I’m an old English major who most days manages to live with the linguistic inanities that result from rapid-fire, auto-corrected, emoticon-laden communications. Maybe you know how I feel. Maybe you don’t. 😉
But at times words matter, no matter how you feel about grammar, good usage, and the other elements of style. Case in point is the important distinction between hybrid learning and blended learning.
Defining Hybrid and Blended Learning
As with many terms used in e-learning (including e-learning itself), blended and hybrid are not used to mean the same thing by all people, so I want to start by explaining what I mean by those terms.
- Hybrid learning is an educational approach where some individuals participate in person and some participate online. Instructors and facilitators teach remote and in-person learners at the same time using technology like video conferencing.
- With blended learning, instructors and facilitators combine in-person instruction with online learning activities. Learners complete some components online and do others in person.
Both types of learning involve a mix of in-person and online learning, but the who differs in the two scenarios. With hybrid learning, the in-person learners and the online learners are different individuals. With blended learning, the same individuals learn both in person and online.
The definitions I offer here build on the dictionary definitions of hybrid and blended. A hybrid is something heterogeneous—e.g., a heterogeneous learner group in which a subset learns in person and a subset learns online. Something blended combines its separate constituents to the point where they can’t be distinguished—the learners aren’t differentiated; they all learn the same way, through both online and in-person activities.
I’ve encountered some instances of people using sequential and parallel to make the distinction I’ve described—sequential for what I define as blended learning, and parallel for what I term simply hybrid. But the fundamental hybrid vs. blended distinction remains—these are different beasts that deserve different names.
Here are a few examples to make sure we’re on the same page. Based on the definitions provided above, are the following examples hybrid or blended? Take a few seconds after you read through each scenario to decide whether it’s an example of hybrid or blended learning.
- Before attending a seminar about engaging in difficult conversations, learners are asked to view a video on body language.
Hybrid or blended?
- At the annual conference, roughly 80 percent of registrants watch the keynoter from seats in front of the stage in the hotel ballroom, while the others catch her remarks via a livestream.
Hybrid or blended?
- The facilitator moves through the exam prep content, answering questions from learners raising their hands in the classroom and from learners submitting questions through online video conferencing software.
Hybrid or blended?
- Once they complete a self-paced online module on design thinking, learners are paired with a mentor who oversees their work on a pitch for a new product idea, before they regroup in an online meeting to debrief what they learned through the project.
Hybrid or blended?
Scenarios 1 and 4 are examples of blended learning, and 2 and 3 reflect hybrid approaches.
With a shared understanding of the fundamental differences, let’s look at the benefits and limitations of each, and I’ll give you the bad news first.
The Limitations of Hybrid vs. Blended Learning
In a context where learning is the goal, hybrid is hard to pull off. The main exception is in the case of pure lecture, which works much the same whether you’re in the same room with the lecturer or viewing a talking head on your computer screen—but we know that a 100-percent-lecture approach is not very effective for true learning.
A key reason hybrid is hard is that it requires the instructor or facilitator to pay attention to the different—and potentially conflicting—needs of two groups of learners. That means you’ve at least doubled the skill set required for good instruction and facilitation of the experience—the presenter has to be good delivering online and good at delivering in person, and she has to do them both at the same time. That’s a tall order.
What works best for on-site learners—handling rock specimens the instructor brings into the classroom to see Mohs Hardness Scale in action—may exclude the participation of online learners. And what works well for online learners—doing independent research on a historical leader to deduce leadership traits and reporting back to the group—may not work for in-person learners who don’t devices with them or are in classrooms without good wifi access. This can all lead to the watering down of instructional approaches and a tendency to settle on lowest-common-denominator approaches that work fine for both the in-person and online learners—but not all that well for either.
Or the instructor prioritizes the needs of one group over the other—so the online students passively view the more engaging in-classroom experience, or the in-classroom learners feel they may as well not have come, given the instructor’s focus on the remote audience.
The main drawback of blended is that it can be hard to enforce completion of work before the start of the next component. If you’ve ever assigned pre-reading, you probably know what I mean—some folks show up having dutifully prepared, and others stroll in, oblivious there was even something they were supposed to do. That leaves the instructor with the tough choice of spending time recapping the content to get everyone up to speed (cutting into time allocated for other content) or proceeding as planned, knowing that some learners will be left behind. So blended learning ups the ante on getting buy-in and commitment from the learners—they need to understand and believe in the importance of each component of the learning experience so they’ll be motivated to complete it. And complete it on time.
You can also argue that blended learning requires the same double skill set as hybrid learning. But there are two critical differences:
- The instructors don’t have to teach well online and in person at the same time. They have the benefit of focusing on one at a time.
- The sequential approach makes it possible for different instructors to handle different components—one expert shapes the production of self-paced video assets, and another facilitates in-person sessions.
The Benefits of Blended Learning
Done well, blended learning can support good metalearning principles in a way neither purely online nor purely in-person learning can. A spaced learning approach that uses only in-person delivery would likely be a logistical nightmare and cost-prohibitive. Peer-to-peer and informal learning can take longer and require more scaffolding if they’re done through an online-only approach.
Blended learning allows for the ability to determine instructional formats based on what works best for the particular situation, given the content, the learners’ needs, and the objectives and goals for the particular learning experience. The flipped classroom concept—where learners are introduced to new content and concepts on their own through online materials and then brought together to review and ask questions with one another and an instructor—is a prime example of blended learning and one that showcases blended’s potential for maximizing the value of the time learners spend together.
Blended learning also offers greater potential for personalization than hybrid learning. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which some common content is covered in in-person sessions, but then the exercises and activities that take place before the next classroom meeting are tailored to the specific skills and interests of the individual learners and the needs of their organizations.
The Future for Blended Learning
As you’ve probably gathered by this point, I’m more bullish on the future of blended than hybrid. But I don’t doubt there are situations where hybrid learning makes sense—for example, a time-sensitive need to get out information about a new regulation when the timeline and costs associated with offering it twice (once for in-person attendees and once for online learners) aren’t justified. And I can imagine that technology may make hybrid more viable and effective in the future—augmented reality, for example, seems to have obvious applications for hybrid learning.
But, in the near term, I see blended as an approach much more aligned with the learning imperative of learning businesses. When the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us and gathering in person for learning is once more a practical option, I hope one of the positive takeaways will be a more judicious choice of delivery methods. When we gather in person to learn, let’s do it with purpose and intent. And, when it makes sense, let’s supplement and extend and enhance the learning with online experiences.
That’s the promise of blended learning, and that’s why this old English major wants you to know that it’s not a matter of mere semantics (as if semantics were mere anyway!). Blended and hybrid are two distinct approaches—and the one you choose has significant implications for your learners and the impact your learning business can achieve.