Nuts and Bolts: Blended Learning

A few years back I wrote a column on the problem of Frankenworks courses, with well-meaning designers “bolting together so many different tools that the learner is lost in the maze of technologies. Too many tools can overwhelm just as much as can too much content.” Jennifer Hofmann offers a deeper dive into that idea both in this month’s Guild Research report, Blended Learning in Practice, and in her new book Blended Learning (What Works in Talent Development).  Hofmann’s work is a good reminder to those of us pushing to move beyond training-as-traditional-courses to workplace learning approaches that include digital content, social interactions, AR, VR, or mixed-reality experiences, AI supported activities, self-paced, self-directed, and self-study material, spaced learning approaches, and the like.

Creating the blend  

Hofmann discusses several critical factors for success with blended learning, among them the importance of managing the interaction between learners and content. Learners need a holistic experience, with items carefully chosen to help them meet specific goals and sequenced as necessary, rather than walking up on a hodgepodge of activities strung together with little to connect them. I remember a couple of years ago asking a new hire how his onboarding experience was, and he said: “It was okay, except for the constant messages from the LMS. I kept getting notices to complete a bunch of courses and access all these materials, but they didn’t seem to be in any particular order, and I couldn’t tell which were really required, and everything seemed to be due on the same day.” When building a blended solution one of Hofmann’s research participants offers a great metaphor: “Before you hang another ornament on the tree, it has to at least look good with the others already there… The risk in adding additional content to the blend is the dilution, or even complete loss, of the underlying narrative—and the learner—if it’s not clear why some piece of content is in the blend.”

What else?

Keep in mind, too, problems with fidelity: often the people at one end of the chain don’t have control over what happens at the other. I’ve seen classroom facilitators decide to drop a bit of online pre-work in favor of covering the material face-to-face, or swap in a different video, or see an LMS “demand” creation of a quiz or note or record of completion that has no real purpose. Even if the changes are equivalent, they may not mesh in the way intended, and the new structure may not be evident to learners. Information is hard enough to manage as it is; we need to take care not to make it worse. Be clear about what needs to happen when, show how it clearly ties to desired outcomes, make sure the plan is communicated, and—to my onboarding example above—ensure that messages from the LMS and elsewhere make sense to the end user.

And another thing: Leave room for learners to contribute back. Respondents in Hofmann’s research report said they loved the opportunity to “create content, provide feedback on and influence existing content, and have an ongoing say ensuring that content is current and relevant.” That last bit is particularly challenging now, with the shelf life of much information growing ever shorter. Inviting some partnership with learners will help with maintaining the integrity of content and credibility of the experience.

Want more?

In addition to Jennifer Hofmann’s Guild Research report Blended Learning in Practice and her new book Blended Learning, don’t miss her May Learning Solutions articles, “Solutions to the Top Blended Learning Challenges” and “Blended Learning Challenges from Instructional Design.”

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