Blend it like Beckham
The football pro always has his eye on the goal. When it comes to blended learning design, you should too.
In my last newsletter, I mentioned how the number of L&D teams using a blended learning approach is decreasing - despite widespread predictions that it’s going to increase. So this week I thought it might be fun to look at blended learning in more detail.
And I’ll start by asking: What the heck does ‘blended learning’ mean?
As a term, ‘blended learning’ is a relatively new kid on the block. If you look at how often the term appears in Google Books, you can see it emerges in the late 90s and has been growing in popularity ever since:
You can also see that it was followed, a decade later, by its close cousin the ‘flipped classroom’.
‘Blended learning’ could be described as delivering instruction through a mix of online and face-to-face experiences. Or a mix of syncronous (you learn at a set time, with others) and asyncronous (you learn on your own) activities. Or it might be any other combination of teaching methods pumped through the L&D meat grinder and served up as an innovation.
A ‘flipped classroom’ might be the exact same thing, or perhaps a subset thereof. Students in a flipped classroom do the ‘you need to know this’ bit in advance so that time in a room together can be better spent on collaborative activities.
If you’re still wondering how that’s different from blended learning, the truth is that it’s difficult to say. Back in 2012, educational technologist Norm Friesen tried to come up with a definition based on a review of the literature and presented this:
‘“Blended learning” designates the range of possibilities presented by combining Internet and digital media with established classroom forms that require the physical co‐presence of teacher and students.’ (Friesen, 2012)
Now that we’re 11 years on from that, we would probably take umbrage at the ‘physical co-presence’ element. But, pedantry aside, it’s worth considering Friesen’s conclusion:
‘Even though blended learning is a design construct rather than one proper to students or learners, in any determination of a course as “blended”, the benefits accruing to students should be of principle concern. […] Like blended learning itself, achieving a balance between these two elements – as along a continuum extending from maximum flexibility to maximum quality or “value” – is the goal of educational providers.’ (Emphasis mine)
I agree and I don’t. Friesen is absolutely right about the need to make design decisions based on the benefits that they bring, but I don’t think we need to consider any blend as a tradeoff between flexiblity and quality.
Instead, we should think about what each modality offers and design based on:
What we want to achieve;
Individual learner goals;
In the video, Tracey and Kash describe an award-winning blended learning programme that we developed to help Scottish enterpreneurs start exporting for the first time.
It’s discussed in more detail in our case study, but let’s dissect it based on those three elements listed above:
🎯 What we (the project team) want to achieve
Scottish Enterprise is an economic development agency. In essence, it’s tasked with growing the Scottish economy through ‘economic development, enterprise, innovation and investment in business’. One way they can achieve this is to help Scottish business leaders make better strategic decisions through, for example, the provision of an education programme.
Note that the programme goal here is not then for participants to ‘learn about exporting’ - though that might happen. Instead, the goal is business growth for participants.
This might sound like semantics, but it’s a fundamental starting point for every design decision.
Rather than delivering ‘content on exporting’, Tracey and the team set out to help participants create an export plan: a strategy document that they could then implement.
Participants would be guided through the creation of this export plan by a series of e-learning modules, then discuss their ideas with peers in online workshops, before finally getting 1:1 feedback from a consultant.
It’s a blended programme where each element offers a different benefit to participants, and where each is aligned to the overall project goal.
👩🏽🎓Individual learner goals
Of course, we’re not the only ones with goals. Programme participants were also looking to grow their businesses: it’s why they gave up their time to complete 12 e-learning modules and attend three workshops.
Here’s what they had to say:
One thing to note again in this video is that none of the contributors mention ‘learning’.
In their 1997 paper on what matters to learners, Beaty, Gibbs and Morgan describe seven different ‘concerns’ that university students have based on their motivations and aims (or what the authors term their ‘orientation’). Engaging with ‘interesting material’, or learning for its own sake, is just one of them.
When we’re creating blended learning programmes for adults, we have to pay even more attention to learner orientation: Why would they bother engaging with this program? What are they hoping to get out of it? Then, we need to make sure that what we’re developing offers value and relevance.
If it doesn’t, what we tend to find is that learners show up to face-to-face sessions or virtual classrooms without having done the asyncronous material - and we end up having to repeat it.
Or, they don’t show up at all.
Finally, we should factor in the learner context when designing any kind of programme. A blended learning programme like the Scottish Enterprise example above is ideal for business owners who are geographically distant and need something that works around their busy schedules.
It’s less appropriate for something like ‘code of conduct’ training, where employees are required by law in some territories to complete it, but really they want it done as quickly and easily as possible.
It can also be problematic for learners with less technical capability, or who are actively seeking out a more social experience and don’t want to learn online.
🖖Intrigued? It’s over to you
There are other concerns of course: running a blended learning program is more time consuming than offering just one modality. It requires that the person administering the program be in constant contact with participants, provides a clear pathway through the materials, and combines these with all of the logistical considerations of a classroom session.
However, where there’s a real need for people to develop, it’s a demonstrably effective approach to instruction.
Even if we’re not totally sure how to define what it is 😉
Beaty, L., Gibbs, G., & Morgan, A. (1997). Learning orientations and study contracts. The experience of learning, 2, 72-88.
Friesen, N. (2012). Defining blended learning. Learning spaces.
Interested in exploring blended learning for your oganization? Get in touch! Email firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this newsletter if you’re reading it in your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
‘Evidence-based leadership development’ sounds great. But what does it mean?
The development of evidence-based leaders? Or an evidence-based approach to leadership development?
Last week on The Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Nahdia and I discussed both with Helen Bailey, Head of Head of Learning and Development at Strategi Solutions.
what ‘evidence-based’ leadership development looks like
what we mean by ‘evidence’
how to measure ‘leadership’.
Helen was a great guest with a wealth of experience, so check it out 👇🏾
📖 Deep dive
Last week, I happened across a debate between some L&D practitioners over whether ‘active’ or ‘passive’ learning was more effective.
Intuitively I felt like the answer must be ‘active’: here on the Mind Tools Custom team we’ve long bought in to what Will Thalheimer recently described to me as the importance of ‘situational relevance, realistic practice, performance support and job aids’. That all sounds pretty active.
And indeed, when I went digging through the literature, my intuition was confirmed - but in a more interesting way than I expected.
Back in 2019, Deslauriers et al. ran a fun experiment. The team recruited 149 physics students at Harvard University and assigned them to two different groups.
Group A went to a class on ‘static equilibrium’, where the instructor used active learning techniques like group activities.
Group B went to a different classroom, with a different instructor, who used a passive lecture technique.
‘A-ha!’ you say. Wouldn’t the different instructor have an impact on results?
Absolutely, so the researchers did something clever: they did a second experiment where the instructors adopted the opposite approach. So, the Group A instructor provided a lecture, and the Group B instructor used active techniques:
In a post-class survey, and in structured interviews, it became apparent that the students preferred the passive lecture model. They found it easier to follow and felt like they learned more.
But here’s the twist: the ‘active’ lessons led to better test results.
In essence, active learning is hard. You have to come up with your own answers, and there’s always the risk that you might get a question wrong.
But that difficulty is what helps you learn. If you’re finding that learning is easy, it might be that you’re not learning anything at all.
Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251-19257.
👹 Missing links
In this episode of the Freakonomics podcast, guest-host Adam Davidson argues that new technology has always scared us and introduced me to a new concept: the ‘lump of labor’ fallacy. In essence, this is the idea that there is a finite amount of work in the world and that new technologies therefore mean less jobs. It’s a fallacy because, based on history, technology tends to create new jobs. The question is: Is AI different?
On the other hand, we might all by over-hyping the AI revolution. I mean, it’s great, but we’re still working out the kinks. As cartoonist Tom Fishburne points out, most organizations don’t yet have any AI policy, and only a minority are yet actively trying to mitigate inaccuracies or IP infringement. So, we’ve got a little time. Maybe.
Everyone loves a brainstorm: We get a group of people together, present a challenge, and have at it. But, according to this article by Lars Jerichau, this doesn’t actually lead to the best outcomes. Lars lays out 70 years of research that we are better off generating ideas individually then evaluating them as a group. Why? Well, one persuasive reason is that, when other people are present, we lose the sense of ‘mustness’: in a group, we don’t have to think as hard because someone else will do it. Thanks Karthick Richard for sharing this one.
👋 And finally…
I studied Journalism and Creative Writing at university, so I have a tremendous enthusiasm for storytelling. I know that a lot of folks working in L&D feel the same way: stories help us make meaning, connect to issues, and develop compassion.
But they can also be difficult to craft. What makes the perfect story?
In this video, Kurt Vonnegut draws a couple of graphs to demonstrate, very simply, the ‘shape of stories’:
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