participants will appreciate the extra content, and this can be a step towards shifting ownership of learning to the individual.
Personalise the programme with coaching
To counteract the loss of conversation in the training room, consider adding in coaching as a way of ensuring participants are engaged and accountable. This can take place outside of the online training sessions and is a powerful way of adding to the overall learning experience. If coaching by the trainer is not an option, consider a group coaching or peer-to-peer model – in the style of an ‘accountability group’ to support actions agreed in the training session. Alternatively, a subject matter expert could support these conversations.
Keep the group/team spirit going through chat forums
Having an active chat forum running through the duration of the programme can be a useful way to connect the participants and help foster a culture of support that is harder to create in a shortened, online session. Organisations may have their own in-house chat forums, using MS Teams, Slack or Yammer for example. At the very simplest, a WhatsApp group can achieve the same effect.
In summary, it’s not enough to ‘move’ an existing programme online by just swapping in a Zoom or Teams session in place of a classroom session. All learning aims, objectives and how to meet them, including those that are stated and those that are assumed, will need careful consideration.