With COVID concerns drastically decreased, many learning businesses are focused on how to effectively implement blended learning and strike the balance between in-person and online learning.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, we share our definition of blended learning, how it’s different from hybrid learning, and why it’s of particular focus for us in the current moment. We also offer a four-step framework for designing effective blended learning experiences, referenced in our related executive briefing, “Why and How to Build Your Blended Learning Playbook.”
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[00:00] – Intro
What Is Blended Learning?
[00:39] – We’ll start off with our definition of blended learning. We say it’s “our” definition, but it draws heavily on the definition offered by the Christensen Institute and its Blended Learning Universe.
We mention them to give credit where credit is due and because they can be good resources as your learning business explores blended learning. Their work is geared to the K-12 world, but there are still resources and ideas that a learning business could learn from and apply in the realm of continuing education, professional development, and lifelong learning.
For us, blended learning is a formal education program that meets three criteria:
- Students learn in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.
- Students learn in part in a brick-and-mortar location, where instruction is facilitated.
- The online and offline modalities are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.
As that definition makes clear, we’re focused on the combination of online and offline learning. But we know that’s not necessarily how everybody sees blended learning.
For many, it’s the blending of synchronous and asynchronous elements. So they might consider an offering that combines live online learning with on-demand online learning to be a form of blended learning. But that’s not how we define blended learning.
We think it’s helpful to offer a definition, even if everyone doesn’t necessarily agree with it. If we’re too broad in how we define blended learning, it becomes so broad that it’s unhelpful. At the extreme end, all learning could be described as blended as long as it mixes different instructional techniques. But most good learning draws on multiple instructional approaches.
EDUCAUSE offers the term “bichronous online learning” to describe a mix of asynchronous and synchronous online approaches. We don’t know of many folks using the term, but it explains a particular design approach, which is often used and often effective.
Zoom and Webinars took over our world during COVID, so currently we’re dealing with a lot of synchronous, live online learning, and that’s getting used in tandem with on-demand online learning. But, if you go back to the origins of blended learning, the online/offline combination was at the heart of it. And that’s where the Christiansen Institute is coming from with its definition.
The other reason we think blending online and offline components is particularly important right now is the fact that we’re emerging from COVID. And with that emergence comes the question of why and when do we choose to gather in person versus why and when do we choose to learn online.
Why Focus on Blended Learning Now?
[05:45] – In terms of why to focus on blended learning right now, there are two reasons.
The first one is that we’re in this emerging-from-COVID world, and learners and learning businesses are looking for a good balance between in-person and online learning.
If we take this question of why focus on blended learning now to mean in this particular episode, it’s driven by that big-picture reason, but it’s also specific to us here at Leading Learning.
Because we see the importance of blended learning in this moment in history, we put out an executive titled “Why and How to Build Your Blended Learning Playbook.”
Access to the briefing is one of the free benefits of being a subscriber to Leading Learning. We publish briefings periodically that dig into timely topics, as blended learning is now.
The blended learning executive briefing includes examples of how other organizations are doing blended learning, anecdotal evidence about blended learning (that can be used for budgeting purposes or to generate buy-in), and a framework for how to implement blended learning effectively.
[7:48] – At Tagoras, we’re experts in the global business of lifelong learning, and we use our expertise to help clients better understand their markets, connect with new customers, make the right investment decisions, and grow their learning businesses.
We achieve these goals through expert market assessment, strategy formulation, and platform selection services. If you are looking for a partner to help your learning business achieve greater reach, revenue, and impact, learn more at tagoras.com/services.
Hybrid Learning Vs. Blended Learning
[08:20] – We started by defining how we use the term “blended learning.” We’ll mention the term “hybrid learning” as well, in part to point out what blended learning isn’t (at least for us).
Hybrid learning refers to an educational approach in which some individuals participate online, and other individuals participate in person, and that’s usually according to learner choice.
So an individual chooses to participate online or to show up in person. Then you have instructors and facilitators who teach those online and in-person learners at the same time using technology like video conferencing.
You can contrast this with blended learning, where all learners complete some components in person, and all learners participate in other components online, and the designers of the program decide when learners are to learn via in-person instruction and when via online learning activities, according to a prescribed sequence of events.
Both hybrid learning and blended learning involve a mix of in-person and online learning, but how the mix is used differs. This points to the fundamental importance of making sure you and your team have shared definitions.
If you’re going to talk about blended learning or you’re going to talk about hybrid learning or any other approach, you need to take time to unpack what that term means and make sure that you and your team are actually talking about the same thing.Celisa Steele
It’s understandable why hybrid learning is attractive in our post-COVID world, and we expect we’re going to see more of both hybrid and blended learning.
When you have in-person and online audiences you want to be able to serve, hybrid sounds attractive. But, in our experience, hybrid is hard to pull off well because of the need to serve those two audiences at the same time. We think blended learning is more likely to be successful in terms of learning outcomes and learning effectiveness in most cases than hybrid is.
In our definition of hybrid, you have online and in-person learners engaging simultaneously, and that’s very hard to pull off well. With hybrid, you tend to wind up prioritizing one audience’s needs over the other. You may focus on the in-person people and ignore the online attendees, treating them almost as lurkers. Or vice-versa.
There is a chance to get hybrid to work well if you untether it from simultaneous delivery and instead use the same content for online and offline learning, but you serve in-person learners at one time and offline learners at another. So you use the same resources, but you don’t try to serve them both at the same time.
[11:47] – Even within our somewhat narrow definition of blended learning, there are still many approaches. When you’re designing a blended learning experience, it can be helpful to consider four dimensions: sequence, timing, emphasis, and personalization (STEP).
When developing blended learning, you have to make choices about the sequence of components.
A simple blended approach that we call a front flip has learners complete an online component before showing up for further in-person learning. This is a popular model with hard skills training. If a hands-on component happens in person, completing foundational content, such as a lab safety module online, can help make the time together more efficient, effective, and even safer.
Another simple approach to sequencing is a back flip. Learners gather in person first to kick off a blended experience, and then you follow up with online content. This approach could work well with softer skills. Coming together in person at the beginning of a leadership-focused offering allows learners to get to know one another. Then, because they have gotten to know one another, they might be more comfortable sharing their true concerns in subsequent related online meetings or discussion forums.
A learning business can combine front flips and back flips to create more complex combinations of blended learning, so the sequencing possibilities are essentially infinite.
[14:10] – By timing, we mean the overall length of the experience and the elapsed time between components. If it’s a year-long experience, how often do you provide content to your learners? Every day, every week, every month?
Learning science has proven the positive benefits of spacing, which suggests the importance of having some time pass between components. But the benefits of spacing will need to be balanced with the reality of learners’ availability and what a learning business might be able to charge for an offering. So balancing these timing considerations will give you your cadence.Jeff Cobb
[15:17] – To go back to our definition of blended learning, it involves both face-to-face components and online components, but different experiences will place a different emphasis on those two modes.
For some, the online component might be the backbone of the experience. The majority of the content, skills, or knowledge are taught online, and the in-person component is a chance to discuss or explore application without introducing new content, skills, or knowledge.
For other experiences, the in-person component might be the backbone with the online component supporting or reinforcing key concepts over time and allowing for retrieval practice (another learning science-backed tactic to support learning).
Some experiences will place a more equal weight on the online and in-person instruction, where learners receive essential content and practice opportunities through both the online and in-person components.
[16:23] – At the core of personalization is the idea that different learners bring different prior knowledge and experience to any learning experience, so they typically benefit from some level of customization that acknowledges their differences.
When designing blended learning, you’ll have choices to make about whether all or only some components are required and whether to build some components in a way that can help you personalize the experience.
Because blended learning involves multiple components, by definition, it offers the potential for learners to skip ones that aren’t relevant to their work or life or ones where they are already fluent with the content and the skills that are being taught.
You might also provide alternative versions of certain components—for example, a remedial module on a topic for learners who are brand-new to your field or profession and a more advanced treatment of the topic for more seasoned professionals.
You might also use technology to help learners identify which components are most relevant to them. You could develop a pre-assessment, and, based on their specific performance, learners could be automatically recommended specific components. Maybe they don’t need to take all of them because they test out of some, or the assessment might help them know where they need the remedial or more advanced version of a topic.
Another aspect of personalization has to do with the intimacy of the experience. When you’re designing a blended learning offering, you have choices to make about the number of learners who will be allowed to participate and about the number of facilitators who will be involved.
Those numbers impact how much interaction there can be among learners and facilitators, so keep in mind the potential appeal and benefits of playing with those numbers.
The size of the cohort impacts how much attention each individual learner can expect from a facilitator. Involving multiple facilitators can allow more one-on-one attention for learners, but it can also fracture the group.
In single-facilitator situations, that facilitator can unify the experience by her recurring presence and knowledge of each learner. And, if that facilitator is well respected or well known, having access to the facilitator may drive learners to participate in a blended learning experience where they know they’ll be able to interact with her over time.
By adjusting and shifting how you approach one or more of these four dimensions—sequence, timing, emphasis, and personalization—you can design and develop really radically different blended learning offerings.Celisa Steele
You can go many different directions with blended learning and create experiences that, based on the learning science, are going to be effective and impactful.
Blended learning also provides an opportunity for instructors and facilitators to work more deeply with students. Blended learning always empowers students to shape the experience by choosing how to engage and mold the experience to their needs.
In whatever approach you take with blended learning, test, validate, and refine both the face-to-face and the online components. By taking an iterative approach, you can create and deliver powerful blended learning experiences.
[21:20] – Wrap-up
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