With the expansion of the global workforce, and the continuous shifting of global economic factors, the time for blended learning has arrived. A solid blended learning design makes sense instructionally and economically. But how do we make sure we do it right? What are the hidden blended learning challenges that can create a roadblock to success before we even roll out the program?
Blended learning is the framework that connects instructional technologies and techniques together, providing a solution that meets the needs of modern learners and a business climate that’s increasingly mobile, global, and reliant on social collaborative technologies. On May 9, The eLearning Guild published a new research report, Blended Learning in Practice, that asks: How are designers implementing successful blended learning programs, and what are the benefits and risks associated with this approach?
In addition to answering those questions, the research paper identified some common critical success factors. None of those critical success factors focus on technology, but on much more mundane foundations. This article and its companion (“Blended Learning Challenges from Instructional Design”), to publish next week, address the strategies and solutions for anticipating and minimizing the most common challenges when designing and implementing a blended learning solution, including technical, organizational, and instructional challenges.
The term “blended learning” is used in such disparate ways among learning professionals that it has begun to lose its meaning. In most cases, what is labeled “blended learning” is typically one topic, offered in numerous ways, or a hodgepodge of different training offerings under the same topical umbrella.
What blended learning should mean is:
…. selecting the most appropriate delivery technology, based on learning objectives with consideration of time, place, and space. It is the realization of a harmonic balance of instructional, technical, organizational, and delivery components in support of learner engagement and achievement.
This is the definition of blended learning referenced throughout this pair of articles.
I’ll discuss challenges associated with blended learning in three categories: technology challenges, organizational challenges, and instructional and design challenges. I’ll also provide some examples that will help to identify if there is evidence of a particular challenge in your organization.
Here is an overview of all 10 challenges. Technology and organizational challenges will appear in this article, and I will take up the instructional and design challenges in the companion article.
- Ensuring your participants can be successful using the technology.
- Resisting the urge to use technology simply because it is available.
- Overcoming the idea that blended learning is not as effective as traditional face-to-face learning.
- Redefining the role of the facilitator.
- Managing and monitoring participant progress.
Instructional and design challenges
- Looking at how to teach, not just what to teach.
- Matching the best delivery medium to the performance objective.
- Keeping online offerings interactive rather than just “talking at” participants.
- Ensuring participant commitment and follow through with “non-live” elements.
- Ensuring all the elements of the blend are coordinated.
The technology challenges addressed here are not just about getting technology to work on networks (though that is an important first step), rather, they are concerned with ensuring the success of the program by utilizing and supporting appropriate technologies.
Challenge #1: Ensuring participants can be successful using the technology
As learning technologies become more accessible, a typical response is to use them all. But, just because we can be successful creating content, doesn’t mean our participants can be successful using it. Putting out too much technology too quickly makes blended learning programs appear “trendy,” and participants may not take them seriously.
Also, roadblocks can become detours—meaning that if participants run into technical difficulties that they cannot easily fix, they may abandon the content completely. This lack of technical success can lead to a lack of instructional success, and participants won’t return.
Challenge #1: Solution
To minimize the impact of this challenge, don’t introduce all of the available technologies at once, and use the simplest technology possible to make your point. For example, if your web conferences are typically online conference calls, do you need to include the virtual classroom? Sometimes a telephone by itself is just as effective, and less technologically impactful. Make sure trained support is available for each technology (this is often overlooked) and that the facilitator has the answers to the most common problems.
Example and evidence
Your organization has implemented a new virtual training program using a virtual classroom. You are also implementing a new learning management system to manage all of your training content and programs.
Evidence that participants are experiencing roadblocks to successful utilization of the technology includes:
- Participants indicate they are not able to access the virtual classroom. Is this a tech issue or a communications problem? Was the incorrect link sent out?
- The LMS indicates self-directed work is not being completed. Is this an LMS issue? Or a digital content issue?
- Unexpected increase in IT help desk inquiries regarding the program. You should expect some calls—but how many is too many?
- Participants aren’t showing up for class, or not doing the self-directed work, and blaming the technology.
- Feedback from participants regarding the technology is negative. Perhaps the most obvious evidence, but if you don’t ask for the feedback, you won’t get it.
Challenge #2: Resisting the urge to use technology simply because it is available
Organizations often implement technologies because they want to rush their returns on investment. Unfortunately, the “We’ve got it, so use it” mentality can drive weak initiatives, resulting in overly complicated designs that don’t meet learning objectives.
Challenge #2: Solution
Resist the temptation to redesign all of your content to the latest learning technology. (“By the end of the year, all of our content will be online in XXX format.”) Start with smaller initiatives, and once the technology works, build on that success and incorporate lessons learned.
Example and evidence
Your organization has just purchased a new virtual classroom platform, video conferencing system, and eLearning development software.
Evidence your organization is not using the technology appropriately includes:
- The management team has asked the training group to convert all face-to-face programs to a blended format by the end of the year.
- Training professionals with limited experience with blended learning design and development are charged with ensuring the technology investments are worthwhile.
- High-profile training programs are identified to be converted to blended learning first, creating a high-risk project.
Management often agrees that blended learning is the correct direction for training initiatives. The problem is not organizational enthusiasm—the problem is a lack of organizational understanding that this is a complex process that needs thought beyond an individual program.
Challenge #3: Overcoming the idea that blended learning is not as effective as traditional classroom training
Participants are attracted to the traditional classroom because they understand that they can be successful learners. They understand their roles, and what is required of them in their behavior, effort, and participation. Online learning technologies change these expectations, and the “safety net” is taken away. Managers often don’t realize the effort it takes for a self-directed program to be successful, and facilitators often don’t have the confidence to fully support the program. These factors, left unaddressed, often result in a failed program.
Challenge #3: Solution
Orientation is the key to overcoming this obstacle. Participants should have an introduction to the entire experience—including expectations about how to install and use technology, and participation, attendance, and completion requirements. Managers should have an orientation about what their employees will be experiencing, and how the managers can help to ensure learning takes place.
You should launch early programs using facilitators who buy into the concept—which is more important than using the facilitator most familiar with the topic in the classroom.
Example and evidence
Your training group has announced its intention to implement blended learning for comptency training, to include virtual classrooms, eLearning, and online assessment.
Evidence that your organization is not convinced that blended learning is as effective as traditional classroom training includes:
- Low enrollment, or no departments volunteering to be early adopters of the program
- Negative back-channel chatter about how eLearning “doesn’t work”
- Potential participants asking if they can watch recordings or indicating the will to wait for the “real class” in a traditional setting
Challenge #4: Redefining the role of the facilitator
An active and participative instructor can be the key to blended learning success, but we need to remember that blended learning is far from the comfort zone of the traditional classroom. It takes more time to prepare for and deliver a blended program (especially programs that take weeks or months to complete). As a result, each piece of the program (classroom, self-paced, virtual classroom) is treated as an individual session, instead of parts of a larger whole.
Challenge #4: Solution
Prepare facilitators by immersing them in a blended learning program so they fully understand the participant experience. A team-teaching approach, using another facilitator or an online learning producer, can help to maintain energy and interest, and ensure all details are addressed. It is also critical that facilitators understand that the “most live” (i.e.: classroom) component of the blend is not more important than the self-directed components. For a blend to be successful, each individual component needs to be treated as critical.
Example and evidence
A blended learning program is being developed to replace the existing New Hire Training program. It will roll out in two months at 14 sites across the world.
Evidence your facilitators are not ready to manage the blend includes:
- Facilitators have not participated in blended learning programs as a learner.
- Facilitors have not been involved with the development process.
- Facilitators have not received any training to deliver content in a blended format.
- Producers, or assistant facilitators, have not been assigned to support the blend.
Challenge #5: Managing and monitoring participant progress
Trying to keep track of all the pieces can be the most difficult challenge to address. If we don’t, participants can become “lost in cyberspace” because they don’t have a strong understanding of what they have completed. Self-paced components are viewed as being unimportant because they don’t seem to be tracked.
Challenge #5: Solution
It is important that organizations assess all components of a blend to ensure completion. Items that appear to be optional will generally not be completed—assessment is one of the critical success factors to overcome this challenge. You can monitor, track, and use assessment results to ascertain that all requirements have been met. Also, facilitators or course managers should stay in contact with participants to ensure that expectations are understood.
Example and evidence
As a part of the blended programs that are being implemented in your organization a learning management system (LMS) has been purchased to organize and track the requirements for the programs.
Evidence your organization does not have the systems in place to monitor participants’ progress in a blend includes:
- The LMS administrator is not working with the team responsible for blended learning design.
- A plan for tracking and assessing all components of a blend was not designed as part of the process, or the plan was not implemented.
- Facilitators are not requiring all lessons of a blend, including self-directed work, be completed.
- Participants are providing feedback that they don’t understand what work needs to be completed by when.
This concludes the initial list of blended learning challenges. In the companion article I will look at the challenges that arise in the instructional design process itself.