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Preview: Talking about Learning: Blended Learning

Talking about Learning: Blended Learning

Learning Experts discuss ideas in the world of e-learning

Updated: 2015-11-28T14:25:09.955+00:00


Back soon!


As you may have gathered I do have a day job in e-learning and it's been so busy that blogging has had to take a back seat.
I'm taking a break from work for a few weeks now and on my return I'll start again - with real life examples as promised.

Ideas in brief : 7


There is much on the 'e' front we can use.

Virtual assets include: 2mT ('2-minute training' i.e. byte-sized e-courses), blogs, code wars (programming competitions), customised e-courses, e-books, e-papers, e-simulations, e-tests, FAQs, off-the-shelf e-courses, LmT ('50-minute training' i.e. longer e-courses) , PowerPoint presentations, threaded discussions, web sites, wikis and XmT ('10-minute training' i.e. short e-courses)

Some of these have f2f equivalents; some don't.

Making the change


I have been a bit harsh in seeming to blame the preoccupation with the classroom for obstructing the transformation of training but I'm using 'classroom' as shorthand for a teacher-centred, command-and-control, bounded learning experience where students are kept on a conceptual short-leash.

What we need to accept is that we have to relinquish control. That doesn't mean allowing students to learn by accident - it's not the 60's after all - but to behave as a partnership. The most effective results will be when the student manages her own learning. With BL we have the means to do that. Stereotypes give us a rough idea of what to expect from different groups: we know the generations approach things differently, but so do the two sexes and so do different cultures. Add to that the well-known variation in learning styles and it's a pretty rich mix.

Some of this is hard to accept. While we acknowledge different learning styles other aspects are harder to digest.

Doing it differently

Doing something different requires resources so it's only worth doing for high-value projects. This may mean high value in terms of money - for example a residential course that's really expensive to run - but it might also mean high value in terms of the business: a change management program after a merger, a new process for customer-facing staff, a technology-system roll-out. In fact any project that can not afford to fail.

Reaping the benefits

If we put our efforts into high-value projects then this is where the BL idea of the 'learning never stops' will have the greatest effect. I was talking recently to someone doing consultancy with a major company that had just completed 6Sigma training. He said that what was so extraordinary was that they were still totally clueless. They were walking around with the badges and yet the training might as well have been painted on. It had made absolutely no difference to their behaviour. The 'sheep-dip' instruction method of training was probably to blame in this case.


So let's have a go: in the next post we'll test-drive some simple examples. In the meantime I have two things to ask you.

A request

Firstly: if you have any examples to share with the readers then please send them in. They might be successes or disasters, how to do it or how not to do it.

An Invitation

Secondly: hear someone else in SkillSoft talk about BL. The web event is on April 26th at 2pm EST. The link is on the right....

Ideas in brief : 6


Live events can be either face-to-face or virtual.
Face-to-face ones include: class, coaching, conference, lecture, meeting, observation, observed exercise, role play, tutorial, workshop.
Virtual ones include: ask-the-expert, chat with a mentor, chat with peers, e-mail, e-messaging, helpdesk, mentored exercise; polling; quizzes; RSS; telephone; texting; virtual classroom

Ideas in brief : 5


I mentioned 70+ items in the toolkit. What are they?

This is the first batch: learning interventions/assets/resources that are
on paper:-

abstracts; aid memoires; book; checklist; crib sheet; exam; exercises; flyer; manual; newsletter; poems; poster; snail-mail; study guide; test; white paper; workbook.

Over-heard, over-hyped and over here


Are we just getting carried away?

Some readers will be shaking their head wryly and thinking: it's the dot-com bubble all over again. They might be prepared to countenance a little levity in the classroom - perhaps a game during the coffee break or an amusing video - but they are still thinking: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And they certainly don't want the upheaval of changing things only to find they don't work.

This would be a shame as the possibilities are exciting. The horse-and-cart isn't 'broken' but it has been superseded. Our classroom still works - but it's not the answer to everything. We owe it to our customers to investigate the new ideas and if they work better then we should use them.

A clever idea

Many years ago when I was a computer science student we were set a project to demonstrate our understanding of logic programming. Logic programming underpins game theory so we were told to program a particular game. How did we know if we were any good at programming? Was the marking to assess whether we could write elegant code, use obscure mechanisms or format it neatly? That would be the conventional way of assessing a project, whereas the real question was: could we deliver the result?

The desired result was to be able to program a winning game - so each student' program had to beat the others. With ten points for entering the knock-out competition and ten points for each round of the competition you got through, the projects marked themselves - on the only meaningful criteria (though you were unlucky if you met the winning program early on!)


This is probably the greatest strength of BL. By looking at the desired outcome in terms of fit-for-purpose it is possible to design a course that concentrates on the essentials. If the course is about life-saving then nothing beats jumping in the pool and trying the techniques out. If the course is customer-service then get the phantom caller to ring up and check the student's acquired skills.

For something like selling skills there is always more to learn. There is always someone who does it better and sales' skills can always be polished. Shadowing experts, discussing with colleagues, following research and reading up on new ideas - all of these help deliver the result.

Doing too much

By concentrating on essentials we find some interesting things happen. Lots of theory may be redundant. How many courses have you been on where you only used 20% of what was covered in the course? By looking at outcomes rather than formal requirements courses can be made more effective. The effect is similar to cataloging a library. Did you know that most of the books in your local library are probably not in the catalogue? A book will only be in the catalogue if someone takes it out. Most books are never taken out so why waste time cataloguing them?


So, rather than say how do we cover content in the classroom we should be saying what do I need to do to get the desired outcome?

Only when we are very clear about the purpose of the training can we look into our toolkit and select the best tools.

veni, vidi, wiki


Or, as Julius Caesar might have said, "I came. I saw. I wrote it all up in my blog".
That excruciating title pun is probably only recognisable to the radio generation but the reality is recognisable to generation Y. There are an estimated 4 million bloggers out there. I wonder how many people are writing books? Not 4 million, I suspect. If Julius Caesar were recounting his saga of battle, murder and sudden death today, it could well be as a blog.

Here and now

Someone has already commented that these ideas will not really take root in the cold business environment. I disagree. These ideas fit now. We are still viewing the business environment through the filter of early generations. For confirmation check this article in today's Guardian newspaper.

I will be running a Blended Learning Workshop later this month (SkillSoft customers only, I'm afraid) and will use this blog to answer some of the questions that may arise afterwards. We can keep a dialogue going long after the formal event has finished and hopefully the learning will continue.

New tools for old ideas

It has always been possible to create a learning community to continue after formal events but it has not been as easy as it is now. Collaboration software like Sharepoint allows easy creation of dedicated environments for continued learning. In some ways it re-creates those largely long-lost days of residential courses when discussion and reflection occurred in the evening after the intense work of the day.

Working towards an end

When the idea of blended learning is introduced most people concentrate on the activity that takes place at the beginning. It is certainly true that this may be where the best cost-saving can be gained. By shortening the formal part of the event with pre-work expensive training time can be replaced by more effective and cheaper individual preparation. However if we consider the improvement in learning that BL can introduce this is much more likely to occur at the end of a course - an intervention that is rarely considered or addressed.

A perfect BL event


What is important in a lecture?

Is the critical thing that you need to be sitting close to someone so you can copy their notes when you wake up? Perhaps it's important for the lecturer to know who's listening? Maybe it's the only way to get people out of bed in the morning?

Of course none of these things is relevant: what's important is getting the facts, opinions and ideas of the lecturer aired to the learners. If they can ask questions that's good, too, but doesn't often happen. The OU knew that when it started recording lectures and airing them in the small hours.

Who knows how many of these broadcasts were watched by people in their pyjamas eating jam sandwiches and doodling on the cat? Did it matter?

The essential activity was getting the information across: all else was a diversion. Dr Bill Ashraf realised this in 2006 and brilliantly re-invented the lecture by looking at the need, the learners and the media.
Dr Bill Ashraf

However, if you listen to what Judith Moritz says in this account you will see that she has
missed the point

What he did that was so clever was not the transmission of lectures to MP3 players but the follow-on activity of taking questions by text (neat) and then answering the whole audience in a blog (brilliant)!

He has preserved the essence of the lecture while not imposing an end when he walked out the theatre, but he has done far more than that. By using generation X friendly media he has started a dialogue with the students that is open-ended. Discussion and analysis of the ideas could go on indefinitely. He can refine and amplify the ideas dynamically in response to the text questions. He can clarify parts, offer alternative explanations and refute arguments. And he only has to do it once.

He has used the lecture as a launch-pad to start the learning not as a device to curtail it.
This is blended learning at its best. Simple, inspired and effective.

Ideas in brief : 4


Learners are different - even if they are on the same course. It is perfectly possible for them to get to the same objective by different paths. There is rarely a correct way to study and learn. If some of your learners like books, then let them read their way through the course. If someone else needs her hand held then provide group or individual tuition . Happy to do e-learning? - then do it that way.

It is possible to blend even within the same course and thus optimise the learning experience.

So what is blended learning, then?


In my first post I said that I was going to say what I thought blended learning was.

As Humpty-Dumpty said in Through the looking Glass: 'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'

So this is what I mean and it's quite simple really. There are three facets to BL:
  • Blend to the learner
  • Blend to the media
  • Blend to the need

(You can check Clive's 3 facets in the archive)

1. Blend to the learner

We know we need to consider the different kinds of user. We have always known that people learn in different ways but we also need to be aware that different generations approach learning differently.

2. Blend to the media

We know there are many ways to provide 'learning interventions'. These are the items in our toolkit and vary from traditional paper-based items (everything from Abstracts to White-papers via poems) through face-2-face (Classes to Workshops) to virtual (Blogs to Wikis).

So all we need to look at is the need.

And this is probably the most interesting bit.....

3. Blend to the need

When you lose the 'command-and-control' approach to learning you take the limitations off. No course need ever be described as 'completed'. Obviously there are milestones that we may need people to get through, but it's a bit like the driving test: when you pass your driving test it just means that you are safe to go on the roads alone. It does not mean that you know everything about driving.

Take something as apparently concrete as a software programming course. Once you've studied the syntax, learned the rules, written a few toy programs and done a little project it seems like you know how to program. It doesn't. It's only the beginning. Just because you have read Kernighan & Ritchie doesn't mean we want you programming missiles.

Non-stop learning

And this is where BL comes into its own. Although it was always possible in a limited way, the rise of the Web and the explosion in peer-to-peer and community activity means that learning need never stop. We can leave the anxious trainer back in the classroom, still fretting over the loss of control over what we are learning, and now connect with the those who will take us further forward.

Tomorrow: what does a blended course look like?

Ideas in brief : 3


Often overlooked but very significant: what is the audience size? If only 6 people will go through a course during a typical year then there is little ROI in being too creative. The larger the audience the more time you should spend building a blended solution.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


We have already looked at the first of the three important aspects of re-inventing the way we do things. I have already argued that we need to consider the different types of learners in an organisation - the different generations. The next thing to look at is the tools we use.

It's tempting to think that adding new technology automatically transforms what we deliver. It doesn't. The label 'classroom' is shorthand for a style of provision that could better be described as 'command-and-control'. School teachers are often told that the definition of a good classroom technique is 'to have going on in the classroom only what you want going on'. And that's where the danger lies.

The person at the front is in control. She decides what facts will be revealed, how they will be interpreted and what conclusions will be drawn. She decides the pace and the outcome. She is the gateway to knowledge - and the gatekeeper.

Going virtual

(image) Consider the Open University. In its early days it was given as an example of what we should be moving towards. However distance learning is not the same as blended learning. Just recording the lecturer and transmitting the lecture at 2 a.m. does not change the centralised nature of the activity. It is a bit more convenient for the student but it's still command and control. Our new generation of students will not be fooled by this.
Adding computers to the mix doesn't help either. The early days of CBT didn't change anything - in fact you could say they made it worse. It was the electronic equivalent of Moses coming down from the mountain with the ten commandments on his PDA.

Spinning a Web

The arrival of the Internet and with it, more importantly, the Web has provided the real breakthrough. The Web is fundamentally democratic and, for the first time, adds so many new tools to the toolkit that we can finally make blended learning work.

Of the 71 items in our kit, nearly 40 are electronic and nearly 20 require Internet access. In many ways these last items are the important ones. Why? Because it is the rise of peer-to-peer activity that will provide the last piece in the blending jigsaw.

Ideas in brief : 2


Make a list of the different ways people communicate within your organisation and what the rules are about their use. For example, does everyone you need to reach have an email account? Do you use the Tannoy? Can you reach your audience by mobile phone?

Ideas in brief : 1


When you start to design a new course, don't think 'How am I going to replace the classroom element?'. Start with a blank sheet and ask instead 'What do I need to achieve?'

Getting down to basics


Following Nina's suggestion I am starting a Hints and Tips column in the form of a Quick Start Guide on the blog.

Thanks, Nina!

Any reader is free to add a comment: just click on the link at the end of each post - the one that tells you how many comments there are.

All change


I'm only posting short items 'til the line spacing issue is fixed - the one that makes the posts look unreadably long - so here's today's thought:

Watching Michael Caine in the Ipcress File recently - which is one, long hunt around London filmed when the world was in black and white - it occurred to me that if someone had tossed a handful of mobile phones onto the set, the plot would have evaporated.

Today, training's a bit like that. We have new technology in a new world, and the new cast don't see why we should follow the old script.

Tomorrow: 'You were only meant to blow the bl**dy doors off'

How wide is the generation gap?


Talking about my generationAh! The great music of the age – or possibly not if the '60s only exist for you in the history books. It didn't for me and my view of the world is set by the feeling that we seemed to be the lucky generation*. To the radio generation raised in the 30s life was tough. This didn't mean they were miserable but simply that they accepted that jobs were few and far between and that if you had one you counted yourself lucky and didn't rock the boat. When it came to training, you were grateful for what you got.And Management thought that too.The times they are a'changing Baby-boomers changed all that. Laid-back, confident but, above all, growing up in an age when everything seemed easy they didn't expect to suffer and they were quite prepared to answer back.These changes in society were reflected in changing attitudes at work. Boomers still expected to work. Although they could pick and choose they saw it in terms of committing to an organisation, to a career. Once they had signed up they felt a loyalty to the company and expected that in return with investment in them. They considered that their views counted.Redundancy hardly existed in those days and when it finally arrived it was seen as a betrayal. We could rename them the bewildered generation.All change for generation XGeneration X, the MTV generation, who entered the workforce in the '80s, are a cooler group. Individualistic and self-contained they don't expect work to be a second family. They have a pragmatic view of their careers and consequently training. They expect to take what they need and not to waste their time. They don't expect jobs for life.This generation has grown up with technology but for the real experts we turn in awe to the …New kids on the blockImpatient, demanding and technically highly literate, this is the virtual generation, generation Y. Everything is done on their terms. They do not expect to sit quietly in a lecture theatre and be instructed. They will do things their way, on their terms and walk away if they don't like it. Their view of training is as different from the radio generation as is their understanding of the word 'wireless'. And these frightening individuals are arriving at a desk near you, now.Tomorrow: how these generations collide in the classroom*assuming you were in western Europe or the US, of course[...]

The view from the other side


In the last post I said we needed to start with a clean sheet when we design a new course – but why should we do that if we have a perfectly good solution already? We all grew up with a common understanding about how training works, and its delivery never did us any harm. However, just because something works 'fine' doesn't mean it couldn't work a lot better. Those of us in organisations with the power to change things have the power to transform training. We can make it more flexible, more efficient, more effective, more appropriate, more digestible, more timely, more successful.And it's not about spending more money.Change is all aroundIf we look around us we see that society and work are changing rapidly – but the world of training has changed much less. It looks as though it has changed, but fundamentally it's the same thing in different clothes. We are working ever harder to preserve a system we recognise and are comfortable with, without ever asking ourselves if those that experience it are equally comfortable with it.Today's training environment would certainly be recognisable to our parents – and to our grandparents. And just adding a layer of technology doesn't fundamentally change anything. Three generations ago all training was face-to-face and largely by lectures; two generations ago the lectures were still there but they might have been delivered via the television; the last generation has seen the rise of the internet – but that's still treated as a mechanism for delivering the message from the centre.Looking from the other sideWhat we are not doing is looking at things from the other side: from the consumer's point of view - particularly new consumers. Training works but it's not necessarily the way consumers need to learn, or would choose to learn, which means it will be less effective. Today's younger worker is a different person to us. The way they relate to work is different. Their expectations are different. The social contract is different. We can not expect them to see everything else differently – except training.The world of work has changed as well. It's faster, obviously, with instant communications transforming the environment, but it's also much more results focused. Less interest is being paid to abstract qualifications and more to concrete delivery of results. When was the last time anyone checked your qualifications? Did they feature in your last appraisal or was it about what you achieved? Bits of paper may sort out who gets through the door but once inside it's delivery that counts.It is these two aspects, the generation changes and the business environment changes that drive the need to update training. New technology is not the driver, it is merely one of the tools we can use to make the changes we need.Tomorrow: which generation are you: radio, baby-boomer, X or Y and how does that affect things?[...]

In search of a new iPod


While I was in Texas recently I went in search of an iPod shuffle. The store I was in was huge and the assistant gave me precise instructions as to where I could find one, but still I spent a long frustrating time wandering up and down the aisles while failing to find it. Why? Was I being stupid or was the famed American customer service not all it was cracked up to be? The answer was simple: I was told to look on the second floor – and an American's second floor is a Brit's first floor.It got me thinking afterwards about how often we have conversations with people where we know we are talking about the same thing but in fact we each understand something quite different. My field is e-learning – particularly blended learning - and every day I talk to people about it, but are we talking about the same thing? In this blog I want to spell out exactly what I mean by blended learning: what it is - and what it is not, why it's needed, how it fits in, how it works, what its strengths are, how it can be implemented. When I mean blending I have in mind the 71 separate elements that can be put into the mix. If 71 is a few more than you thought there were, then maybe we are not talking about the same thing . . . First Steps When people first 'do' blended learning it is usually in the same way: they look at an existing classroom course and see what could be replaced by e-learning. A 5-day classroom based course becomes a 2-day e-learning section followed by three days in the classroom. Easy isn't it? Easy maybe, but it has about as much in common with blended learning as fitting wheels to a horse turns it into a car. Stepping back againLet's go back to the start. And the first thing we'll do is chuck classroom training out the window. Are you shocked? Is that heresy? Of course there is nothing wrong with classroom training as such but its dominance of the training landscape obscures and distorts the possibilities. Like the first step described above we are always dancing around the altar of instructor-led training thinking of ways to replicate the gold standard by alternative means. Blended learning, real blended learning, doesn't start from this position. It makes no assumptions about the solution before it has looked at the problem. It looks at the task in hand. It looks at the students. It looks at the tools. It looks at the culture. And then it builds a solution focused on the best way to achieve the most effective result. Tomorrow: in the next post I'll explain why we need to find a new way of doing things. [...]